Who needs gender norms? Not children — that’s for sure

    Kids need a wider spectrum of play, dress and presentation than is allowed by dominant society, which is fast and ruthless in its enforcement of gender norms.
    (Shutterstock / melis)
    (Shutterstock / melis)

    My son is a boy: a handsome, strong, demanding, loving little boy whose favorite things are blocks and balls and Cheerios.

    We did not know before he was born if we were going to have a boy or a girl. It was the first question everyone asked. “Congrats. What are you having?” When I said that we didn’t know, older people always offered additional congratulations. “We never knew back when I was having my kids.” I thought it was strange that even people who thought not knowing ahead of time was good couldn’t help but ask.

    I also got a lot of speculation about the bump’s gender. “What do you feel like you are carrying?” I was asked. “A watermelon, a small sedan, or perhaps a large sofa.” Those were my glib and fairly accurate replies.

    “You are having a boy!” That was the informal consensus from women at the grocery store, on the street and in my extended family. Almost no one thought I was going to have a girl, except Rosena — my stepdaughter who is six and wanted a little sister.

    While I was pregnant, I learned about the new trend: gender reveal parties. Expectant parents throw a party where they learn if they are having a boy or a girl. They get balloons filled with pink or blue confetti, and cakes with either pink or blue frosting inside. Meanwhile, guests divide into Team Girl and Team Boy to suggest names and guess the baby’s stats like weight and due date.

    “How do you know what color to paint the nursery?” asked the woman bagging groceries at Stop & Shop, when I told her I didn’t know if my bump was male or female. “White,” I said. “We have painted it white.” She looked disappointed. In truth, I painted all the walls in our new house white. We moved into it two weeks before Seamus was born and I was not going to waste any time meditating over paint chips and variations of green with names like summer moss and old toad (I hope that both of those are actual paint names, by the way).

    I could not see how knowing the sex of our baby ahead of time would help us prepare for being parents. We had gotten most everything one actually needs for a baby — car seat, co-sleeper, high chair and stroller — from friends and family. Or they were left over (and lovingly preserved) from when Rosena was a baby. Friends with two boys moved back to New Zealand and gave us all their baby clothes, shoes, hats, diapers, baby seats and swaddles. It was a boy stuff bonanza. But the clothes were mostly European and Australian, which meant lots of stripes, lots of red and white patterns, and very few overly assertive boy markers that are emblazoned on everything at Target and Babies “R” Us. You know what I’m talking about: T-shirts with a gorilla, mac truck or muscled super hero. Girl clothes have pink polka dots (even nice neutral brown clothes), dogs or cats with long eyelashes and princesses in long gowns. The sex education starts immediately.

    In the last couple years there has been a lot of attention paid to sex and gender and children. A couple in Sweden is raising Pop, a child whose sex is known only to immediate family. Pop wears all kinds of clothes and plays with all kinds of toys. As Pop grows and becomes articulate, Pop will identify Pop’s self to the world — as a girl, as a boy or as someone in between.

    The Toronto parents of Storm are doing something similar. In their birth announcement, they wrote to friends and family that “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).”

    The New York Times Magazine did a long profile of “gender-variant” kids and their parents last August. The thing that struck me most in the article was how hard the parents were working to create a space in the world for their kids — mostly boys who love girl things. But it is more than just about loving dresses or pink or long hair. These kids need a wider spectrum of play, dress and presentation than the dominant society allows boys to have. One father of a boy who wore dresses and had long hair reflected: “He’s just this very brave person… My son showed me this is part of core identity, not something people just put on or take off. And it’s not their job to make sure we’re all comfortable.” Talk about a little insurrection of nonviolent fathering.

    A preschool in Sweden is working to inculcate the next generation with that kind of sensitivity and appreciation of the breadth of human expression. They have done away with the pronouns him, her, he and she. The kids are called by their names or referred to as “friends.” Toys are not gendered and neither are activities. The move came after a 1998 law requiring equal opportunities for girls and boys in school. Teachers then filmed their interactions with the kids. The director said that they found caregivers were responding really differently to boys and girls: “If a boy was crying because he hurt himself, he was consoled, but for a shorter time, while girls were held and soothed much longer. With a boy it was, ‘Go on, it’s not so bad!’”

    The dominant society is fast and ruthless in its enforcement of gender norms. It is not just the clothes that are available for little kids, it’s everything — the kinds of toys that babies and children are given (dollbabies and kitchens for girls, matchbox cars and fire trucks for boys), the kinds of activities that are sanctioned (sports and tree climbing for boys, playing house and picking flowers for girls), and how parents and caregivers respond to injuries and tantrums.

    Kids do it to each other too. Our six-year-old came home from kindergarten in the fall complaining that kids on the playground told her that her jacket was for a boy and she must be a boy if she’s wearing a red and blue jacket with a hood. I don’t get it. She is beautiful, classically feminine, long-lashed, big blue-eyed, and she wears hoop earrings, for crying out loud.

    She was hurt and upset, but she was also indignant. “Who did they think they were?” It was not too hard to convince her that she had a nice warm fall jacket and that she should keep wearing it. It happened again this summer at camp. It was probably my fault. I cut her bangs and bungled it badly. She was just happy to have the hair out of her face, but it was a bit of a hatchet job. Kids called her a boy. But the next day, she picked out an outfit of shorts and a T-shirt, nothing pink or girly. She was going to be who she was — comfortable and ready for fun. I was proud of her and I made an appointment for her to get a real haircut later that week.

    We are working with Seamus on sign language. He understands, but had yet to sign himself. More. Please. Nurse. The sign for gentle is one of my favorites: your left hand is straight out with the thumb turned skyward, forming an L-shape. Then the right hand gently traces the shape. Seamus gives gentle touches to other babies, to cats and dogs, to his patient and often pinched mother. He gets it. At least I think he does. He reaches out to smaller babies to touch them, but he does not grab. He pets cats and is still (justifiably) nervous around dogs.

    We hold him when he cries. We do not ignore his pain. We do not tell him to shake it off. He has a little kitchen and can occupy himself for long stretches — at least in baby-time — by putting Velcro wooden fruit and veggies together, stacking pots, and handling rolling pins and tea pots.

    He is a little boy, at least for now. We’ll see what the future brings and we will always love him fiercely.

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