I firmly believe that we do not give kids enough credit for their ability to navigate, question and deconstruct concepts that adults find incredibly confusing. No, I’m not saying that it’s time to start teaching your four year old theoretical physics (although my dad loved to do that—unfortunately, I never really appreciated it…), but it does mean that we should question some of the basic assumptions about how we teach and interact with young children.
Case in point: gender.
I’ve been sitting on this article for several months, and every time I re-read it, I get giggly and smiley all over again.
“Hi I’m Alec are you the babysitter mommy said that we can go to the park if you want to and feed the ducks do you like legos?”
“Yep, hi, my name is Andy.” I said, kneeling down, “Let me talk to one of your parents first, ok?”
While I was saying this Alec was looking me up and down.
“Yeah ok, hey, Andy, do you use boy words or girl words, or the other words but I can’t really ‘amember them?”
I looked curiously at his mom, Amelia, who was busy tiding up the table.
“Oh,” she said, “he can’t remember the word pronouns.”
“Ah,” it clicked, “I use boy words. What about you?”
“I use boy words, too. Do you like legos?”
“Of course I do!”
Alec, the star of this adorable article was raised not to equate gender presentation with gender identity. Granted he probably doesn’t have the vocabulary to express these ideas, but at the heart of it, his behavior towards others reflects a nuanced and tolerant, thoughtful way of looking at gender.
At one point he asked his mom and she said, “Honey, do you remember what Aunt Sarah said to do if you can’t tell if somebody’s a boy or a girl?” he didn’t respond. “You ask.”
You don’t guess or dance around the subject or hope somebody else clues you in or wait for another person to use a pronoun so you can use the same one. You ASK.
There’s an element of common courtesy to living your life this way—no frills, no guesswork, no assumptions or hurt feelings. You just ask. I can only imagine that Alec will grow up feeling much less constrained by the idea of gender himself, and feel free to experiment and explore his own identity, his likes and dislikes, and to define himself as a person, not as a boy or a girl.
Unfortunately, most kids aren’t brought up this way. Gender policing and gender messaging starts from birth and becomes so engrained into our psyches that it’s sometimes hard to disentangle our own feelings about gender from the messages we’ve been fed since we were born. In this sense, it’s both easier and way harder for young kids to have meaningful conversations about gender.
On one hand, they are not authorities on the matter. To a large extent, children rely on the structure and conditioning of their parents, teachers, family members, and other authority figures in their lives. If those people are saying “Boys do this; girls wear that,” then it is incredibly hard for them to separate their own feelings from the opinions and conditioning of the important people in their lives.
On the other hand, children have had decades less of gender policing than their adult counterparts. They may have experienced discrimination, but rarely do they fear for their lives or their livelihoods based on the way they perceive and present gender. They are still malleable with their opinions, and open to the idea of contradiction.
So while it can be difficult to combat the harmful way gender is explained in our society, I think the work of Melissa Bollow Temple, of Jackson County, Wisconsin shows how important, and sometimes how simple breaking down those messages can be.
I taped up two large pieces of paper and wrote “Boys” on one and “Girls” on the other. …When we had two extensive lists, I read both lists out loud to the class and then studied them carefully.
“Hmm,” I said. “Here it says that Legos are for boys. Can girls play with Legos?”
“Yes!” most of them replied without hesitation.
“I wonder if any of the girls in our class like to play with Hot Wheels?”
“I do! I do!” blurted out some of the girls. We continued with the rest of the items on our “Boys” list, making a check mark next to each one as it was declared acceptable for girls.
Then we went on to the “Girls” list. We started with baby dolls. Because we had just read and discussed William’s Doll, the children were OK with boys playing with dolls. “It’s great practice for boys who want to be daddies when they grow up,” I mentioned.
But when we got to nail polish and makeup the children were unsure. “There are some very famous rock ’n’ roll bands,” I said, “and the men in those bands wear a lot of makeup.” Some of the children gasped.
Then Isabela raised her hand: “Sometimes my uncle wears black nail polish.” The students took a moment to think about this.
“My cousin wears nail polish, too!” said another student. Soon many students were eager to share examples of how people pushed the limits on gender. Our school engineer, Ms. Joan, drove a motorcycle. Jeremy liked to dance. I could see the gears turning in their brains as the gender lines started to blur.
Conversations like these might be the most crucial to ensure that the children we raise grow up to be caring, compassionate, and empathetic men and women (and those who identify otherwise). Working to blur the lines of gender early gives students critical thinking skills to challenge the messaging of media, consumerism, peers, and authority figures. This generation can grow up to understand gender so much better than most of us do now. And that will benefit more than just gender non-conforming and trans* people. Because acceptance and critical thinking lends itself to a deeper understanding of people with all types of differences: disability, ethnicity, race, sexuality, and yes, of course, gender.
Stay cool, queer kids, and keep pushing for acceptance and dialogue in all areas of your life.