Gender Norms, Baby Storm, and How to Respond to Gender Stereotyping

Each month, Gwendolyn answers your questions on LGBTQ parenting. Write to her with your question here.

Dear Gwendolyn,
My son A. is entering Kindergarten this year. In the past, he has dressed as a princess for Halloween in his sister’s pink ballerina dress and once he wore a favorite dress to school. His preschool was supportive. Some children enforced the gender norms, but he was okay, though he didn’t want to wear a dress again. A year later, he said that they were cooler, but he was more beautiful. Once in a while he says he wants to be a girl. When we discuss it, it seems mostly to be about wanting to bear a child.

Recently, we went to select backpacks and he chose a pink and purple one. His 7-year-old sister said he might get teased as it was a girl’s backpack. He asked if it was a girl’s backpack; we explained colors aren’t boy or girl but that some people thought they were. It was late at night and it was hard to figure out how to best deal with the situation. We didn’t want him going in without a clue. We wanted to prepare him with retorts if he got guff….. Finally, he chose a Spiderman wheelie bag and a Barbie thermos. Now, my question is…do I talk to the teacher in advance and ask her to do a lesson early on about gender stereotypes or do I just let it be? A. presents as pretty boyish for the most part, so it won’t be his every day experience to be outside of the gender norms.

“Free to Be You and Me” Mom, Oakland, CA

Dear Free to Be You and Me Mom,

“They are cooler but I am more beautiful,” — insightful child. And of course, Spiderman and Barbie is a marvelous and classic combination. Your late-night instincts were on point. As much as one wants to shelter children from the biases of the larger society, it would be unfair not warn A. that a non-stereotypical color choice might trigger negative comments, especially when he is making the major transition from preschool to kindergarten.

Possibly, though, Big Sister may need some refresher discussions of whether certain colors (or toys or sports) belong to certain genders. Social situations communicate powerful messages even when those ideas are not present in our homes and it is a constant struggle to keep our children from acquiring stereotypes.

Do chat with Teacher to let her know that you expect her to be countering gender stereotyping across the board. Even if it will not be an issue for A. on a regular basis, working against stereotyping can only benefit him, the other children in the class, all future children taught by this teacher, and help pave the way for our brave, new, queer-celebrating, gender-fabulous world.

Gender stereotyping is pervasive and appears immediately in the parenting journey – queer or not – and, so, deserves a little more discussion – actually MUCH more discussion.

By now, most of us have probably heard the tempest in the blogosphere about Baby Storm, whose parents are not disclosing information about Storm’s biological sex. This decision has resulted in a hurricane of controversy, not just among straight people but even among some LGBT-identified people.

On the one hand, I don’t “get” this response – if I were to go nuclear over a gender issue, it would be more along the lines of paraphrasing Henry VI, Part 2: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the Disney princesses” – but I am not surprised. No one who has listened to people freak out because one’s male infant is wearing pink or because one failed in some other way to instantly announce to the world the nature of the bits and pieces hidden under the diaper of one’s infant can really be surprised. I remember vividly being informed vehemently by a helpful stranger who did not share my view that raspberry pink charmingly complemented my infant son’s complexion, that, “His father won’t let you do that much longer.”

Right.

I learned to cut to the heart of their anxiety and respond, “Thank you so much for your kind and helpful concern but I have checked with his pediatrician who assures me that wearing pink will not make his penis fall off.”

Unfortunately, this insistence on imposing rigid standards of gender expression on helpless infants who have done nothing to deserve it does more than momentarily annoy ill-tempered, over-educated mothers who have never played well with others.

Adults interact with infants based on their perception of the infant’s gender. Infants are designed to be tiny learning engines and adult interaction provides most of the initial fuel. Gender differences in infants are inconsistent to nonexistent, depending on the study, yet parents consistently treat infants differently according to gender roles. Male and female infants are spoken to differently, described differently, played with differently, and handled differently from the instant they are born.

While scientific studies are helpful, one only has to note the difference between how “strong” one’s male infant is while dressed in blue or brown and how “pretty” when dressed in pink. Trust me, that child was identically strong and pretty regardless of his outfit.

According to many studies, 6- and 12-month-olds, male and female, prefer dolls to trucks. Babies start to know their sex, identify with it, and mimic how their older playmates of the same sex behave between 12 and 18 months. By preschool age, gender identification and its corresponding stereotypes can be quite firmly in place.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when we think about parenting and gender stereotyping.

  1. We do not know ourselves as well as we think we do.
    We were not reared in boxes and we have internalized a great deal of gender stereotyping even if we do not agree with it. We are not always aware of how we express such stereotyping. The thing that has the most influence on parenting and teaching styles is how that individual was parented or taught. Modeling, modeling, modeling. Conscientiously feminist teachers have been aghast to discover that they shared the social tendency to call on male children more often than female children.
  2. We do not parent in a vacuum.
    We live in a society in which gender stereotyping is alive and flourishing. As parents, we have great influence on our children but we are not the only influence.My son, at three or so, was fond of barrettes and nail polish. We discussed that sometimes wearing those things caused comment at preschool. “You’re wearing barrettes; girls wear barrettes; you are a girl.” While I don’t think that genitalia defines gender, I thought his response, “I am a boy. Do I need to show you my penis?” was quite appropriate. He was not expressing a non-standard gender identity; he was asserting his right to be a boy his way.

    It is impossible to find a way to rear a child in the world and not have that child exposed to gender stereotypes. It can be very sad. Having my three and a half-year-old stick out his darling little hands and say, “May I have clear polish? I want my nails shiny and pretty but I don’t want to TALK about them” was a bit heart-breaking. This was not a case of radical-mother-imposing-stupid-pinko-ideas-on-innocent-child, this was a case of the bigoted-world-narrowing-a-child’s-ability-to-live-without-arbitrary-limits.

I am not advocating taking the approach of Storm’s parents and initially presenting one’s child without a gender designation, though I affirm their choice. As a transgender parent of my acquaintance said, “That seems like a big PITA.” Yep. Here are some ideas that are slightly less of a PITA.

  1. Whenever you are making choices for your infant – what you say to them, how you dress them, what toys you buy them, what games you play with them – think about whether you would make that choice if your infant had different genitalia. Strive for balance.

  2. When people tell you daughter she is pretty, tell them, “Yes, she is, and she is also very strong.” When people tell your son he is strong, tell them, “Yes, he is, and he is also very pretty.”

  3. Read Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It, by neuroscientist Lise Eliot. From extensive research in neuroplasticity, Eliot argues that infant brains are so easily molded that tiny gender differences present at birth are magnified as families, teachers, and society enforce gender stereotypes and offers concrete ways to help parents and teachers work against these harmful stereotypes.

  4. For creative ways to think about gender stereotyping in terms children understand, read My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis, William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow, Mister Seahorse by Eric Carle, 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert, Oliver Button is a Sissy by Tomie dePaola, and the terrific coloring books at www.girlsnotchicks.com.

Write to Gwendolyn with your questions on LGBT parenting at askgwendolyncolumn@gmail.com. Gwendolyn reserves the right to edit letters for length and clarity.

One Comment

  1. Debi says:

    Dear Gwendolyn,
    My daughter has just started middle school. In elementary school she was very out about her two moms and proud of it. She has two moms but we split when she was an infant. All three of us were very much accepted in her school — my ex was a class parent for all six years and the other kids knew and loved her, and I was on the PTA board for three years. There weren’t any problems to speak of. (Well, one boy who used to hassle her, and she ended up punching him in the nose after six years!) Anyway, she says in middle school she doesn’t want to “come out,” just pretend she’s from a mom-and-dad family, or just a single mom family. I am going to be on the PTA board again in the new school, and I’m not sure what to say. I want to respect her right to her privacy, but I will not make up stories about an ex-husband when all the inevitable questions come up. I am still single (and not really even interested in women anymore at this point), but surely not straight! It’s not that she’s ashamed of her family; it’s more like she doesn’t want to have to explain it anymore. Any suggestions for navigating unfamiliar waters?

    Reply

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