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RAISING BOYS AND GIRLS

Parents have to make many decisions that affect their children’s experience of sex and gender. The first one is whether to let themselves care whether they have a boy or a girl. Should you think you’ve learned something significant when the obstetrician tells you your child’s sex?

All of the issues I’ve touched on in this chapter come to bear on thinking this through. At the very least you’ve learned something about the physical child who will grow up in your house. You’ve also learned what kind of expectations society will have of your child. But have you learned more about your child than that? You could easily go overboard here. If "it’s a boy” makes you expect an allblue mosaic or "it’s a girl” makes you expect an all-pink mosaic, you may be in for a surprise. Your girl could easily be a ruffian who likes dolls; your boy may be sensitive and squeamish, yet fond of trains and explosions. But the evidence does give us reason to expect a somewhat different creature, depending on natal sex. Boys are not from Mars and girls are not from Venus, but it’s reasonable to expect differences of a much more subtle sort. Boys and girls are not as different as cats and dogs, but they’re more different than black cats and grey cats. If we tamp down unrealistic and oppressive desires for pure femininity or pure masculinity (should we have them), then I think it’s not misguided to care about the news that you’re having a boy or a girl—it’s not merely news about the social norm impositions and specific puberty experiences that lie ahead.

Some think that gender should not be read off of natal biology, but chosen by children themselves. We should respond to children neutrally until they have declared themselves—probably not until age two or three. That seems to be the view of Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, Canadian parents of three children who took an unusual approach to parenting a few years ago and attracted a great deal of media attention. Their first two children were given gender- neutral names—Jazz and Kio—and the freedom to dress as they pleased. In a picture, it’s evident that Jazz, biologically a boy, likes to wear girls’ clothing. Kio looks somewhat like a girl, but it’s hard to know for sure. Taking gender-neutral parenting to another level, they decided to conceal the sex of their third child, Storm. That way, the world wouldn’t be able to treat Storm like a boy or like a girl; and research does show people react to boys and girls differently from the earliest age, handling boys more roughly, for example.

The result? As of about age three, Storm sometimes said "I’m a boy” and sometimes said "I’m a girl”—a perfectly good outcome, according to the child's parents. Now five, the media lights have been turned off, and it’s not clear what gender identity Storm has developed. No doubt the parents think it would be fine either way, or if Storm had maintained a mixed gender identity.

Storm’s family doesn’t see its approach as merely permitted, but rather as required. A California academic puts it in a way they find appealing: "Every child has a right not to be 'gender diagnosed,’ ” according to Jane Ward. Perhaps they would also want to appeal to the right to an open future. Gender identity, they might say, is something children must come to for themselves—like whom they marry and what career they pursue. And yes, it may be more a matter of "coming to” than choice. Nobody explicitly decides on their gender identity. But, the argument would go, people should freely and independently develop a gender identity, not have one foisted upon them by endless parental and societal training.

As I argued in chapter 9, we shouldn’t think children must have open futures in every respect. It’s okay to close off the future in which a child has crooked teeth, and the future in which a child suffers from vaccine-preventable diseases. We can say pretty confidently that straight teeth are better and very confidently that good health is better. Here, we can’t say that a female gender identity is better than a male gender identity, or vice versa, but can’t we say something else? Isn’t it usually better for a person to have some stable gender identity? People who fluctuate between different gender identities—and some do—seem to experience the fluctuation as a problem, and sometimes as a very desperate problem. Coming into a new gender identity is not at all like changing your mind about who your friends are or even what religious beliefs to hold on to— it’s a much more wrenching thing to do. Blocking off major inputs that may very well be involved in gender identity formation therefore seems unwise. Doing so probably slows down gender identity formation and makes it more of a focus for the child—to the child’s detriment, considering that there are many other things a child needs to focus on, like playing and learning and making friends.

We can go further here. Isn’t it better also, on sheer health grounds, for a person who is biologically one sex to have the matching gender identity? For people who persist in a nonmatching gender identity, the road ahead is difficult. According to transgender memoirs and sensitive third-person accounts like Andrew Solomon’s in Far from the Tree, it is often a painful thing to feel oneself to be male, but to have a female body, and vice versa. Many people in that situation converge on the same negative description—they write or say they feel trapped in the wrong body. For children there are particular discomforts, like dreading the onset of puberty. Granted, mixtures don’t bother everyone—there are people who will settle into a hybrid gender identity comfortably. But it’s fair to assume most people will be happier being one sex/gender, in both mind and body.

But does parental behavior make any difference? I don’t think we know for sure, but it might. Storm’s family seems to provide data pointing in that direction. Gender nonconformity like Jazz’s and Storm’s is unusual, but two kids in the family display it. While there could be a genetic explanation for that, it’s plausible to think the family’s approach to parenting is at least part of the explanation. It sounds as if the children are encouraged to think it’s particularly admirable to combine biological boyhood with typical girl ways, and biological girlhood with typical boy ways. We probably aren’t helping our children live good lives if we positively encourage an identity/biology mismatch. And likewise if we withhold information from a child that might help them arrive at a match.

In short, there are good reasons to let our kids know early on whether they’re a boy or a girl (biologically speaking). Clothing, hairstyles, and decor that gently remind kids where they fit on the gender grid are probably helpful. This is no different from what we do to teach kids about their place in the world in other regards. We do teach children many things about their identities, whether intrinsic or not: you’re a child, not an adult, and this is how children are expected to behave—no swearing allowed. You’re an American, not an Italian; please stop speaking Italian to the waiter. You’re a twenty-first century suburbanite, not a twelfth-century peasant; so wash up and put on clean clothes. Gender, even if regarded as provisional, is another basic component of identity. There’s no sense in hiding the most elementary gender rules from children, as much as we should challenge the more oppressive and restrictive rules. We may and should do away with "boys shouldn’t cry, girls must be bad at math,” but we ought to let kids know that boys don’t wear dresses and girls keep their shirts on.

Minimal steering is not the same as demanding the "right” gender identity from a child. In homes where there is minimal steering, kids can still come to have unexpected gender identities. The intersex kid initially presumed to be more comfortable as a male may want to switch to being a female. The seemingly typical three-year- old boy may gradually start to think of himself as a girl. In another family, depicted in an Oprah Winfrey Network documentary, a biologically male child (also, coincidentally, named "Jazz”) seems to have had the same upbringing as two older brothers, but started to identify as a girl very early on. Once gender nonconformity stabilizes, it becomes much harder to say that steering is helpful, or even how it would work. The time for steering is over, once it’s clear that an older child, or teenager, or adult child, is in fact transgender. What’s needed, and needed badly, is support and acceptance; parents must be willing to become allies for transgender kids trying to make their way in a society still full of hostility toward them.

Most parents go much, much further than minimal steering toward the biologically expected gender identity, whether consciously or unconsciously. Children are trained to have all sorts of beliefs about the difference between boys and girls—beliefs most of which go beyond the evidence. They’re inculcated with whatever norms are prevalent at the time. They’re also encouraged to make their gender identity a huge part of their lives. Being a girl is not permitted to be just one part of a child’s identity, but must be a very big part, a constantly important, foundational part. Kids are trained to think it’s bad to deviate from standard gender norms at all. This is the equivalent of not just letting kids know they are Americans, but encouraging them to develop their American-ness at every turn. Imagine worrying continually: but is this sport really American? Is this career really American? Typical parents encourage kids not just to recognize their sex, but to make it an omnipresent determiner of their choices.

The point of minimal steering is to help a child develop a gender identity comfortably and securely, but also to help a child manage, and in fact positively enjoy, the gendered aspect of life. Boys tend to feel boyish if they do whatever the other boys are doing. Girls tend to feel girlish doing whatever the other girls are doing. Steering a little doesn’t mean boys and girls can never mix, and certainly doesn’t mean they should be pushed to the most stereotypical end of the spectrum. In fact, pushing in stereotypical directions can just make kids feel uncomfortable. Some boys are not athletically inclined, so will hang out with the boys only if there are train sets and card games and blocks around. Some girls have no interest in dolls, so will join with the girls only if there are art supplies around. But it’s probably doing children a disservice not to help them learn which group they’re in.

We can go too far, steering aggressively instead of minimally. We’re going too far if we assume boys are mentally all-blue or girls are mentally all-pink; if we refuse to accept and accommodate biologically surprising gender identities; if we think of gender identity as utterly central and all-important. It’s fair to say that gender is part of identity for the vast majority of people—it’s not just another feature, like having hazel eyes. But parents can raise kids to think their gender is their primary and most important identity. That creates pressure to be good at girlness above all, or good at boyness above all, and that can interfere with being good at other things.

This was strikingly apparent in an article about the Harvard Business School published in the New York Times Magazine in 2013. The author, Jodi Kantor, tried to find out why women comprise 50 percent of business students at Harvard, but are less likely than male students to land the best jobs after graduating. In interviews, one female student after another talks about her concern that assertiveness and combativeness are career-advancers, but unattractive in women (especially to male students). The concern gets in the way of class participation, which determines 50 percent of class grades. These women want to be feminine above all, partly out of a desire to find mates (expressed by some in interviews), but possibly also because in the gender training they received early in life, femininity wasn’t just one identity element, but an all-important one. Of course, that would present a problem if femininity were generally perceived as compatible with assertiveness, as masculinity is. In the fullness of time, we can hope that will become true. But for the present, we can protect girls from being limited by gender if we discourage the idea that gender identities are preeminent. There’s nothing that says they have to be, even if it’s true that, generally speaking, gender is one aspect of identity.

We are not going to stop caring about whether we have boys or girls, and few of us will entirely stop nudging boys in a boy direction and girls in a girl direction. Up to a point this is both reality-based and in a child’s interests. We enjoy being girls and having girls; we enjoy being boys and having boys. It’s when we believe that all boys are "all boy” that we get into trouble, and when we believe that all girls are "all girl.” It’s also oppressive for kids to have predominantly gender-centered identities, as if gender was more important than anything else. Here as in many parental tasks we need to follow the Goldilocks rule. The amount of attention we pay to sex and gender should be: not too much and not too little, but just right.

 
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