When I had my first baby, I had good intentions about not boxing him into a prescribed, stereotypical gender role. But I also had a lot to learn, about gender and about parenting too.
Seven years later, I still have plenty to learn about gender issues (and about parenting too!), but here are a few things I can share:
- Gender is not binary.
It’s hard to believe now that I ever thought there were only two genders – especially since I have never fit all that well into the pink/blue dichotomy myself – but I did make that assumption, and a lot of other nice people do too.
Now that I know better, the whole idea of a gender binary seems patently absurd. Nothing about human beings is binary. Do we only come in two different skin tones? Two eye colors? Two body types? Two sexual orientations? Two personalities? Sexual anatomy isn’t binary either, but more of a spectrum, with “intersex” being a term for all of the varieties of anatomy that lie between the binary options most people are familiar with.
So why would gender be the only thing about us that’s so black and white?
- Being transgender is not rare.
When I first had kids I assumed that being transgender was so rare, my kids so statistically unlikely to be trans, I didn’t really have to bother incorporating trans issues into my parenting. I was wrong on two counts. Not only is transgender relatively commonplace, but also, even if my kids are not trans that doesn’t give me a pass to not teach them about transgender identity and trans rights.
The most recent study I’ve seen estimates the US population of transgender people to be around 0.6% of the population; however, I believe it’s most likely much higher, because the study counts people who self-identify as trans. Not only is it not at all safe to be transgender in the US today – on average, over two dozen trans people are reported murdered every year – but many people don’t know that transgender identity includes non binary people, and many don’t know that non binary gender identities exist at all.
Even if my kids don’t fall into the category of transgender people, ignorance always promotes prejudice and bigotry, so I now know it’s my obligation to be inclusive whenever we talk about gender.
- Children begin to develop a gender identity around age three.
It’s typical for children to begin to develop a sense of their own gender as early as age two or three, and that identity tends to firm up around age five, though it may become more fluid again later.
However, many adults persist in perceiving this to be a normal gender development only for cisgender* children, and will characterize young transgender children as confused or disordered when they assert their gender at this young age. It’s not fair, humane, or even logical to hold some genders to one developmental yardstick and some to another. If a child in preschool tells us he’s a trans boy, how does it make sense to question if he’s really sure – do we ever ask this question of a cis boy?
The sad irony, of course, is that these waters are muddied by the aggressive efforts of adults to police the genders of young children – even of infants! From the color coding of onesies and toys, to crowing over baby girl’s first pigtails or boy’s first handsome short haircut, to the incessant messaging in children’s media, the pressure to be cisgender that adults put on children from the moment they are born is completely suffocating.
Which leads me to…
- It’s Not Enough for Parents to be Passively Nonconformist.
It would be nice if raising our kids with gender freedom was as easy as just NOT gender-coding their toys and shoving them into stereotypical cis roles, but alas, the world around us is hell bent on playing Gender Police. And that means that we have to be vigilant about countering their influences and giving our kids the critical thinking skills to make their own judgment calls on what the world says about gender.
Sometimes the messages are overt – we once had a young friend over who told one of my sons that his stuffed owl was “a girl’s thing” because it was pink. Most of the time they’re more subtle, and pervasive, almost atmospheric – I’ve noticed how many of the kids’ iPad games ask for them to input their gender, and the only options are boy or girl, or pink avatar with long hair versus blue avatar with short hair.
So as a parent, my role goes beyond opting out of gender policing – I have to also equip them with the tools to stand up to gender policing when it happens to them, and to question and counter the cisnormative** messaging they find all around them.
- Kids are far more flexible and open-minded than us, if allowed to be.
It’s true that children are not born with prejudice and bigotry in their hearts, but they are born ready to adopt and perform social norms (to varying degrees – neurodivergent children are often slightly less oriented toward conformity, which I count among my blessings in life!). Kids who learn transphobic and sexist culture at home are quick to carry it out in their interactions with peers.
I’ve heard so many adults claim that their young cisgender children are naturally masculine or feminine without any coercion from parents, without acknowledging the subtle ways kids’ gender is policed from birth – and even before birth, with many well meaning parents eagerly pinning a gender on their fetus as early as a 20 week ultrasound! If not subjected to this pressure, however subtle and seemingly benign, most young children could and probably would be more fluid and flexible in their explorations of gender.
One day I was looking at a My Little Pony cartoon with my younger child, and I commented on a pony described as “he” that I’d thought the character was a girl. My kid told me, “well, he’s kind of a boy and a girl at the same time.” Without having it explained to him, my 4 year old easily grasped the concept of a non-binary gender identity.
In that moment I could have chosen to nudge him back toward cisnormative culture, or simply affirmed his intuition; of course, I did the latter. “Oh, that’s cool – you know, some people in real life are a boy and a girl at the same time too.” Life is full of such teaching moments, and how we respond to them influences how our children view not only themselves, but other people who are unlike them in various ways.
It’s challenging at times to walk the fine line of countering cissexist*** messages without insulting the things and people our kids like. It can be painful sometimes to see them exposed to ridicule from peers who are raised differently. But the rewards of raising kids with gender inclusivity are plentiful. I’m so grateful that my children are able to enjoy a wide variety of entertainment and cultural interests without being hemmed in by gendered expectations and stereotypes – I see how this gives them confidence, a sense of self, and pure joy unpolluted by prejudice. And my hopes are high that they will be more compassionate people in the long run, with a good foundation built on principles of equality and respect.
* cisgender or “cis” means a person is the same gender as the one designated or assigned to them at birth based on genitalia – i.e., if a baby is born with a vagina, they are typically designated by doctors and/or parents as a girl but may not be so.
** cisnormative means it’s implicitly assumed that people are cisgender, and/or that cisgender is the default position and transgender is an exception or in any way an “other” type of person – e.g., the common anatomy lesson we give to kids that “girls have vaginas and boys have penises” is cisnormative and not factually correct.
*** cissexist means biased against trans people, including non binary and gender non-conforming people.