“Gender Creative” Kids and Their Parents: A Lament

One afternoon in Ithaca, N.Y., my kids were playing on the swing sets in the park when a little tike wearing a football jersey ran into my daughter’s path. I lunged for the swing — I jerked the chain so abruptly that I feared whiplash — and shared a “wow, that was close” exchange with the kid’s mom.

“How old is he?” I asked. The lady looked at me as she placed her kid on the swing and said with no trace of irony, “His name is Jill, and she’s three.” 

As I tried to match the pronouns and antecedents, she explained that she belonged to a group of parents who rebelled against gender stereotypes, allowing their children to decide their genders after they’d been exposed to both options. I’d learned of this in a philosophy class at NYU. My professor argued that children are born with “sex” but taught “gender.” The claim is that children unwittingly learn certain gender signifiers that dictate their behavior. Little boys don’t naturally want to play with trucks, and little girls aren’t naturally drawn to dolls, if unsullied by eager parents who try to indoctrinate their children with heterosexist ideas about “gender.” According to my professor, gender roles cause people to live according to the very limited ideas of others. The ultimate goal, of course, is androgyny, where no differences between males and females exist.

“I’m going to raise her as gender-neutrally as possible and let him decide which gender she prefers at the age of eight.” (Oh, eight; that’s the age at which my son dug up our Tennessee yard one square foot at a time, because he was convinced pirates had buried treasure there.)

Whenever I write about Ithaca (as I did in one of my memoirs), I invariably get e-mails asking, “Really?”

Understandably, people can’t quite believe that there are parents like this in America.  However, a recent New York Times article called, “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?” attempts to further push the normalization of gender-confused children into the mainstream.  It includes a very similar playground anecdote:

One day this spring I went to a playground with an 8-year-old boy named P. J. A pink ribbon with sparkly butterflies held back his thick black curls, which he occasionally flipped dramatically. He was wearing a serpent-and-skeleton bike helmet, a navy Pokémon T-shirt, black-and-pink stretch pants, a fuchsia sweatshirt and an iridescent heart necklace. As he and a friend raced happily around the park in a loud game of tag, they accumulated new pals.

After playing for half an hour, a few kids huddled to catch their breath and finally introduce themselves. One 10-year-old girl’s eyes opened wide. She turned to me, the closest adult. “Do you know she’s a he?” Yes, I nodded. Certain that I’d misunderstood, she pointed at P. J., who was right next to her. “No!” she said. “She is a he!”

The article, by Ruth Padawer, a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, examines how various parents deal with children when they don’t seem to fit into traditional gender roles.  Padawer — and psychologists — describe this “condition” in the following flowery terms: gender-atypical, gender-fluid, gender-variant, gender-creative.

Parents Susan and Rob have one of these “gender creative” youngsters.  Consequently, they sent an e-mail to the parents of their son’s classmates explaining their child will sometimes be wearing a dress to preschool. They explained that their son “has been gender-fluid for as long as we can remember, and at the moment he is equally passionate about and identified with soccer players and princesses, superheroes and ballerinas (not to mention lava and unicorns, dinosaurs and glitter rainbows). . . . The important thing was to teach him not to be ashamed of who he feels he is.”  When Susan let her son wear dresses around town, however, her son was upset when strangers assumed he was a girl.  He said, “I just hate being misunderstood.”

Other parents have paid for a half-day of gender-diversity training for the staff their kid’s school, though it doesn’t stop teasing during recess.

Padawer goes to great lengths to make sure her readers accept the “‘middle space’ between traditional boyhood and traditional girlhood.” She writes, “But the parents of the boys in the middle space argue that gender is a spectrum rather than two opposing categories, neither of which any real man or woman precisely fits.”  Padawer then goes on to write that this “middle space” is more acceptable these days in the form of the transgendered. The “visibility of transgender people — be it running for office or tangoing on Dancing With the Stars — has provided an opening for those who fall between genders.”

The most astonishing quote of the article was from Edgardo Menvielle, head of a program for gender-nonconforming youth at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.  He said, “I would argue it’s not even ethical to say to a child, ‘This is the gender you must be.’ ”

The author helpfully explains what we already know about the political persuasion of the parents of these children, “Many of the parents who allow their children to occupy that ‘middle space’ were socially liberal even before they had a pink boy, quick to defend gay rights and women’s equality and to question the confines of traditional masculinity and femininity.”

In other words, I wasn’t exaggerating about what my professors at NYU taught about gender and sexuality, and I wasn’t exaggerating about what I saw on the playground in Ithaca.

Though, believe me.  I wish I had been.

This article first appeared on National Review’s Home Front Blog.

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About Nancy French

Nancy French is a three time New York Times Best Selling Author.

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  • Steven

    “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

    https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation

    I am so grateful for the understanding I have from my religion of the divinity in each of us, and that who we are, including our gender, is divine and that each of us has great potential both in the now, and in the eternities.

    • Scott Stenson

      Given the current moral environment, responsible parents must teach their children to guard their respective genders as they grow. Satan seeks to confuse gender in the modern mind so that he (and he is a he) can undermine traditional marriage and family. Family is the most fundamenat unit of society. When it goes society goes. Thanks for your post.

      • Dylan

        Scott I agree that there should be some level of separation between the genders. Now that doesnt mean all men should be construction workers and women have to cook. I have no issues with women working in construction or men in the kitchen. However, when men start wearing dresses and identifying as women and vice versa, that is when it starts to become an issue.

        And with all due respect, Satan (Lucifer) is androgynous as is God the father, both of them being spiritual beings, Dante in the middle ages was the one who gave us the modern western idea of the flaming male devil with a trident.

        • Scott Stenson

          Dylan, thanks for your comments and your respectful tone. In LDS theology humans, angels, and gods are commonly discussed in gendered terms. Lucifer, for instance, was once “a son of the morning” (Isa. 14:12). Our Father in Heaven is called “Man of Holiness” in the Adamic language (Moses 6:57). Gender is fundamental to our human experience and divine theology.

  • cdb

    hmm, I read the original article and feel that this write-up misrepresents it. The author wasn’t trying to get the reader to “accept” the concepts described, but rather just familiarize. The parents were certainly pushing their point of view, but your article fails to point out all the other things that the parents did to try and reorient their child and why they made the decisions they did. Not all of them were the crazy Ithicans you’re trying to posit them as.

  • Lord Valiant

    A fascinating story, one I’ve vaguely heard of before. Honestly? I don’t mind this. Sex and gender are separate concepts. While it might seem a bit young it seems there is a degree of wisdom in breaking down these barriers and just allowing kids to be kids. Why should a ‘masculine’ girl or a ‘feminine’ boy be singled out and picked on for their nonconformity at school ages? These things seem to sort themselves out well enough.

    This doesn’t really astonish me and I find it hard to work up a reason to care. It’s a little kid, let the kid do his or her thing, we don’t get angry at girls who play rough and dress like boys at that age so why should we care so much if a little boy wants to cross a few lines as well?

    But again, I’m a bit liberal about these things. Your mileage may of course vary. My poor grandparents who raised me in church would likely be most displeased if they knew.

  • Cara

    I wonder if these ‘progressive parents’ realize that chimps, when left completely without ‘gender encouragement’, actually play with trucks when they’re boys and dolls when they’re girls. http://io9.com/5879647/do-girls-naturally-prefer-dolls-to-trucks-evidence-from-2-primate-studies Science does not support the idea that children are born without gender, it actually supports that there are definite gender rolls that they fall into without prompting or training. This comes to no surprise to the many parents who tried to make sure their children had choices between dolls/trucks/guns/etc and found their little girl was all dolls, and little boy was all trucks.

    Get over it folks. “Gender creative” is invented by parents.

    • Lore

      Most of those studies are simply that – studies. They are not irrefutable scientific proof, they are often biased but most importantly? Humans are not chimps. But if we’re looking at the animal kingdom then let’s look at the fact that bonobos (a great ape) exhibit homosexual behaviour among both males and females, that other species of animals will switch their physical sex to help continue procreation within their species and that some species of animal will present as female, even though they’re male, in order to mate.
      But back to human beings. I myself was given trucks and dolls, tools and tea sets. I liked all of them. I played dress up but in day to day life preferred jeans and t-shirts and bare feet to wearing more feminine clothing. I was allowed to be MYSELF without anyone asking me to pick a gender. While I appreciate the concern on both sides of the argument here’s a radical concept: LET CHILDREN BE CHILDREN. Stop asking them to make decisions about these things when they’re little. Because children change, week to week, day to day, year to year. Last week they wanted to be a ballerina, this week a doctor, next week a dinosaur. And at some point they will become concerned with making choices and defining themselves but until then? Let them play, let them have fun, let them learn and grow. Stop trying to fit them into boxes. Boxes do not make people happy. They’re simply, uncomfortably, confining.

  • Siobhan

    So what are you suggesting you to if you have a child who clearly exhibits gender non-conforming behavior? The implication in your article is that the parents are forcing this lack of conforming on the child, when in fact it sounds like the child’s behavior is forcing the parents and their community to figure out how to react when a child doesn’t fit neatly into the boy/girl box we have.

    I hope you are not going to suggest humiliation and peer-based torture, which is the traditional method of forcing boys and girls (especially boys) to fit within gender constraints. How much misogyny and homophobia is also caused/supported by humiliating boys by teaching them that feminine qualities are disgusting or unfitting for their sex?

    • WhiteBirch

      I wish there was a like button for this comment.

  • Frank

    This is simply child abuse.

  • Fortuna Veritas

    Well, what do you want them to do, beat their transgendered children till the kids are repressed? Dial things back to the 60s and 70s when Doctors who weren’t worth their degrees would have them molested or tortured in order to “recalibrate” them?

  • Susanna

    Maybe if we allowed children to wear the colors they want and play with the toys they want, they wouldn’t grow up to be confused about their sex and want a sex change operation. Face it, some boys are more passive while some girls are more aggressive. And why is pink relegated to girls? I’ve always wondered if boys who wanted to change to women as an adult just liked the idea of dressing up and wearing bright colors, etc. and knew they couldn’t do that as men and if girls who wanted to be men as an adult wanted to be treated with the respect that goes along with being male in our society and knew they’d never get that as a women. I don’t think that dressing a certain way or playing with certain toys will turn one gay. It may make a child feel out of place with his/her peers, but the child will figure that out soon enough and not care or conform. I agree that while MOST boys may prefer trucks and MOST girls may prefer dolls, a sizable minority don’t fit the mold, and that should be okay. For the record, I played with trucks, among other toys, and my brother played with dolls, among other toys, and we’re both straight, married, in traditional families and not confused about what sex we are. Oh, and don’t tell anyone, but my girls are involved in organized s-p-o-r-t-s, something denied me as a child (probably so I wouldn’t be confused that I was female).

  • pagansister

    I’m in my mid 60′s and that was a time when little girls wore dresses and little boys, jeans/long pants. However I hated dresses (and still do) and when I didn’t have to have on a dress to go to school or to church, I was in blue jeans and a T-shirt. My mother tired throughout my life to get me to wear dresses (had to to teach for a long time) but out of the expected work clothes–dresses and skirts—I was (and still am) in jeans or slacks. As soon as slacks became OK to wear as a teacher, I was in them. So, do clothes make the man( or woman)? Scotsmen and their kilts, monks? long dress like garments, Middle Eastern men? Long draped robe like clothes, like the women of those countries etc. I will admit that parents tend to dress their children according to gender. My daughter, however, is a jeans/slacks person and my son doesn’t wear dresses. I figure that the child, even dressed in gender clothes, will decide for themselves what they will wear when they get old enough. My mother had no problem with me in jeans as play clothes, but wanted me in the proper clothing for school/church. Schools then may have had a dress code—public schools–I honestly don’t now. Uniforms were, of course, worn for Catholic schools–and still are. (as are some public ones’ now). I played with trucks and dolls and many times I did wish I was a boy. However, I’m really glad I’m not now!

  • http://gottagetgoing.blogspot.com Kunoichi

    The reasoning from those who believe “gender” is what we think of our selves rather then a grammatical term for our physical sex (what the word used to be before being deliberately re-defined) is that they insist the gender of *people* is a spectrum, but *things* are immutably gendered, and that a child’s gender (or lack of it) is defined by those things, rather then their bodies. A child with a penis and testicals is not really a boy, if he likes pink or playing with dolls, because pink and dolls are female gendered, so liking them means he is really a she. A child with a vagina is not really a girl if she likes to wear pants and play with trucks, because pants and trucks are male gendered, so liking them means she is a he.

    According to the current lingo, I would be defined as cis-gendered, male presenting. Had I grown up in today’s world, I would have been considered trans because I hated dolls and skirts, wore “boy” clothes and like to play with bricks.

    I long ago rejected the idea of gendering things or actions. I detested the idea that pink was for girls, blue was for boys, or that girls had to have only girly toys while boys had to have only boyish toys. They had their Barbies, and they had their own tool kits (real ones, too). I bought most of their clothes in the boys department because girls cloths were impractical, and even the toddler clothes were often sexualized, but they also had “girly” clothes. Neither of them ever had any sort of gender confusion, and they both think the idea of a gender “spectrum” rediculous and harmful.

  • http://www.anthonybsusan.wordpress.com Sarah Jones

    I’m really just astonished that you think it’s somehow your business how other parents decide to raise their children.


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