“Boys Are Wonderful and Wild and Dirty”—And So Is Sally

I just came upon this sentence in a comment on a blog post on some other blog out in the blogosphere:

Boys are wonderful and wild and dirty and tender and love their mamas and want to be like their daddies.

Here’s the thing: Sally is wonderful and wild and dirty and tender and loves her mama and wants to be like her daddy.

A couple months ago I was at a wedding, and an older woman stopped by me to admire my small son Bobby, who had just started furniture creeping. He had a bruise on his forehead, and when she asked about it I told her about how he’d gotten it in an attempt to move from the living room chair to the coffee table. Her response?

“Yes, that’s how boys are—rough and tumble! I remember well.”

Well you know what I remember? I remember Sally doing the exact same things when she was a baby. The same daring attempts, the same bruises, the same scrapes. Sally has always been a very rough and tumble sort of child. And guess what? She’s a girl.

And you know what else? Bobby is actually more cautious and less daring that Sally was. Things Sally would have attempted, Bobby sits back and thinks “Hmm, should I? Maybe not, I might get hurt. I better do what I already know I can do.” Isn’t it “supposed to be” the other way around?

As of right now, I actually see no gender differences whatsoever between my children. I’m firmly convinced that babies don’t have gender, just personalities, and even as Sally, now in preschool, plays princesses and tea parties, she doesn’t do those things in a gendered way. I mean, half the time she plays the prince, which just means that she wears a cape instead of a fancy dress. And the whole point of playing princesses is going on adventures, not doing needlepoint or something. And when she plays Doctor Who, she’s the Doctor and Bobby is Amy. And besides, Sally spends just as much time poring over human anatomy books as she does her princess stories—more, actually. Oh, and dinosaurs. Sally is a huge dinosaur fan. She’s even thinking of being an archaeologist because she wants to dig up dinosaurs.

So when I read a comment like “boys are wonderful and wild and dirty and tender and love their mamas and want to be like their daddies,” I have to shake my head. I know my oldest is only in preschool, but Sally and Bobby have so far only cemented my conviction that gender is entirely socially constructed*. Yes, there are biological differences, but gender is not sex. Anyway, you know how little boys are supposed to be made up of “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” while girls are supposed to be made up of “sugar and spice and everything nice”? Well the thing is, boys aren’t born boys—we make them boys. And the same is true with girls.

Now, I know this won’t last forever. My kids aren’t growing up in a bubble, and they will be socialized at least in part into our society’s prescribed gender roles, whether I like it or not. And even if they resist being nailed down, they will have to navigate in a world where people make huge gendered assumptions whether people fit those assumptions or not. But for the moment, I’m just going to enjoy the present, and focus on raising two little individuals, not a girl and a boy.

So how about you? What are your thoughts and observations on children and gender?

———

* Several of the commenters had an interesting exchange about the difference between “gender identity” and “gender-coded behavior.” I want to reproduce it here, because I found it both very interesting and extremely helpful.

Ibis3:

There is evidence to suggest that gender identity at least is not entirely culturally constructed. For one, there is the experience of trans kids who are enculturated as one gender but still feel like the other. And then there is the very sad case of David Reimer, a boy who had a botched circumcision so they decided to give him sex reassignment surgery and raise him as a girl. The result was not successful, as one would expect it to be if gender were entirely socially constructed.

Swimr1:

Or, you could argue that we are all individuals and that we shouldn’t be forced (via media, parents, society) to act like an artificial construct (gender) in the first place.

Jayn:

Yeah, I got the impression Libby was conflating gender identity with gender roles. Kids are certainly treated differently based on their sex, but a boy who is treated like a girl doesn’t become a girl.

Red:

I think there are far less gender differences than society tends to believe–but at the same time, saying that it’s completely a social construct seems…I don’t know…un-affirming, I suppose, to the people who claim to have felt like the “other” gender since they were toddlers (and these aren’t people who just wished they could act out the roles of the other gender…they actually felt that they WERE the other gender in essence.). I don’t know how to define gender as a social construct without somehow de-legitimizing these people’s stories. (Is de-legitimizing a word???)

M:

There’s a big difference between gender identity and gender-coded behavior. Gender identity is what do I feel like- do I feel like a girl or like a boy? Gender-coded behavior is what the post is about, though. Things like persistence, rough-and-tumble play, fearlessness, caution, playing with dolls, climbing trees, displaying emotions (especially crying), etc. None of those behaviors/attitudes have anything to do with how one feels on the inside as one’s gender.

Rosa:

what M said, basically. A person who feels that they are a girl is going to express that in whatever way their culture says girls are – American culture today says girls talk a lot, in the 18th and early 19th century it said girls were more reserved and less articulate.

It’s easy to express it the opposite way (“I knew I was a girl because I liked Barbie and not GI Joe”) because we are so steeped in the gender assumptions they’re invisible. But in a culture with different gendered toys, the expression would be different.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Gail

    Great post; I agree with pretty much everything you said about children and gender.

    But my profession would never forgive me if I went away without commenting on this: “She’s even thinking of being an archaeologist because she wants to dig up dinosaurs.” Archaeologists don’t actually dig up dinosaur bones; that’s palaeontologists. Archaeology is generally the study of the history of human activity. But I agree with Sally that dinosaurs are awesome. Bringing this back to gender, I tried to buy my niece a dinosaur onesie once, but my mother freaked out because she said that dinosaurs were for boys, not girls.

    • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com/ Christine

      You beat me to it!

    • The_L

      I was fascinated by dinosaurs, too! My parents bought me a few dinosaur books when I was very little, but when relatives bought such books as gifts, they were always for my brother. I was so jealous!

      The “dinosaurs are for boys” thing* also reminds me of a nasty shock I got as an adult. I was in college, and some friends wanted to go to McDonald’s. I tagged along. This was a point at which McDonald’s was doing the annoying gendered-toys thing (I remember always being disappointed that I got Barbies instead of Hot Wheels), and the boy toy was…robots. It had never occurred to me that robots weren’t a unisex toy to a lot of people. I’d honestly assumed that they were for everyone!

      * If dinosaurs are for boys, does that mean little girls can’t watch Barney the dinosaur? Because I’m sure that would disappoint a lot of youngsters!

      • http://valuesfromscratch.blogspot.com Marian

        Ugh. McDonalds. I worked there last year, and they STILL do the boy and girl toys thing. And we were technically supposed to ask “Would you like a robot toy or a Barbie toy?” for example, instead of the generic “Would you like a boy toy or a girl toy?” But in reality that ended up taking so much longer, since we would have to explain what the toys were, since the parents often didn’t know the movie or whatever that the toys were coming from… we just ended up shortening it to “boy toy or girl toy.” I hated it but really wasn’t in a place to do anything about it since the all important thing at McDonalds is to keep the line moving.

      • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

        Marian: Nice to know that standard procedure is to ask. As a kid I don’t recall actually being asked much, they just defaulted to the ‘girl’ toy. I could ask for the ‘boy’ toy if I wished, though, and it was never an issue, though it seemed to confuse them on occasion.

      • revsharkie

        There weren’t “gendered” toys in Happy Meals when they first came out. (I was 11 or 12 at that point.) My nephew went through a phase where he generally asked for the “girl” toy because he thought the girl toys were better. So he got the girl toys. I don’t know if he still does or not.

      • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com Christine

        And where does that leave Dorothy the Dinosaur, one of the Wiggles’ friends?

    • ecolt

      You beat me to the archaeology/paleontology thing too!

      Ugh, those gendered toys are so annoying. I have three stepkids, and sadly I got to them long past the point where the gender lines were firmly laid down. Luckily the littlest is seven and I’ve gotten him to love baking with me, so at least I can take comfort in a little boy that wanted nothing other than an apron for his birthday. I’ve already decided that if my partner and I have a baby together in the future I’m not telling anyone the gender until it’s born, just so I won’t have a mountain of gendered things before the kiddo even gets here. Everyone including the doctor thought I was going to be a boy, so I wore little baseball outfits for the first year of my life. Guess what, I didn’t turn out gay! I don’t know why people insist on forcing all the stereotypes of gender onto kids who can’t even walk and talk.

  • Marty

    I just finished a paeds term, and judging by how changeable the pronouns were for the kids until the school years I’d say the genders weren’t making a lasting impression on people (and this in a field where biological sex is relevant, if not generally that important). Even when you did remember what sex a child was, it was generally because of name, clothing or hairstyle, rather than behaviour.

  • Christine

    I am convinced that babies don’t have gender. Next time around we aren’t going to find out the sex (it’s just so awkward… makes you feel all snooty to say “no, don’t tell me”), because even “we aren’t telling” doesn’t seem to give a strong enough statement on “stop trying to gender my baby!”

    My daughter generally has some sort of bruise, either on her knees or on her face. I’ve started to look at visible bruises and scrapes as a sign that I’m doing something right.

    I’m starting to notice gender a bit more now that my daughter is old enough for us to encourage certain behaviours. Libby, I don’t know if you’re as strong on the concept of don’t just generally praise your kids “good girl” “you’re smart” etc, because you wouldn’t have first hand experience with the negative side effects of it, just the studies that say it’s a problem, but it’s a big deal for us. So we’re trying to comment on the specific behaviour – that was very helpful, you’re being very co-operative, you’re listening well, etc. Unfortunately most of the things we end up saying seem to reinforce “feminine” behaviours, and I’m worried that I’m gendering her. The only problem is I can’t think of character traits that are stereotypically encouraged in boys – the “boys will be boys” as a “it’s not good, but it’s how they are” seems to start with toddlers.

    • Meg

      Such a good point – I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the things I was praised for vs. things my siblings were praised for. This wasn’t just our parents, but extended families and various other adults. I plan on going so far as to respond to peoples’ “wow, you’re so smart” in re: to my kids with a “she worked really hard and really loves learning.”

      My sister and I always felt socially rewarded for our appearance (esp. as kids). It really wasn’t my parents who did this – they hardly ever commented on appearance (and when they did, I knew that they found me beautiful b/c they loved me, knew me, and were commenting on excitement/passion in my expression after a dance recital, a great volleyball game, etc). It was strangers or other adults who would go on and on about how we looked. I’m not sure how I’ll redirect the comments on appearance, but I won’t let those lie either – they dig deep.

      • http://www.seditiosus.blogspot.com Schaden Freud

        Ugh, that reminds me of an incident at my mum’s church when I was a kid. One of the men who went there made a comment to my dad to the effect that I was getting very good-looking and dad would have to start chasing boys away with a stick soon. Poor dad was left speechless.

        In the first place it was an odd thing to say because at that point I needed a lot of orthodontic work and even if you wanted to be charitable “good-looking” really wouldn’t have been a term you could have used with any degree of honesty. But more importantly, I was 12. At the time I just thought this guy was taking the piss, but the older I get, the creepier that memory becomes.

      • Meg

        I never felt that it all made sense – I was pretty normal, maybe cute but hardly to a degree that should call for any attention. Looking back at it, it was often inappropriate (overstated or in terms of attractiveness) or I felt like they were trying to control conversation (make me talk about my looks or respond the “right” way with gratitude/modesty).

        There’s no benefit to “cute” or “pretty” but statements about how mature a child looks, how attractive a child is (even when couched in terms of “chasing boys away soon”), and making the child engage in conversation about the admiration they’re evoking in an adult are all harmful. The stance that it’s “ok” to lust after older teenagers makes it ok to notice younger teens (or pre teens) in a less direct way. Raising kids to be obedient to adults et al and trusting of people in authority makes kids pretty vulnerable; even if it only goes as far as having to engage in “harmless” conversation when they’re really uncomfortable, it can leave an impression about how little power they have and that their appearance is tied into their value.

      • ecolt

        My family had those experiences with my little cousins. The oldest girl has always been very tall and thin. Once she started growing out of her awkward lanky phase someone told her dad that she could grow up to be a model – he almost punched the guy. Their littlest girl is honestly a beautiful child, and her daddy is just totally in love with her. The problem was that she heard she was beautiful so often that by age four she knew it, and knew that she could tilt her head and bat her eyes to get whatever she wanted. They had to really make an effort to praise her for other things once they realized how aware of her looks she was at such a young age.

        The funny thing is that I’m almost having to go backward on that with my 12-year old stepdaughter. She’s reaching that age where she’s starting to feel all that pressure on girls to be pretty and thin and I can see it’s getting to her. As someone who dealt with an eating disorder and horrible self-esteem through high school, I want to make sure that she has a better self-image than that. She’s a pretty girl and is naturally super-petite so when I notice her making a self-depreciating comment about her looks I do tell her she’s beautiful and that anyone who thinks otherwise is crazy. As much as I praise her for other things, I think the truth is that society makes it normal for girls to feel as though they’re fat and ugly and to some extent parents do have to build their daughters’ self-esteem in regards to their looks as well as other things. (I should add that her mother is an incredible shallow and materialistic person, so if my stepdaughter is going to have a role model for women that doesn’t center around shopping, dieting and makeup it’s going to be me.) From a certain age girls have all of our culture telling them they’re ugly, and I do think it helps to have someone in their lives tell them they’re beautiful just as they are.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Libby, I don’t know if you’re as strong on the concept of don’t just generally praise your kids “good girl” “you’re smart” etc, because you wouldn’t have first hand experience with the negative side effects of it, just the studies that say it’s a problem, but it’s a big deal for us.

      Oh, absolutely! We’ve seen those studies too, and it’s something we’re very careful about! If you’d like to write something about it, with links to studies, etc., I’d be glad to publish it as a guest post!

    • minuteye

      As far as traits stereotypically encouraged in boys, things like bravery, curiosity, mischief, being active, confidence, questioning authority… Depending on the family, these things can also get rewarded in girls, but (in my experience) to a much lesser extent.

    • ako

      I know my family tends to praise my niece a lot for running far and fast (seriously, let her run and she goes like a rocket), being strong enough to lift heavy things, doing something brave, acting confident, and knowing lots of numbers and math. And not just praise, but joining in the activities together, which she loves. It’s a nice balance to all of the compliments she gets for sweetness and prettiness (and more beneficial stereotypically-feminine traits, such as artistic talent and considering the feelings of others).

  • Maddie

    Your kids sound awesome. My 21 month old is very daring and active and brave and people are always going “he’s such a little BOY”, even though, looking at the other toddlers we interact with, there are as many daring, brave, active little girls and shy, quiet, cuddly little boys who don’t move from their mum’s laps as there are the other way around. It bugs me, really, because does that mean the kids who aren’t “such a little BOY/GIRL” are doing it wrong? And how long till they start to believe that they are, when they’ve got this kind of well-meaning reinforcement coming from people around them?

    Unrelated question for the little Doctor Who fan: has Sally seen The Sarah Jane Adventures? I don’t know if they air in America, but they’re pretty great, like Doctor Who Junior, featuring Sarah Jane Smith (from the School Reunion episode with Ten/Rose) and some teenagers. No Tardis, but plenty of aliens, and the Doctor (Ten and Eleven) himself shows up a few times. Unfortunately, Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane) died a little while back, so there are only four seasons, but she is AWESOME.

  • The_L

    I clearly remember that when I was preschool-aged, I decided the only real difference between boys and girls was plumbing–this even when I still thought that dressing in the other sex’s clothes would change your body into the opposite-sex body! I never believed in “cooties.” And I hated when my mother made me wear dresses to school–even though I thought they were really pretty–because it meant that I couldn’t climb on the playground. I often asked if I could wear shorts under my dresses (because the reason not to climb was always “People will see your underpants”) and was always told no.

    I played with my brother’s Lego bricks more often than he did. We climbed and jumped and swam and made his superhero action figures go on daring adventures. A couple of times I remember him asking if he could join in when my cousin and I had Barbies out. And he was always the one who initiated playing house.

    Play isn’t automatically gendered, and I don’t think anything else has to be either. I was amused yesterday when I saw a toddler out in a blue shirt. Yes, it was sparkly and had a pink bow on it–but dark shades of blue had made their way into the toddler girls’ clothing section at last!

    • Anat

      The correct response to ‘they’ll see your underpants’ is ‘so? I didn’t steal them’. Not easy to learn with the social pressure, alas.

  • http://tanitisis.wordpress.com Tanit-Isis

    My youngest child is (and has been since the age of two weeks) consistently more athletic, driven, daring, and reckless than my older one. If she were a boy, it would’ve been terribly easy to blame all those personality traits on gender. Glad I had two girls. :)

    • revsharkie

      I’m the older of two girls, too. I was more careful, introverted, bookish, generally stayed clean–and preferred playing in the mud or with blocks and marbles. My sister was reckless, athletic, and played with Barbies; and if she stepped out on the front porch for five minutes and didn’t touch anything she’d come back in the house filthy. What’s it mean to be “girly,” anyway? Nobody ever said to us, “Girls don’t…” or “Girls can’t…”

  • swimr1

    Amen. I often bite my tongue when those loaded gender statements are made near me. In my family of origin, I (the girl) was the adventurous athlete and my younger brother the cautious artist. Thankfully, my parents weren’t as sucked into the belief that they had to force gender roles upon us as some.

    Even still, I harbor some residual resentment today toward the “frilly and feminine” because I think I felt a little like a freak for not liking them. When I see cheerleaders, women with ridiculously fake boobs or girls with bows in their hair I have to fight feelings of disdain. Kind of sad.

    • saraquill

      If it makes you feel any better, girls who like the “frilly and feminine” are also treated as something disgusting. My preferences for pretty dresses was one of the reasons I was treated as dog feces on the shoe back in grade and middle school.

      • swimr1

        That is awful. I’m sorry. I know my reaction is wrong – and I can logically fight those feelings but I do have them. I have similar feelings toward the really pretentiously macho stuff too. Need to learn to appreciate all our differences and not see them as threatening in any way. Maybe, if society didn’t try to force individuals onto these extreme ends of the spectrum, we’d all have an easier time feeling secure about our own place on that spectrum.

      • saraquill

        No need to apologize, it’s really hard to control first impulses.
        Yeah, super macho stuff found in advertising and other media perplexes me. As far as I can tell, it largely installs feelings on inadequacy in male bystanders and consumers.

  • Ibis3

    There is evidence to suggest that gender identity at least is not entirely culturally constructed. For one, there is the experience of trans kids who are enculturated as one gender but still feel like the other. And then there is the very sad case of David Reimer, a boy who had a botched circumcision so they decided to give him sex reassignment surgery and raise him as a girl. The result was not successful, as one would expect it to be if gender were entirely socially constructed.

    • swimr1

      Or, you could argue that we are all individuals and that we shouldn’t be forced (via media, parents, society) to act like an artificial construct (gender) in the first place.

    • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

      Yeah, I got the impression Libby was conflating gender identity with gender roles. Kids are certainly treated differently based on their sex, but a boy who is treated like a girl doesn’t become a girl.

    • Conuly

      David Reimer, if you read his book, was pretty much molested and abused in the name of “treatment”. I’m not sure his tragic case proves *anything* other than that you shouldn’t treat kids the way he was treated.

      • ArachneS

        Reading up on him just now, I’m horrified at what that “doctor” made those kids do in the name of treatment. Just awful.

      • Andrew G.

        He isn’t the only case. There’s a rare congenital condition called cloacal extrophy in which the lower abdomen doesn’t develop properly; it is treated by immediate reconstructive surgery at birth, but in males the penis may be absent or otherwise beyond reconstruction.

        Accordingly, for a long time the preferred treatment for many males with the condition was to immediately surgically reassign them as female and raise them accordingly.

        I only know of one study of the result, but in that study, 5 subjects chose to keep the female identification; 4 chose spontaneously to identify as male; and 4 chose to revert to a male identification after being informed of the facts. (Yes, very small N, but it’s a rare condition.)

        Unlike other cases of intersexuality or ambiguous genitalia, cloacal extrophy does not in any way involve the gonads or normal sex-differentiation mechanisms, and patients who are not reassigned don’t display any uncertainty about their gender.

    • Red

      I have questions about this, too. I think there are far less gender differences than society tends to believe–but at the same time, saying that it’s completely a social construct seems…I don’t know…un-affirming, I suppose, to the people who claim to have felt like the “other” gender since they were toddlers (and these aren’t people who just wished they could act out the roles of the other gender…they actually felt that they WERE the other gender in essence.). I don’t know how to define gender as a social construct without somehow de-legitimizing these people’s stories. (Is de-legitimizing a word???)

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

        There’s a big difference between gender identity and gender-coded behavior. Gender identity is what do I feel like- do I feel like a girl or like a boy? Gender-coded behavior is what the post is about, though. Things like persistence, rough-and-tumble play, fearlessness, caution, playing with dolls, climbing trees, displaying emotions (especially crying), etc. None of those behaviors/attitudes have anything to do with how one feels on the inside as one’s gender.

      • Rosa

        what M said, basically. A person who feels that they are a girl is going to express that in whatever way their culture says girls are – American culture today says girls talk a lot, in the 18th and early 19th century it said girls were more reserved and less articulate.

        It’s easy to express it the opposite way (“I knew I was a girl because I liked Barbie and not GI Joe”) because we are so steeped in the gender assumptions they’re invisible. But in a culture with different gendered toys, the expression would be different.

  • Kristen

    I totally agree. This is my passion as a feminist. Gender stereotyping is a form of emotional violence. It made my childhood miserable. One of my earliest memories is asking my mother when I would be old enough to pass the sacrament (a Mormon ritual done by the young teen boys at church). I remember the anger and sense of unfairness I felt. I am a huge tomboy and when all the boys at church got to do Boy Scout campouts, the girls sewed and camped in cabins. I wanted to be an explorer and roamed around outside with pretend bows reenacting Hatchet. In high school, my sister was praised for her art and dance talent. My parents were proud that I was good at debate and science team, but somewhat puzzled too. I’m luckier than a lot of people because I still got to do those things–at least I wasn’t forced into gendered activities. Still, my childhood would have been much happier in a world without gender stereotyping.

    @Christine — I’m with you on the praise issue. I think if you want to try to praise for things that are more stereotypically masculine, you could praise for being brave or persistent, or for building things? I try really hard to give my son positive feedback for things on both sides of the gendered divide. I tell him that I appreciate when he shares, when he helps, when he obeys, but also when he problem solves and tries things that are difficult and when he stands up for himself. I agree that praise for qualities is very dangerous. We always say we’re happy he worked hard to learn something or figure something out, not that he is really smart.

    • Christine

      Persistence is considered more masculine? Maybe I need to worry less that I’m reinforcing gender stereotypes. I clearly managed to miss a lot of them, so I’m not sure I’m capable of doing so.

  • saraquill

    I was looking at a shop window full of adorable fancy little girl dresses with my aunt and grandma.We were admiring them, speculating how my baby girl cousin would look in them, and I concluded that any of those dresses, once on a baby, would not stay clean and pretty.

    When one is an infant, a toddler, or a preschooler, dirt and messes will find their way on your person, regardless of gender.

    • The_L

      I’ve never understood white clothes for small children. A baptismal gown, I can get, because it’s worn for the ceremony and then taken off, but there is literally NO other situation in which white clothes are going to stay clean!

      • Joolz

        Bleach, bleach and more bleach. I never understood white clothes for little ones until my best friend told me that she dressed her two kids ( when they were very little) in a lot of white because bleach will remove most stains. She kept a bucket of water and bleach near her washing machine and just threw their white clothes in there until she had enough for a load. If I’d ever had kids I’d have copied her.

  • KristinMH

    I have a very active 13-month-old boy. People are ALWAYS saying “just like a boy!” and so on. He does seem to be more active than most the girl babies we know…but then, he’s more active than most of the boys, too.

    Gender gets applied to and enforced on our children from an incredibly early age. I recently saw a mother scold her pre-verbal toddler boy for crying, because “boys aren’t supposed to cry”! He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15 months, still just a baby, and already he was learning that expressing sadness and vulnerability was unacceptable. So sad.

  • luckyducky

    This has always been a little tricky for me because I also have a boy and a girl who conform to a certain subset of gender stereotypes. My daughter is much more cautious, has a lower (often frustratingly low) pain tolerance, loves to read, plays quietly. My son has always been far more physical, has an unreal tolerance for pain which can make him fearless, is so loud that I find I am overstimulated by the end of a day at home with him, does not want to sit still for anything, and loves cars, trucks, and balls and always has. As soon as he was mobile (crawling) he was terrorizing his sister by “tackling and mauling” her if she didn’t stay up and out of his reach on the sofa or bed. My heart still races at the memory of catching him by the ankle when he squirmed up and out of my arms and over my shoulder as a 9mo trying to get to something (he has always been >90th percentile for size and big & wiggly makes for one hard to hold baby).

    That being said, my daughter actively rejects being pigeon holed as a “girl” and has always gravitated to Legos and blocks and l-o-v-e-s all things science and math. My son likes pretty jewelry and dance as much as he likes cars and sports. His collection of pretty sparkly things would surpass his sisters if people didn’t give her pink sparkly stuff and him blue non-sparkly stuff. If I were to go to the default that the first list of attributes encourages, I know I would be limiting them and denying them the very real joys they feel for things that don’t conform to to rigid gender roles.

    • luckyducky

      Oh, and they share more interests than they don’t, digging in the dirt being chief among them… and being close in age, this makes them both the best of playmates and the biggest of rivals.

  • Caroline

    Aw man this post makes me appreciate my parents. I am a female (although most times I identify as genderqueer) and my parents let me wear and play with whatever I wanted. Dinosaurs, power rangers, ninja turtles, etc… that’s what made up my childhood. My mom knew I liked neon and black t-shirts and shorts, so you know what she did? She went out and bought fabrics AND MADE CLOTHES FOR ME. She listened to me, knew what I liked, and affirmed my personal choices. This just makes me want to post pictures. Keep your parenting going. Your children will thank you for it.

    • BringTheNoise

      On a similar note, I’m a cis-male but I’m also thankful that this never prevented my parents from letting me play with what I wanted to as a kid. I remember vividly the year my “big” Christmas present was a toy vacuum cleaner, and I also had dolls, tea sets and a toy cooker, alongside the action figures of Thundercats, toy swords and wrestling rings.

  • Kate Monster

    Your mention of digging up dinosaurs reminds me of something my parents did when I went through my dinosaur phase as a kid: They’d go to the local butcher’s and get leftover bones, then bury them in the yard for me to dig up. It was so exciting to be a REAL paleontologist and find REAL bones in OUR yard (I thought they were real dinosaur bones, not cow bones, which made it all the more awesome). Does Sally have a favorite dinosaur yet?

    • Christine

      You have the coolest parents ever.

      • Kate Monster

        I know :)

  • Conuly

    When the nieces were little, we used to go to an inexpensive art program twice a week. I remember one conversation in particular where, upon seeing the nieces, the mother next to me said something about how she “could see how girly they were, not like her all-boy son who wouldn’t even know what to DO with a toy dish.”

    At the very moment she said that, the younger niece was crawling on the floor with a truck honking at everybody and this woman’s very son was playing with a toy frying pan pretending to cook something. I pointed it out to her, but somehow never got a real reply.

    People see what they want to see.

  • Aaron

    Two tiny nitpicks–it’s “poring”, not “pouring”, and “prescribed”, not “proscribed”. The first is just a typo, but the second actually has the opposite meaning you probably intend.

    Feel free to delete or mask this post, I hate to clog up the wonderful discussion here with copyediting, but I couldn’t find an email address or contact form.

  • http://rant5k.blogspot.co.uk/ Grikmeer

    Speaking as a Tgirl, I agree with pretty much all of that :)

  • Kristen

    @Christine yeah, I think persistence is usually coded masculine. Aggressive pursuit of your own goals. Maybe ambition is a better word, but I think the corresponding trait in a kid is persistence. I see boys praised more for dogged pursuit of mastery, especially when it comes along with the frustration that almost always causes. I see boys praised for keeping at it, when girls are comforted and encouraged to try something different (read: easier)

  • http://veryrarelystable.blogspot.co.nz Daniel Copeland

    “Rough-and-tumble play”, in childhood development studies, doesn’t mean exploring and falling over, it means (play-)fighting, and it is the single most cross-culturally robust gender difference in the 2–6 age group.
    The important bit, though, is: that’s still a matter of statistical averages. If an individual girl prefers to play rough-and-tumble, then she prefers to play rough-and-tumble and that’s the fact of it. There happen to be fewer girls than boys who do that, but that doesn’t illuminate her individual case.

  • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

    My son LOVES trucks. He’s obsessed. When we go to the library for toddler time, the second thing he does is run straight for the kids’ section and pick out all the books about trucks from the shelf and start flipping through them. Every single time – every. single. time. – I’ll have someone come up to us and say “boys and their trucks! Mine was/is the same way, ha ha!” It never fails, we get this comment every week.

    But that’s the second thing my son does when we get to the library. The first thing he does is do a quick run around to see if there are any babies. If there are, he wants to kiss them and tries to give them things (water, food, toys..). He LOVES babies. We can’t pass a baby without him very excitedly pointing it out and asking to go see. At home, he has a baby doll that he likes to take care of – he pretends to feed it, give it baths, and he cuddles with it. He’ll tell me that his “baby has a booboo” and then kisses it to make it feel better. Yet despite this, I have never heard anyone tell me: “Boys and their babies! Am I right?”

    People just don’t notice all his “girl” behaviours, but they sure do notice his “boy” ones, and feel compelled to comment on them and reinforce them.

  • Amie

    Great post! Your Sally sounds just like my little girl Noah. The whole world is open to her, and its amazing to watch her decide for herself what she likes and doesn’t like without me telling her what she’s “supposed” to like.

  • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

    As a side note, my mother’s cousin (this would have been in the 50s) went through a phase where he only wanted to wear this one red dress. My family being awesome, he was allowed to wear his dress and no one made a big deal about it. He wore it for a few weeks, during which time a great aunt asked him if he was a little girl. “No, I’m a boy!” he responded, in a tone of voice that implied that he thought she was rather stupid, while lifting up his dress to show her. After a couple weeks, he just put it away and that was that.

    Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t identify as transvestite, gay, gender-queer, or anything else. He was just a little boy who thought a particular dress was pretty so he wanted to wear it. End of story.

  • Red

    Wow, I can so relate to this. My cousin had a boy first, then a girl…the little boy was a cautious, worried, fretful, but delightful and charming little fellow. They were SHOCKED when their second kid, a girl, was a little tornado with absolutely not sense of fear whatsoever (not shocked b/c she had these traits as a female, just shocked because it was a whole different parenting experience).

    When I was little, I loved getting dressed up…for about two hours at a time. Then I’d rip the dress off, put on jeans, and spend the rest of the day in the dirt. I would randomly decide that I wanted to be “pretty” for the day, then later decide that I wanted to be a super-villain wearing a cape. My parents didn’t try to define or pin down whether I was girly or tomboy; they just let me go where whimsy dictated, and I secretly believe I got the best of both worlds :) I’m still like that as an adult. (After 7+ years of extremely long and flowing hair, for example, I just chopped it all into something resembling Starbuck from 2004 Battlestar Galactica).

    It keeps life interesting!

  • Red

    Oh, and P.S., I can’t believe no one’s brought up John and Staci Eldridge yet. I remember reading in “Captivating” that women naturally want to be “the sidekick” in someone else’s adventure, and I was like “Erm…yeah…so that explains why my childhood role-playing games always involved me as the hero who saved everyone…what???” This made no sense to me and freaking still doesn’t! (Also, I find it HILARIOUS that I married someone who used to play the sidekick as a kid so his younger sister could be the main character. Oh Staci Eldridge…sigh.)

  • Mogg

    I had to laugh when I read this post after coming home from a visit to my boyfriend’s sister and her family. There are three children – the oldest girl, quieter and more reflective who showed us a very good painting of a tree she had done earlier that day, the super-high-energy, noisy, physically well developed five year old boy whose first response to us was to show us a sparkly toy and then some passionfruit flowers, and the youngest girl, three years old, who started the visit with a bump on the head from having something fall on her when she got where she wasn’t supposed to be, cried until she was allowed to put her “dancing” clothes on, thereby showing off the big gravel rash on her leg from sliding down a bank that morning, and spent the rest of the evening proceeding to get as filthy as possible in a big pile of dirt left by the builders who are currently extending the house. Definitely a mix of individuals! I hope if I have kids they are a bit quieter, though… :-)

    When I was a kid I liked “boy” things. Toy trucks, Lego (before there was any such thing as girl or boy Lego I was terribly disappointed that I didn’t have any spaceship kits or a working Technics motor), dinosaurs (I was going to either be a paleontologist or an astronomer when I was seven), Masters of the Universe, Star Wars, wearing pants, playing Robin Hood, climbing the tree in the front yard, exploring anywhere that was bushy. I also loooooooved horses, was very sensitive, read a lot, drew a lot, cried easily and was shy. I suspect that in this particular area my parents did a pretty good job of letting me be me, rather than trying to impose girlishness, and given the horse obsession it was easy for relatives to give gifts that were girly and still suited me. They even let me wear acceptable female uniform trousers to high school for the first year even though I was the only girl not wearing a skirt in the entire school and had at least one teacher mistake me for a boy. I never got that Technics Lego, though! Not until I’d grown up and my sister bought me a little set as a joke when I said how disappointed I was never to have had any.

  • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

    I try to mix clothes so that Iris’ clothes are not just girly girl, I encourage exploring and wild games and I try not to stop her all the time when she wants to do semi-dangerous stuff. I am not all gender-neutral though, I love having her wear dresses and cute stuff too but I don’t care if she makes a mess and if the clothes get dirty and I want her to have the best of all worlds and feel free to be a whole person who is not afraid to choose freely. She is 8.5 months now and she loves speed and wild bumpy rides in the stroller but she is not very talented in the climbing and moving department yet and more of a talker (says some words already) but I anticipate much action once she starts to crawl and walk.

  • Sarah

    Have you spent much time around normal children aged 2-4? Not kids in your twisted family, but normal kids with parents determined to prove that gender is a social construct? Because I have, and 95% of them show pronounced stereotypical gender differences. Until you’ve seen the spark of excitement at violence in your son who you would swear you’ve raised the exact same careful way you raised your girl you’ll disagree, but I’m 95% sure you’ll be back in four years eating your post. It’s not about nurturing or trains and tutus or physicality (although both of mine love glittery shoes they’re pretty neutral on very gendered toys), it’s a quality of the energy, the longer half life of the autonomic nervous system, the tendency to wound with words vs fists. They’re just different.

    • Kristen

      Wow, I find it interesting that you’re generalizing from a sample size of 2. There is definitely some evidence of gender differentiation in infants, but there is also evidence that parents socialize infants differently, even when they don’t mean to. If infants are socialized differently from day 1, how are any studies of true gender differentiation not tainted?

      I would like to know what your goal is. It seems like you want us to “eat our words” and start believing that boys and girls have innate differences. How does that improve parenting? How does that help our kids? As it is, our goal is to parent our individual children. My son has many stereotypically ‘boy’ traits–he is loud, fiery, likes building, likes dirt, the whole shebang. That’s not surprising, though, because I was exactly the same way as a kid. I’m not trying to “un-boy” my son or make him gender-neutral, I’m just following his lead. Even if it is true that there are differences between the average boy and the average girl, that doesn’t apply to an individual girl or boy who may vary from the average in any particular trait. So what’s your agenda?

    • Kate Monster

      Sarah, where do trans*, intersex, and genderqueer people fit in your worldview?

    • ako

      Considerably more than 95% of the young children I’ve seen have adults and peers in their life encouraging them to show stereotypically gendered traits. I have yet to encounter any child who’s reached the age of two without “What a beautiful little princess she is!” or “How’s my big tough boy!” Even if the parents don’t actively reinforce it, there’s inevitably a torrent of aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, and other significant adults teaching the kids to disply gendered behavior Not to mention the other kids and the media.

      And I hope you’re not throwing out insults like “your twisted family” based on nothing more than Libby Anne being okay with having gender-nonconforming kids.

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ WMDKitty

        Dude, Sarah is a total Sanctimommy.

        [snark]
        Her children are perfect, conforming exactly to society’s BS gender roles, and if your children aren’t exactly like hers and you don’t parent exactly like she does, well, you’re just not a Real Mommy and you’re going to Screw Up Your Kids Beyond Repair!
        [/snark]

    • Conuly

      Sarah, quick question: did these kids develop these attitudes before or after entering preschool?

  • Sarah

    I wanted to add that when my girl was 31/2 and my boy was 1 I was quite fond of pointing out her energy and physicality to anyone who commented on boy vs girl stuff. I was wrong.

    And a reference
    http://dylan.tweney.com/2007/01/11/half-life-of-the-autonomic-nervous-system/

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ WMDKitty

      Because some random dude’s blog is “evidence”, right.

      Your kids are conforming to predefined gender roles because you are forcing them to.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        But it’s got Long Words in it so it must be credible!

    • Caravelle

      What a beautiful piece of gaslighting that article is.

      I have another theory why, after an argument “ends”, one party might see an immediate reduction in stress/anger while the other doesn’t. Like, for example, maybe, one party got their issues resolved and the other didn’t.

      Also, looking at the article’s sources, one is a guy from 1884. Hint : psychology as an empirical science is at a very early stage; anything written before, say, 1950 I’d take with a huge grain of salt. It’s not necessarily all nonsense, but it usually isn’t quite the modern view either. It would be like invoking Aristotle as an authority on physics. A rhetorical flourish to root your argument in history, sure. A reference for a statement of fact ? Uh, no.

      The other source at least seems to be a modern researcher who has done research on stress responses and there do seems to be gender differences in those, but there is quite a step from there to A Complete Explanation To Every Domestic Dispute Either, Based On Hormones. I couldn’t even find anything on google scholar about the “half-life of the autonomic nervous system”, which is a bad sign.

      Actually even looking up Sapolsky’s papers I don’t see much about stress and gender, he mostly seems to look at stress and age, or stress in general, and I haven’t been able to find the specific “women take more time to cool down” thing at all. Better sourcing would be very nice.

      Anyway, stress responses are very responsive to one’s environment and upbringing, so not only does the existence of gender differences in those not necessarily translate to explaining all marital interactions, it certainly isn’t incompatible with gender roles being learnt.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ WMDKitty

    It’s kinda nuts, how early we start in with the gendering and the social-roles and the “boys are/do active ‘tough’ rough-and-tumble things” and “girls are/do gentle quiet suzie-homemaker-in-training things”.

    If you’re gonna go by gender roles, as dictated for children, I was all “boy”, and still am. I do “guy” things, I love “guy” foods, I can spend hours talking shop, and society still tells me that, as a woman, I should be into the soft, fluffy, suzie-homemaker BS.

    I want kids to be themselves, regardless of gender.

    And I want society to stop defining and enforcing these gender roles, especially on children.

  • Ruth

    Have you read your kids “I Love You the Purplest”? In it a mother of 2 boys, one quiet, the other energetic, praises both for their individual traits. I have 3 girls, only one of which likes pink and dresses, although she also likes Higgs and quarks and DNA. I think it took longer than it should have to get an ADD diagnosis for one of my daughters, because it is still seen as a boy thing. Even as she was climbing higher in the trees than the boy who was admitted to be ADD.

    Remember, in Shakespeare’s time, it was assumed the noble raised among the shepherds would speak like a noble. There are biological differences, but variation within sexes is greater than variation between the sexes in most traits.

  • Caravelle

    Dinosaurs ! Feh ! This is REAL paleontology :
    http://www.lifebeforethedinosaurs.com/
    (just kidding, I love dinosaurs too. Has Sally been told birds are dinosaurs yet ?)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X