Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Kids’ Gender Stereotypes —Let’s All Relax

I'm reposting here an essay I did  four years ago.  The photo of my father in 1908 dressed like a girl (in my previous post) reminded me of this essay on a subject which seems to be more in the news than ever, with all the discussion of transgender kids and how early they should be recognised as such.  It also includes a link to an article that daughter Eleni Gage wrote for "Travel & Leisure" some 11 years ago about the Zapotec Indians of Mexico who encourage their sons to identify as gay at an early age. 


Back in the seventies, when I was giving birth to my three children, we young Manhattan mothers were determined that we would not impose gender stereotypes on our kids. (Some of the moms in my upper West Side playgroup were equally determined to protect their little ones from encountering sugar, television, candy or, god forbid, birthday cake.)

We were inspired by the (1972) record album “Free to Be You and Me” produced by the Ms. Foundation to fight gender stereotypes.  It included such instant classics as “William’s Doll” and “It’s All Right to Cry.”

When our son was approaching his third birthday, I got him a baby doll to prepare the way for his expected sibling. (Back in those days there was no way to know the sex of the baby before birth.)

Despite my determination not to propagate stereotypes, when we traveled to visit  my parents, who were surrounding by construction sites, Chris became fascinated by the bulldozers and excavators and would happily sit in his stroller all day watching them roar around and dig.  He loved my parents’ automatic garage door opener and  instantly learned the names of every kind of truck.  Dinosaurs became his obsession.  He collected hundreds, learned all about each kind to the point that he was assigned to teach the segment on dinosaurs to his kindergarten class. 

Do what you will, many little boys will be fascinated with powerful things: dinosaurs, trucks, guns--and most girls will not. (I would never allow anything resembling a gun in the house.  Now my son makes a living writing, among other things, scripts for video games, which feature a dazzling variety of weapons.  Go figure.)

My point is that, despite our best efforts to be perfectly even-handed in rearing our children, many babies get born with certain gender tendencies written in their DNA. And as they grow up, they will experiment, traveling all over the gender spectrum.  So it’s not wise to classify them in any category too early.

But today it has become the fashion to eliminate any reference to gender – like the “Egalia” pre-school in Stockholm, Sweden, that has eliminated the words “him” and “her”, calling all children “friends” rather than girls or boys. Then there are the parents of the infant “Storm” who became viral celebrities because they refuse to reveal the sex of their third child, so as to avoid gender stereotyping.  Their two older children--both boys—are being home-schooled and encouraged to wear dresses if the spirit moves them and to grow their hair long.  It’s interesting, I thought, that when they went on an excursion to a natural history museum or some such, the older boy asked his parents to tell the docents that he was a boy.

I think these children are being cheated because, having them home-schooled to avoid gender stereotypes, they are going to emerge into the real world at the age of 18 with no skills at interacting with other people their age. (And I’ll bet they will not still be wearing dresses and long hair.)

The New York Times recently featured an article called “Toddling Past Gender Lines’ which approvingly gave examples of parents who encourage their children’s unconventional behavior, such as painting boys’ toenails pink and buying boys Barbie princess dolls.  Certainly the woman who wrote the best-selling  “My Princess Boy” has hit a public nerve.

But the article also referred to parents who take their pre-school children to therapists, change their schools or move to a more “diverse and understanding” community, so that their gender- bending children are not bullied as they grow up.

In my opinion this is going way too far in anticipating the future sexuality of their toddlers.   I think we all should step back, take a deep breath, and consider how our great-grandparents’ handled sexual orientation in small children.

They didn’t.  In collecting antique photographs, I’ve learned that gender differences in small children were not even recognized or fussed over until children were about five or six, when little boys started wearing pants.  Up till then, boys and girls alike wore dresses or gowns .

See that child up above with the long sausage curls and the white dress and matching hair bow?  That was my father, Robert Odegard Paulson, in about 1908.  Nobody ever thought it weird that my grandmother spent time setting his long blonde hair on rags to make those sausage curls.  

Here is a photo of Ernest Hemingway at about the same age looking like a girl.  People are always blaming any issues Hemingway had with masculinity on this photo.  But I’m telling you—it was normal for the period.

And take a look at the twins in this photo in their ruffled dresses and high-button shoes.  On the back of this cabinet photo is written the following: ”Left - Louise Bertha Inez Forte, right, Louis Bertrand Forte, born June 13th, 1893 at two p.m. in West Newton. Louis was born five minute after Louise.”

(Because so very many boys in antique photos are assumed to be girls, let me give you a vintage photo expert’s hint:  when the babies had enough hair to part, the girls’ hair was always parted in the center and the boys on the side.  Other clues that the tot in your daguerreotype is a boy: if he’s wearing a plaid sash and/or holding a riding crop.)

As you can see from the photos above, parents in the olden days did not get worked up about  “non-stereotypical gender behavior” and they did not decide that a boy in hair bows and ruffles was fated to grow up gay.  (The most shocking example of anticipating gender choices given in the New York Times' piece is the following paragraph: “Diane Ehrensaft, a therapist in Oakland, Calif., said that a parent  might say to her, "I know my child is transgender and I’m ready to go with hormone blockers.’ Her sensible response: “Whoa, not so fast!”')

Some children will grow up to be gay and some will decide they are transgender, and parents are to be applauded for accepting and supporting those statements, but no decisions should be made by anyone about behavior of children younger than puberty.  Everyone experiments with gender roles and changes often.  I smile when I see tabloid headlines like,  “Angelina is raising Shiloh to be a Boy!”

Angelina Jolie is just wisely allowing Shiloh to dress the way she likes. She’s five.  I can’t help thinking of a friend whose granddaughter, at the age of three, went through a “Goth” phase.  She would wear no dresses and no colors—only black.    Nobody gave her any grief about it, and now she’s decided to wear frilly dresses as well as black overalls.  I understand perfectly why Shiloh wants to look and act like a boy:  her two oldest siblings are boys and to her they’re cool and she wants to be like them.

While I don’t encourage anyone to decide their child’s gender orientation when they’re still children, let me tell you about the  Zapotec Indians on the Isthmus of Tehuantopec in Mexico.  Theirs is a matriarchal society where the women handle the money and pretty much call the shots, while the men busy themselves hunting prey like iguanas.

Most Zapotec families hope to have a gay son who can provide help and support  the parents.  These boys are selected (or identified) when they’re young and trained in “female” arts like embroidery, music, hair-dressing, cooking—you get the idea.  Many of these “Muxes” as they are called, dress as women throughout their lives, others dress as men, and they all are honored by the church with a special mass and fiesta (with dancing and parades) in November on the feast day of San Vincente Ferrer.  If you want to read an article about them written for Travel and Leisure by daughter Eleni Gage, click here.

As I said, I’m against making gender-decisions about one’s children at an early age, but it seems to work for the Muxes.  But for young parents in the United States, determined to protect their children from ostracism and bullying before they enter kindergarten, I think we should all step back and relax and wait to see what gender decisions the children make for themselves when they are old enough to decide their future.

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