Thursday 9 June 2011

Gender: Neutral or different?

Once upon a time, I believed that, for the most part, gender differences and stereotypes were pushed on children by the culture they grew up in.

And so it surprised me when my older boy became very attached to his cars despite being offered a wide variety of toys. It surprised me to see the differences in play between his girl friends and his boy friends. It didn't surprise me that people were taken aback by his long hair, but I was surprised by the extent to which people became confused, upset, or angry over it.

But nothing surprised me more than the day I said to my son, before turning him loose in the mall's play center, "if you want to play chase with a girl, you should ask her first. Lots of girls don't like to play that way."

The lady beside me gave me a curious look, and as I thought back over what I had said, I couldn't believe those words had just came out of my mouth.

Of course I should have replaced the word "girls" with "children" (hindsight is always 20/20), and yet my words hadn't been entirely without merit. We had had a run of incidents with girls - all minor, but no one likes their child to be looked at as a bully or a troublemaker. The problem was that when he played with boys, they all ran around, roared a lot, crashed into each other, and laughed like crazy. It's the funnest game in the world to them. But then he would do the same thing with girls and it would inevitably end in tears and wails of "Mooooommy, he HIT me!" or "Daaaaaddy, that boy is CHASING us and YELLING at us!"

And my boy would be left standing there looking confused and ashamed.

Now sure, there are girls who like to play rough-and-tumble like that, and there are boys who don't like it all. We just hadn't met any at that point, and it was that stretch of crying girls and glaring mothers that led to the "ask before you chase" rule. I'd like to say it resolved everything, but it's an ongoing learning experience for both of us, mother and son. When all the kids build a castle together, and the girls in the group want to play in it while the boys want to knock it down, who gets their way?

But this isn't about that. This is about the bigger picture. Is gender neutral, or are there inherent differences between the two?

During a discussion on a post over at The Parent Vortex, Michelle shared this tidbit that I thought really summed things up:
Much like race, gender is one of those things that people like to say, “It doesn’t matter!” but the fact remains that people from different races look different from each other, and people of different genders look different too. Pretending that it doesn’t matter doesn’t make those differences go away.

"Pretending that it doesn’t matter doesn’t make those differences go away."

There has been a lot of talk lately about the parents who are keeping their baby's gender a secret. If I may speak to the idea, simply for the sake of discussion and not standing in judgement of the parents, it seems to me that an attempt to raise a “genderless” child actually draws more attention to the child’s (unknown) gender. The parents want to negate the effects of gender and yet in trying to do so, they make gender a far bigger deal than it need be. It seems it would be very confusing for the child and siblings in question.

Speaking in general terms, I feel as though gender neutrality is so heavily pushed now, particularly in certain circles, that kids are actually discouraged from being interested in traditionally “gendered” activities. I question the health in that, as I feel it promotes a lot of unnecessary shame. Letting a child choose his or her activities, clothing, toys, and so on is a far cry from pushing him or her towards or away from an activity just because it considered “boyish” or “girly” – whether that activity be traditionally associated with the same sex or the opposite sex.

I actually see a strong parallel to religious fundamentalism, only instead of “avoid all appearance of evil”, there’s a push to “avoid all appearance of gender”. Instead of seeing sin in everything, they see “gender” in everything. It’s a strange paradox, that the desire to encourage gender neutrality often results in an unnatural hyperfocus on gender itself. I see it, like religious fundamentalism, leading to a great deal of unnecessary frustration and confusion for children – girls feeling like they have to apologize for liking pink and frilly things; boys who feel pushed away from traditionally “boyish” pursuits.

There is also the other side of the same coin, where children who like things that don’t traditionally “match” their sex are held up as examples in the gender versus sex debate. Mothers pat themselves on the back for accepting their “cross-gendered” five year old, usually boys who like pink or want to wear dresses. And yet for the boy who hasn’t had it shamed or bullied out of him, it’s completely normal. Lots of boys like to dress up in princess dresses. It’s sparkly and bright and fun. It’s not gender exploration, it’s just childhood. Making a big deal out of – whether to encourage or discourage it – is entirely unnecessary.

I think there is a great deal of merit in allowing your children to choose their own activities, hairstyles, toys, clothes, etc, without regard to traditional gender lines. Absolutely. My boys play with cars and carry their dolls around in baby slings. My older one has only recently decided his favourite colour is no longer pink, but it's definitely still up there. He's absolutely insistent that he's going to be a Mommy when he grows up. It's not because he's "gender confused", it's because he identifies most strongly with me and wants to be able to have babies and breastfeed just like I do. He had hair longer than mine at one point, and is currently growing it out again because he wants it long. No big deal. He’s not gender confused, he just wants long hair. My aunt who teaches kindergarten often talks about the little boys who are so excited over all the pink princess stuff they get to play with at kindergarten – not gender confused, just enjoying the fun.

Allowing kids that sort of freedom is awesome. Making a big deal out of it or hyperfocusing on the issue? Not so much.

What do you think about the topics of gender neutrality and gender differences?


  1. This is such a great post! You have added some much-needed sanity to the discussion.

    Did you hear about the J. Crew ad a few months ago, with a mom painting her young son's toenails? The outcry was ridiculous, yet so are those who are "gender-blind." I hope you don't mind if I think to this over on my own blog.

    BTW, I found your blog a couple of months ago and immediately added it to my reader! Good stuff.

  2. Love this post. And I agree completely. While I try to avoid certain "gendered pitfalls" in our house - mainly TV and especially commercials, I try to let my kids just be my kids.

    Gender's going to be there one way or the other. I was a TomBoy, but I loved princesses. People get a little too hung up on childhood preferences. I 6 year old boy OR girl's interest in princesses isn't determinative of their adulthood.

    All that said, I think I visibly cringed when Punky asked to join cheerleading. And I said no. But the explaination I gave her was 1) cost, and 2.) the issues we had with ballet and gymnastics. Still, deep down I just couldn't say yes to it. When she's old enough to buy the uniform herself, she can join whatever she wants - the same way that I was allowed to dye my hair blue when I got a job to pay for the dye.

  3. I am all for giving children the freedom to grow express them selves and try things.

    I think it naturally becomes apparent that there are differences between boys and girls. We need to nurture the differences while equally loving and supporting our kids.

    I cannot speak to all the wacky things going on from all sides but wow yes it is an interesting time we live in.

    I have a younger brother he played with my dolls but I never painted his nails. I am raising a daughter.

    It has been an adventure! She decided when she was a preschooler that dress made the scene. One day she came to me sporting a backwards cap, jeans and sneakers. Her boy look.

    Then she changed to a frilly dress with a purse. This was her going girly. Ok was all I said.

    Since then she has given up pink and dresses for the most part but she loves to do hair and make up.

    We discuss these gender bender issues presented in media and life as we meet people from all points on the gender spectrum.... I teach her what the Bible has to say about who we are and what God wants for us.

    She knows there is freedom of expression inside the basic rules for living.

  4. I think you said it perfectly with this: "It's not because he's "gender confused", it's because he identifies most strongly with me [...]."

    Raiden wants to wear make-up when he sees me putting it on, and I'll put on a little pink eye shadow, no problem. He just wants to do what Mommy is doing, the same way he wants to use tools like Daddy. He's too young to know about social constructs around gender, he's just being a kid.

  5. Yes, Natalie, I do remember that ad - and the ridiculous outcry that followed! What a perfect example of overreacting to something benign because it doesn't line up with a particular cultural gender stereotype.

    Colleen, we avoid TV as well and I think it makes a notable difference in his ability to enjoy what he likes instead of what he feels he should like. Interesting that you should bring up cheerleading. I can see myself cringing at that too, as much as I like to say my children can pursue their own interests. I'm not sure what I would ultimately decide...

    Christian Single Mom, "freedom of expression inside the basic rules for living" - I like that! I wonder if you'd be interested in expanding more. I'm curious as to what you teach the Bible has to say about who we are and what God wants for us.

    Karyn, I think a combination of that "wanting to do what Mommy does" and "ooh, something new and interesting" really covers almost all of it. You better believe if my boy knew about nailpolish, he'd think it was the funniest idea ever, and he'd beg me to paint his nails - and knowing him, he'd probably pick pink!

  6. Love this post. Very wonderful!

    God created each person idividually, and we have always allowed our children to be who God created them to be. I think hiding gender from a child can do severe dammage to the child and family because it could make them think that how God created them is wrong. God doesnt make mistakes. I have never forced Tonka trucks on my boys, or Barbie dolls on my daughter. They have naturally gone to these things, however, my daughter loves to play Spiderman, jump off the furniture and get muddy with her brothers and my sons love to play with dolls, play "Daddy" and be compassionate and gentle. My two year old boy LOVES his toenails painted and I would never tell him no, and I see nothing wrong with it. Its beautiful letting them be KIDS and having fun with life, because lets face it, when they become adults it may not be so cozy anymore. The world is a scary place.

    Also if you dont mind, can I link this post to my blog as well? I would love to share it with my friends. Thanks so much, keep up the good work!

  7. What a beautiful way to phrase it, BarefootButtercup. Just let them be kids and have fun with life! Most of our kids will "fit" the stereotypes in some ways and defy them in others, and that's perfectly fine.

    And no, I don't mind you linking to this post at all. Thank you!

  8. I meant to say, too, and then forgot, that we've noticed since Raiden was little, and since his Kung Fu playmate Kes (a girl) was little, that they just inherently play differently. Raiden is all boy and likes to knock things over and run and chase and wrestle, and likes swords and guns. (Ugh, guns. Let me tell you that was NOT encouraged, at least by me. Possibly by FIL.) Kes is more gentle with things and likes to play at taking care of things. Last night there may or may not have been several incidents where Kes was building herself a house out of puzzle-piece floor mats, and Raiden kept destroying it. (In regards to your "who gets their way on how to play?" question, I told Raiden that since Kes asked him to stop, he needed to respect her wishes. It wasn't so much about who got their way as it was respecting the wishes of others.) As a compromise, I built him a house to tear down, and then taught him how to rebuild it himself.

    Though at the same time, Kes likes to jump off of things and do somersaults and chase Raiden around the school, and Raiden likes to have tea parties with MIL's dolls.

    But, what if MIL didn't have the dolls and tea sets available for him?

    Rich had Raiden at the mall play area once, and came home very annoyed with a mother who was there. Raiden and her little girl were chasing each other and waving their arms around and being crazy; the mom told her daughter to put her hands in her pockets because girls don't play like that.

    I think there are inherent differences in how girls and boys (typically) like to play, but I also think it depends on the parents offering them a broad spectrum of opportunities and allowing them to just be kids.

  9. my husband feels uncomfortable with seeing his boys dressed up like girls and politely tells them to to dress up in different diguises a lot of the time lol. I have seen gender differences. A woman snapped at me for not allowing my three year old play with his big sis's toys, but he loved taking apart her toys, barbie heads and all. Then he would use her barbie jeep as a skateboard and ruined the windsheild. That is the only reason the boys aren't allowed to play with her toys in my house, and I let the woman know that, but she wasn't very convinced. The boys pretended to nurse when I had my youngest. Girl or boy would pick up a stuffed animals and dolls and walk around with it clutched to their chest. I thought that was sweet. =) I think I even kinda miss those days lol.

  10. Sunrise. That happens a lot in my house too. My boys can be quite destructive and my daughter has lost some precious things to her.

  11. I believe that there are certainly differences in each individual child. However, in the case of those people who are trying to hide the gender of their child, I think it's utterly ridiculous. It is either a boy or a girl. To create an climate of secrecy around that, is to tinge part of the essence of who they are as problematic or dicey. Why would someone do that? I'm sure they feel they are doing something enlightened. I just think it's ridiculous to try and wish away the fact that there are two genders. It's diminishing and blurring and unnecessary. What an amazing thing it is to allow your children to explore all their options...but, not treat their gender like it's a skeleton in the closet.

  12. Sunrise, I always thought it was adorable when my older boy nursed his dolls (and animals and cars and firetrucks!) too. Sweet memories!

    Aleisha, yes, yes, yes! Let them explore, but don't pretend gender doesn't exist or is something to hide.

  13. I shared this on my blog, and quoted you too. again, very great post!!!

  14. I was just discussing this with my hubby. We have two girls, and I want them to have the freedom to dress/play/be however they want. And my husband, Ed does too. But he thew in the caveat, that if they're going to choose something very outside of the norm, he thinks we need to prepare them that people will react to them differently. This really struck me. I want them to be able to do whatever they want to do. But I don't want people to be mean to them. But I can't imagine helping them pick out clothes in the morning, and warning them that they might get made fun of if they wear that. I want to protect them, but I don't want to teach them to consider how others will react when they make choices. Its an interesting dilema. On a different note, I feel like its easier for girls culturally right now. It seems they have acceptance regardless of what they choose than the little boy who wants to wear a dress. You know?

  15. Jessica, that is an interesting facet of the whole gender discussion. I've given that a lot of thought as well, but have no answers. I think a frank discussion is in order for the child who wants to eschew "the norm", but perhaps only as issues arise rather than preemptively.

    As for girls having it easier in our current culture (as far as this topic goes), I do agree. It is generally acceptable for a girl to be a "tomboy", but both children and adults alike seem far less comfortable with a boy who enjoys traditionally "girly" pursuits. Boys (as a whole) are also at a severe disadvantage in the public school system. The movement and energy of boys seems frowned upon in most environments. It can be very frustrating and discouraging.

  16. Great post! I'm glad you left your link for me. You made so many great points.

  17. I totally agree with this. It's funny, before this seemed to be such a big deal in the media my family was dealing with it. Members of our family had huge problems with the fact that my brother liked playing with dolls, would fake breastfeed his doll, wanted to (and would) dress up in mine and my Mom's clothes. The thing is, he lived only with women, so of course he'd want to mimic us.

    My Grandmother actually made the mistake of saying something (to my brother no less) a few years ago about being gay because he wanted to take ballroom dance.

    He's 16 now, and he's not still wearing dresses, or playing with dolls. He is very interested in girls.

    It's interesting to me how much emphasis is put on the gender specific toys etc. for kids. I've always found it to be meaningless.

  18. There is a lot of inherent sexism in the gender debate - girls are allowed (even encouraged) to be tomboys; boys are discouraged from playing with 'girl' toys, and where does that come from if not from a wider society that is uncomfortable with femininity, and views it as inferior to masculinity?

    Children are born with inherent qualities. Gender has nothing to do with it. Gender divides (pink for girls, blue for boys) are cultural constructs, nothing more. We start to socialise our children into gender at an incredibly young age, usually without even realising it; but that doesn't mean these things are natural or inherent.

    Had I been there when you told your son that girls don't like playing chasey, I would've taken my child away in disgust (and to keep myself from yelling at you). You perpetrated the myth of girls as passive - certainly something that has historically been destructive to women (think Chinese foot-binding, where the passivitiy of women was fetishised). No doubt you will think I'm a shrew, a harpie, perhaps even a bitch (all words that have no masculine counterpart, by the way - because after all it's not bad for men to speak out) for saying this, when he's only little and it was just one little comment - but it was a terribly destructive one, all the same.

  19. With regards to the parents you discuss - These parents have a right to keep their child's sex private, to allow their children to develop their own gender identity. A basic principle in Queer Studies is that we are born with a biological sex (our sexual organs, our XX or XY chromosomes) - almost all of us have a clear, determinate sex. We develop a gender identity, which, again, is a cultural concept. For most of us, our sex and gender match; but there is a large minority where that is not the case.

    Speaking for myself, I was thrilled when my then-3 year old started to identify as a girl, because her sex is female, and having a sex and gender that match is infinitely easier. She also loves chasing games and playing with trucks - once, in a toy store, she was looking at a truck longingly and then stopped herself because "only boys can play with trucks." Again we see the socialisation of gender: this is a concept that came to her through her friends at preschool; even at her young age, peer pressure is strong to conform to 'girl toys.'

    Our 2 year old who is biologically male does not have a clear gender identity yet. The law of averages tells us he'll identify as a boy. But he has a 4 year old cousin who is biologically female, but identifies as a boy. He has a great-uncle who is genetically female. He has two parents who have done Queer Studies and Women's Studies up the wazoo and don't particularly care, either way (although we hope he identifies as a boy because we want our kids to have an easy life).

    And of course sexual identity is another kettle of fish altogether.

  20. "We start to socialise our children into gender at an incredibly young age, usually without even realising it; but that doesn't mean these things are natural or inherent."

    Excellent point. The "without even realising it" part is particularly important to this discussion. I think we agree more than you realize. :)

    As for being disgusted, I wouldn't have blamed you at all - I was disgusted with myself. Which was really the whole point! I can assure you it wasn't the end of the discussion, and was only one comment in a long line of conversations I have had and will continue to have with my son regarding gender and cultural constructs.

    (And on an unrelated note, why is it that the only disparaging comments I get are from people posting anonymously? It's very frustrating!)

  21. One last comment - regarding boys and their 'natural' energy - If any child is disruptive to others, you are doing that child a disservice to dismiss it as "natural boy energy". Children must be taught that destroying other people's property is NOT acceptable - nor is disrupting a classroom. This is not a gender thing; you are doing your boy a disservice if you see it in those terms. It is simply a part of teaching children to be respectful adults. It's like parents of children with disabilities who let the kids run wild because "he's special needs" - so freaking what? Your kid can still be taught that some behaviors are unacceptable. That isn't you 'impeding' his natural self; it's you respecting the rest of society.

  22. Regarding the parents keeping their child's sex private, of course it is their right to do so. I would never suggest otherwise. I was questioning not their right, but rather the wisdom of it.

    I am aware of the difference between gender and sex, which is why I only referred to "sex" in regards to the parents who were keeping the sex of their child private. The rest of the time I was discussing gender. Sex is a very technical straight-forward term, whereas gender is the topic I was discussing.

    Where we do seem to disagree is whether gender identification can be set at such young ages. Gender seems to be very fluid for the first several years of life, so to have a four year old with the self-awareness necessary to identify as a gender different from his or her sex seems questionable, more a construct of environment than self-identity. I speak as one who has a child that age.

    As for your "natural energy" comment, I fail to make the connection between that and permitting any child to destroy the property of others or to disrupt a classroom. I wonder if you're reading more into something I said than is truly there. Respect for others and their property is of universal importance, and well-taught in my home. However, to ignore the inherent problems in asking children to sit for hours at a time is also to do a great disservice, regardless of whether you also acknowledge a gender bias within that system.

    I appreciate the points you have brought to this discussion; thank you for your input!

  23. "Where we do seem to disagree is whether gender identification can be set at such young ages."

    I don't entirely disagree. There is a difference, however, between being a tomboy and identifying as a male even though you are biologically female. Most would say my daughter is a tomboy, but she identifies strongly as a girl. My niece (we still use feminine pronouns when we talk to/about her) does not identify as a girl, but as a boy. She uses a boy's name and will not answer to her real name. If she is asked, she will say she is a boy. Her gender identity may not be fixed; but then again it may be.

    I see it in about the same terms as I see sexual identity: Some gay people will tell you they knew from a very early age that they were gay; some will tell you they didn't 'set' their sexual identity until they were young adults; and some will tell you that they aren't gay at all, they just happened to fall in love with someone of the same sex.

    Likewise I believe that some very young children will be set in their gender identity (my daughter certainly is); some will not 'set' until they are much older; and some will not 'set' at all, but will instead embrace a third gender or a non-gender.

    As far as 'natural energy' goes - someone raised the question about, Who wins out when a girl wants to build a tower and a boy wants to knock it down - thus making the assumption that boys are 'naturally' destructive. That is what I was objecting to. You do not let a boy be disrespectful of property or of people and dismiss it as 'natural boy energy'.

    Neither girls nor boys like to sit still for hours on end. But again, society expects passivity of girls, and not of boys. Is it damaging to children to be asked to sit still? Perhaps - who knows? But to frame it in terms of gender IS damaging. Girls are not naturally passive, any more than boys (which is to say, certainly, some girls are and some boys are too - but it is not universal to either sex - it is an expectation, a cultural constraint, of girls, but not of boys).

  24. BTW - I don't question the wisdom of people who choose to keep their child's sex a secret; I do however question the wisdom in publicising their decision. If that is their choice, that is fine, and I support it; but if they don't want their child's sex to be a big deal, then for goodness' sake don't write an article about what you're doing.

  25. My son has a friend who refuses to answer to his own name. My son himself insists he's going to be a mother when he grows up. I see these as all very normal parts of childhood. At the risk of sounding dismissive, which isn't where I'm going with this, I think that placing too much weight and importance on such things in young children can inadvertently create confusion for them. Take them at their word, yes, call them by their preferred name, but to place the weight of gender nonconformity on their young ever-changing shoulders is too much.

    At the same time, however, I do acknowledge that in regards to gender identity and sexual identity, there are many adults who say that they were certain of their nonconformity from a very young age. That really is veering off into a whole other topic, however. While interesting to discuss, I think there are simply too many factors and questions at play for any of us to speak with certainty on the issue.

    As far as the "natural energy" topic, I believe the scenario you mentioned was actually that of a group of children building a tower together, and the girls then wanting to play with it while the boys wanted to knock it down. I use "girls" and "boys" there as facts of the specific situation at hand, not as an assumption of gender expectations. If any child knocked down the tower of another child, that would absolutely be destructive and disrespectful, and to brush that off as "natural energy" would be wrong as well as damaging for both parties. What was being questioned were the many situations where children build something together, and one group wants to then play with it while another group wants to knock it down. It's fair enough to suggest that gender should not be dragged into the situation; however, it is also outside of my experience to find otherwise. In the situations we experienced, it was invariably the girls who wanted to play with the final product and the boys who wanted to knock it down. You protest my acknowledgement of the gender differences; I protest your assumption that a child who wants to knock things down is automatically "destructive", "disruptive", and "disrespectful".

    What do toddlers love to do? Build towers and knock them down, over and over, learning about gravity and honing their fine motor skills in the process. But when another child comes along and wants to play with the tower, suddenly the first child is "destructive" in his desire to knock it down. Why is it not the other child who is disrespectful in his/her insistence that the tower remain standing and used as a prop in a game of imagination?

  26. You talk about framing the school discussion in terms of gender as being damaging. I believe that to deny the gender bias is more damaging. I used to believe as you did once, that there were no differences, that it was all due to cultural constraints and allowances pushed on children from a young age. And then I had children. And my children interacted with other children. Suddenly all of those gender stereotypes seemed to have an undeniable basis in reality. There is cross-over, yes, absolutely. There are certainly cultural biases and expectations. But there also seem to be, even among parents like myself who deliberately avoid pushing their children into those stereotypes, some central essence that is different between the two. I was examining my shift from complete denial of those differences to questioning whether perhaps they did exist after all. It is a continual journey of self-examination to differentiate between nature and culture and to be sure we do not fall into the traps of the latter.

    My conclusion was that regardless of any difference between the two, just accepting our children and their preferences at face value is more productive and healthy than trying to either mold them into cultural gender constraints OR to push them so far away from those constraints that they feel they aren't free to embrace the things that are traditionally associated with their own gender. The rest of the discussion is merely (fascinating) gravy.

    As for publicizing the choice to keep a child's sex a secret, I wholly agree that it is unwise. However, even in the absence of that publicity, the choice itself would still draw a great deal of attention to the very thing that the parents want to play down. Family and friends will be watching the child closely, trying to figure out the sex, making assumptions, and generally just making the child's sex a central focus. Very counter-productive for parents who want that child to be raised without a focus on sex/gender alignment.

  27. A few points: First, you insist yet again that ("in your experience" - which you then try to pass off as universal) girls want to build towers and boys want to knock them down. And while you say that destruction isn't acceptable, you then go on to brush it aside as being acceptable, and even go so far as to argue that the child who does not want to knock it down (who, you have argued, is inevitably going to be a girl) is in the wrong. You are being highly inconsistent. What is more, you are being highly sexist, by insisting that 'the girl' must change to make way for the 'the boy'.

    If you do not see how that reinforces traditional gender stereotypes and 1950s style mysogony, you need to return immediately to Women's Studies 101.

    Secondly, you have only BOYS. How can you make a blanket statement about girls, when the only girls you know were not raised in your home, with your same gender norms (which, we have already established, really are rather primitive anyway?) I have one of each; and there is no substantial difference in their play that cannot be dismissed merely as a personality (and not a gender) trait. Both are equally wild, rambunctious, and destructive. Both are equally emphatic, loving, and tender.

  28. Furthermore - and no doubt this will be my last word on the subject; I think you are awfully close to banning me, which is, of course, your right - Your continued insistence that there is indeed a difference between the two genders (and I would point out that there are more than two genders) is downright harmful.

    It is harmful to children who don't comply to your gender rules. By insisting that there is something universal about gender, you are creating gender confusion in those children who do not conform to the norm.

    It is harmful to children who do comply, too, because by positing that some behavior/toys are 'for boys' and some are 'for girls', you necessarily limit play opportunities for those children who have a set gender identity. (My daughter sees herself as a girl - it has never fluctuated - and she wants to identify with other girls, who continually remind her that 'trucks are for boys'. While you may pat yourself on the back for not saying it out-right, you still have those basic assumptions, and children are terribly perceptive, and will pick up on them.)

    It is harmful for childrens' future development, who will carry this into their adulthood and continue to perpetrate the sexism that has harmed women and men through the ages.

    This is the same debate I have with my feminist friends on an almost weekly basis: IF there are gender differences, what are they? What is essential about the female or male gender, what is defining about it? Can you think of anything that is essential and/or defining that does not also exclude a large number of people who identify as girls?

    Find that. And then come back and argue that there are universal gender distinctions. But you won't find it - I've been looking for 10 years now. It doesn't exist.

  29. You misunderstand. I am not making my experiences into universal generalizations. I am in no way saying that all boys want to knock things down and all girls don't. I even took gender right out of it because I wanted to discuss the assumption that wanting to knock things down = destructive and disrespectful. You are reading far more into my words than is there, and you are convinced I believe things that I don't. This is becoming a rather unfruitful discussion, which is disappointing because I find the whole topic rather interesting and enjoyed the points you raised.

    No, "the girl" should not change for "the boy". What an extrapolation!

    "We" have not established that my gender norms are "rather primitive". You have grossly exaggerated my questioning the issues around gender. You seem to want to shut your eyes and cover your ears and deny the slightest possibility that there are inherent differences between the genders - far beyond any anecdotal ramblings about knocking down towers.

    You have also failed to acknowledge that I was making no such black-and-white claims, but merely questioning my original assumption that such differences did not exists. The only thing I have stated for certain is that we should neither push our children towards nor away from activities/toys/appearances/whatever, whether those things be "traditionally" associated with their sex and/or gender or not. If you would like to argue against that claim, by all means, I will hold to it. Beyond that, you are making (frankly insulting) extrapolations and accusations based on my ponderings and questions.

    Finally, it is certainly not my practice to ban people who have differing opinions that mine! I welcome the discussion. What I find frustrating is your insistence that I am making claims and holding beliefs which are in no way accurate of my true thoughts. I mean, my goodness, you're accusing me of the very things I argue against, that I argued against in this very post!

  30. But the thing is, you actually are arguing for all those things you claim to be arguing against.

    You cannot claim that 'in your experience' only girls want to build towers and only boys want to knock them down,and then argue that, by saying that the child who wants to build should make way for the child who wants to destroy, you aren't saying that the female behavior should make way for the male behavior.

    You cannot claim there is an essential gender difference (which you cannot describe or define, except by ancedotes) and then dismiss it as having no significance. If there is a difference, it must have some degree of significance.

    Frankly I don't think you even know what you believe. Certainly what you say, and what you profess to say, are so thoroughly at cross-points.

    Let's strip this down to its simplest terms: YOU are the person who is making the claim that there is an essential difference between the genders. For the sake of simplicity, we'll limit it to 'boy' and 'girl'. (I think there are something like 7 genders, but we'll ignore the others.)

    1. You are making the claim, the burden of proof is on you: What is/are the essential differences between boys and girls.

    2. Are those differences inclusive of all people who identify as either boy or girl, or do they exclude a large number of people who self-identify as boy or girl? (If they exclude a large number of people who identify as boy or girl, they must necessarily be dismissed, as they are clearly not an essential difference.)

    3. Can you prove that the differences are not merely cultural constraints? Can you apply them consistently, across cultures and throughout history? (If not, then they must necessarily be dismissed as 'essential differences'.)

    If you can answer the first one, I'll be surprised. If you can find an answer to the second or third one, you'll have the basis for your doctoral thesis - to my knowledge nobody has ever found a gender trait that is inclusive within and across cultural and historical context. In which I expect you to answer:

    4. What is the significance of these differences?

  31. "I don't think you even know what you believe."

    Yes! Now you understand! The only definitive claim I have made is that children should be free to explore their preferences without any gender constraints. The rest has been thoughts, questions, ponderings, and anecdotes - an exploration of "hey, I had this assumption of gender neutrality, and then my experiences seemed to contradict that. Why might that be?" You're saying it's entirely due to cultural constraints; I'm saying maybe it's more than that.

    "You cannot claim that 'in your experience' only girls want to build towers and only boys want to knock them down,and then argue that, by saying that the child who wants to build should make way for the child who wants to destroy, you aren't saying that the female behavior should make way for the male behavior."

    This is the sort of extrapolation I was referring to. Yes, in my experience, the girls want to play in the built tower and boys want to knock it down. That's all it is, my experience, and I repeated many times that I wasn't making universal assumptions based on it.

    Nor did I say that the child who wants to build should make way for the child who wants to knock down. I questioned why it's always the other way around. Why is knocking things down always destructive and disrespectful, even when the activity of knocking something down was interrupted by a child (of either/any gender) who wanted to play with the toy in a different manner?

    Excellent list of questions. That's the sort of discussion I enjoy! I certainly don't have answers, but will definitely utilize that well-laid out list of questions as I continue to explore this topic. Thank you for that valuable and considerate input.

  32. A question for you. If there is no inherent difference between the genders (that is what you are suggesting, correct?), then why have different genders? Different sexes, sure, but genders? You suggest there are as many as seven different genders (and yet only two different sexes), so what is it that makes gender 1 different from gender 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7? How can there be seven different genders if there are no inherent gender differences?

    I ask honestly, not as a challenge. :) I'd like to better understand where you are coming from.

  33. And in light of your admission that you cannot answer those questions, I submit that gender differences are cultural, and not essential.

    We cannot divorce ourselves from our larger culture. We birth our children into a culture that has a high level of gender divide, and then we pretend these differences are natural when our children start to reflect their larger culture. And then we reinforce these stereotypes on an almost daily basis, and act surprised when our children continue to conform.

    In my daily life, this certainly isn't something I stress about - I'm too busy trying to survive on 6 hours of sleep a night. My son dresses like a boy because that is the way the wider culture views him; because I have an expectation he will accept a male identity; and because we live in a community with very definite views of gender. I know enough transgendered people to feel confident that, if he is transgendered, that will come out, and I will not destroy it by assuming he's not.

    But in a theoretical sense - It really does bother me that it's okay to dress girls up in boy's clothes, and not vice-versa, because of the message that sends: that girls are inferior; that girls can seek to become more like boys, but there is something wrong with a boy becoming more like a girl. As long as that essential divide exists, we will continue to be 'less than,' as a society and as a culture.

    And yes, in a practical sense, I play into this too - My son wears pink pajamas, because they are still good and why buy him a new set of pajamas because they happen to be pink; but we take his pig-tails out before we go out in public. So yes, we are a part of the problem. I just don't think my children should hurt, because of my philosophical beliefs.

  34. You ask why gender differences exist - I posit it's because they are cultural constraints. Just as race is a cultural concept, so, too, is gender

    That doesn't mean there aren't biological differences between the races - certain ethnic groups look different or have different evolutionary advantages. Just as there are biological differences between the races, there are also biological differences between the sexes - most biological males have more testerone; most biological females don't have a penis. These things are common enough that we can call them, in a biological sense, 'norm', even though there are exceptions.

    But when it comes down to any difference that isn't firmly based on biology, that is purely cultural.

    There may be a biological basis for the cultural difference. For instance, the average man will generally have greater upper-body strength - biological fact - which plays into the cultural concept of man-as-pickle-jar-opener. But that doesn't then make it true that women are incapable of opening a jar of pickles - that is a cultural constraint.

    Now imagine there's a culture where pickles are used in female-only worship, and men aren't allowed to touch them. In such a culture children would grow up thinking that only women could open a jar of pickles. Their cultural concept would be women-as-pickle-opener.

    That's meant as a humourous example. In truth I doubt there is a parent alive who teaches their daughter that she needs a man to open the pickle jar. But we do teach our daughters that they need a man to protect them. We teach our daughters that they can't do as much as our sons. (My parents, for instance, taught me that I couldn't go overseas on my own, because I was a girl - they openly admitted that if I was a boy they wouldn't have a problem with it. I ignored them and went anyway.)

    It may not hurt, in the long run, to say to a boy, "No, you can't wear a dress," or to say to a girl, "No, you can't play with a tonka truck." Certainly it's not fair or (in my opinion) right; but it's probably not fundamentally damaging.

    But it IS fundamentally damaging to go too far down the line of 'essential gender differences' - to say that women can't study science or math, or can't buy a house, or manage money.

    To some extent I am against the idea of essential geneder differences because it is too much of a slippery slope. It's also true to say that I simply do not see them; but if we are willing to accept them in children, it's not that big of a leap to accept them in adults. And that damages all of us.

  35. For all of the accusations you leveled at me for merely discussing these issues in a theoretical sense, I was surprised to hear you admit that you play into such cultural constructs in a very practical sense. Interesting.

    I could not agree with you more on the idea that it is more culturally acceptable for a girl to become more "like a boy" than it is for a boy to become more "like a girl". It is a shameful reflection on the continued lower status and value placed on women in our society.

    While I feel this discussion is nearing its natural end, I would appreciate some clarification on a couple of points you made. You have stated that gender is nothing more than a cultural construct; how then does that play into your statement that there are as many as seven genders?

    I can see now why you balk at the discussion of gender differences. It seems we've been speaking of very different things. You talk about teaching our daughters that they need a man to protect them or that they can't do as much as boys. I'm sorry that you were told that. I would never for a second suggest any such thing to a daughter of mine, and I feel quite sure you wouldn't either. Those sorts of biases are clearly cultural, much like the outdated "trucks are for boys" stereotype. (My son would give you a blank look if you asked him about boys toys versus girls toys. The idea has never come up, likely because he doesn't attend preschool and we tend not to hang around with the sorts of people who still think there are "boys toys" and "girls toys".)

    When I was talking about gender differences, on the other hand, I was talking about something far more undefinable, an "essence" that seems to differ between the two. The idea that the difference would be somehow based in biology was a given to me - some combination of hormones and brain function that affects the way an individual thinks and interacts with the world. Again, I am not saying there IS any such gender-specific difference. I'm wondering if there could be. There are certainly enough studies suggesting as much, though the brain is so complex that differentiating between nature and nurture is no easy task.

    You place the burden of proof on me, as I am the one making the claim, but the fact is that neither of us can "prove" anything. If years of research have not conclusively determined anything, you and I surely can't claim to be certain about our positions.

  36. I understand a fear of a slippery slope; however, I would hesitate to (pardon the cliché) throw the baby out with the bathwater. The possibility of using an inherent gender difference to further repress one gender or the other does not negate the possibility of using the knowledge of such a difference to improve education, therapy, and a host of other areas where a gender bias seems to exist.

    If there is no underlying difference between genders, then what exactly is a "transgendered" person? Your suggestion seems to be harshly dismissive of their experiences. If gender is merely cultural, then a transgendered person is merely someone who relates more to the superficial traits that culture stereotypes as belonging to the opposite gender. If there is no underlying inherent difference between the two (seven?) genders, then being transgendered is really a non-issue - non-existent, even, just someone who prefers the things culture ascribes to the opposite gender. As someone who knows many transgendered individuals, what exactly is it that they don't "match"? Merely cultural constraints - in other words, if placed in a culture with different cultural constraints, they may feel that they are, after all, the gender that matches their sex?

    The longer I consider your arguments, the less likely it seems that there isn't something beyond culture that makes one "male" or "female". I'm not talking about toys or activities or professions. I'm talking about something undefined or undefinable that makes one identify as one gender or the other (or neither/both, as the case may be). If it's merely culture, then immersing oneself in another culture could affect not solely one's gender roles, but one's entire gender identity. That is illogical. I am a woman, and I would continue to be so regardless of the gender constraints any particular culture placed on me. Upon finding myself in a culture where gender roles were reversed, I wouldn't suddenly realize that I was male. I would still be female, my essence, regardless of the changing gender roles around me. I would submit that the same would be true for most (all?) other individuals who have assumed a particular gender.

    Regardless of culture, my gender is fixed. There must be something to gender that is outside of culture, greater than gender roles, not reliant upon a culture's gender constraints.

  37. I think you feel that I am saying that if something is a cultural concept, it isn't real. That's not what I mean at all. Many things are cultural constraints. They are still real. Our laws, for instance - most cultures have laws against murder, although punishment varies widely depending on the cultural concept of justice. Not all cultures have laws against theft (because property ownership is also a cultural concept). To give an example, my parents, as newleyweds, lived on a reservation. People would come into their homes and take things. To my parents, who are not indigenous, it was stealing; but to the indigenous people it was not, because their cultural concept of property is that it is communal, and not individual.

    Gender can serve an important cultural role. One example would be a gender in Samoa of biological men who identify as women. These individuals are an important part of many Samoan villages, functioning as 'aunties'. Another example would be 'secret men's business' and 'secret women's business' in Australian Aboriginal cultures, which cement cross-generational bonds and provide a way of transmitting cultural information.

    In my own culture it is harder for me to think of the positive aspects of gender, except on an individual level: I identify strongly with being a woman, too, and I would not want to be a man. But in my own life, being a woman doesn't serve any sort of concrete social function. I can't explain *why* I like being a woman, I can't even explain *what it is* that makes me feel like a woman (once you take my sex out of the equation, obviously) I just do.

    On a broader society-wide level, though, I think insisting on gender differences does more harm than good. It denies our daughters the chance to access an essential part of themselves; and it denies our sons the chance to access an essential part of themselves.

    To give one example - My husband is a stay at home dad. The cultural expectation is that I would the nurturer; but he is better at it. Many people are uncomfortable with our choice. Quite a few of my female friends in their 30s said, "How can you trust him to look after your baby?" Their cultural expectation was that men can't parent. This is endlessly damaging to men, who are quite capable of parenting; it is also damaging to women, who feel more strongly that it is their responsibility to carry alone.

    And of course the idea that men are incapable of parenting is a cultural concept. It is based on biology (women carry babies; women nurse babies) but that does not make it 'essential' to a definition of womanhood as a culture: Many women who identify strongly as women, will never have children; nor will biological men who identify as women. "Women as nurturer" is a cultural concept; there are cultures were men are the primary caregivers; there are also plenty of examples in our own culture where men have raised their children alone.

    You raise the questions of transgendered people in a cross-cultural context. I honestly don't have the answers. Gender, once it is set, seems to be 'set' permenently, despite the cultural context.

    In my own life I have had the experience of living in a few different cultures. I have always felt like a woman. What that means however has changed, sometimes drastically, from culture to culture. In my life now, my womanhood is just a part of who I am. When I was a student in Egypt it, and my skin color, became the defining part of who I was: they were no longer part of a larger parcel; but they were *the* parcel. It was difficult to make the adjustment from being a woman, and not really having that matter; to it being the most important thing about my personhood. It was uncomfortable. To be a woman in Egypt is different than to be a woman in the US.

  38. No, not that they aren't real, I wouldn't say. But those sorts of things - laws, culture-defined gender roles, etc - are external forces that serve to alter our behaviour. The sort of difference I was referring to is an internal one, the sort of difference that leads you and I to say that regardless of the society we live in and their unique gender constraints, we would still continue to be "female" on a gender level (beyond physical sex).

    If there were no difference between the genders, that would not be the case. "Transgendered" would be a meaningless term. Our gender identity would shift according to the cultural context we found ourselves in. There is something that differentiates between a man and a woman.

    What that difference is, how it plays out practically, and what meaning it has on our lives...all interesting and important questions, and beyond any immediate answer I could hope to provide.

  39. "If there were no difference between the genders, that would not be the case. "Transgendered" would be a meaningless term. Our gender identity would shift according to the cultural context we found ourselves in. There is something that differentiates between a man and a woman."

    That would only be the case if we did not have a culture. But we all live in a culture, we are immersed in it. We are a part of our culture; we are not distinct or apart from it (no matter how much we might try, it is still a part of us and we are still a part of it). And we carry that culture and its assumptions and expectations with us into other interactions; we never completely leave it behind.

  40. Great great great post, I actually just wrote my very first blog post today and it happened to be about gender neutral!!