Buckle up, dear readers. We’re going to talk about gender. Wait, don’t close the browser window yet! Hang with me, and I think we can get through this without losing our minds.
I had a conversation yesterday with a friend whose little girl is a bit of a tomboy. She has more than once expressed a wish to be a boy, which in some families might induce panic and in others send a parent out to buy a new wardrobe. My friend is a wise and experienced mother, however, and has calmly given her daughter room to explore the things she enjoys, free of any gender-related pressure. You don’t have to like frills, she assures her daughter.
Our society has made a mess of gender. Some strange collusion of marketing, parenting and sex and gender politics has narrowed the gender world for our children to what can only be described as a pigeonhole. In that context, significant numbers of boys and girls inevitably are going to be left wondering where they fit in. All it takes is a trip down a few toy aisles to see what I mean. What message is a little girl getting if she really wants the latest monster trucks or construction toys? How long does it take for a boy to understand he’s not supposed to like dolls or sometimes putting on the princess dress? My son’s favorite colors have changed every few weeks for years, but at four, he came home from preschool with the understanding that pink was a girl color. I assured him that he can like any color he wants, but imagine how those messages accumulate from the time our kids are too young to know what it means.
Please don’t misunderstand: I am not trying to explain gender dysphoria, transgenderism, sexual identity or any related complexities. I am not even remotely qualified to address those issues with any authority. What I can address is the world in which I am raising my children, and the issues I face as a parent. This includes pervasive societal pressure to accept a ridiculously narrow definition of gender and worry or label if our kids stray outside those boundaries.
People, can’t we all agree to ditch these artificial definitions? Some girls love frills and pink and naturally gravitate to dolls and dress-up and tea parties. There is nothing wrong with that. But let’s not discourage them from also loving cars and trucks, dirt, sports or roughhousing, or make those who do feel as if they don’t belong. Some boys naturally thrive on wildly physical shenanigans, loud and aggressive games and the world of bash-’em-up Matchbox cars and superhero escapades. But what of the ones who love putting on mom’s high heels, enjoy a good tea party, tenderly rock babies and stuffed animals to sleep or pretend to whip up a good omelette? Are they any less boys? There is an endless combination of all these things and many more, so beautifully varied and individual, a kaleidoscope of personality and experience in every child. Yes, there are basic differences between the genders, and I don’t mean to imply otherwise. However, we live in a time of false dichotomy, where everything is arranged in opposition to something else. Life doesn’t often work that way. Kids naturally try things on, testing what fits, imitating the many adults in their lives. The best way to make an issue where there isn’t one is to overreact to that natural process and impose our own fears or assumptions on children who are – and should be – endlessly testing and becoming.
Earlier this week, my son wore a pair of princess dress-up heels and superhero underwear in an imaginary game I did not attempt to understand. He likes pretty things and has a baby doll he occasionally plays with. He wishes to have his nails painted when I paint mine. He sometimes plays family with his friends on the playground, and other times he plays soccer. He spends hours with his cars, planes and trains in games that regularly turn raucous, and his imaginary worlds often involve good guys and bad guys and what he gleefully labels “violence.” Lina has a dollhouse and lots of babies she adores, but she also loves block towers and the occasional toy car demolition derby. She is often rambunctious in her play. She likes books about farm equipment and trucks that get stuck. These are their idiosyncrasies, the wild cocktails that comprise my children. The world has plenty to say about expectations and normalcy (whatever that is). But for now, I still have some ability to hold those messages at bay and let my children discover for themselves what brings them joy and who God designed them to be.