Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Enforcers

I have discussed before the Boy's more feminine tastes. He likes things that are more often associated with girls than boys. The other day he asked me to watch him twirl on one foot. After I offered my praise he told me it was a trick only girls could do but not boys. I said that both boys and girls can do almost anything. He countered that the twirl was not one of those things and the only reason he could do it was because he was a ballerina. And so it goes...

This leads to an interesting discovery. Despite his continuing interest in those things society calls girlish, he has, of late, been more adamant regarding distinctions and limitations of gender. He got in an argument with his sister the other day regarding the wearing of necklaces. His sister had announced that anyone could wear a necklace. He argued forcefully that only girls could wear them. This disagreement went on and on (arguing anything with a two year old is a mistake.) I finally stepped in on the side of the Girl and told him that girls and boys could wear necklaces. He still would not believe me. I asked him how he knew this and he told me he had heard it at school. "From whom," I queried. "From Riley and Katy," he said, as if two 4 year old girls in his class were the final word. I just told him they were wrong.

The problem is that this is just one example and all of the gender limits he is picking up at school are coming from girls. They are the ones telling him he can't wear a necklace, or like the color pink, or be a ballerina. The boys in his class say nary a word. That's surprising. I would have expected the cultural rules for gender to be laid down by the boys in his peer group - that they would apply the pressure that forced him into the stereotype. But all indications suggest they are utterly accepting of his atypical choices. They like him regardless. It's those girls that are slapping expectations on him. The Rileys and the Katys and the Graces are the ones setting the boundaries. They are the ones telling him "no." They are the ones protecting their turf.

He remains well-liked by both genders and even the girls who disapprove of his interests seem to delight in his company. They are the ones who play with him regularly. They remain his friends.

For ages I had blamed males for the gender-enforcement that has limited us in the choices we make in life. But maybe I have it wrong. Those girls seem pretty intent on setting and enforcing the rules for what is masculine and what is feminine. They are the power.

I just hope he can resist.

So I write this post this morning and this afternoon I have an email in my garbage email box. When the boy was born I signed up with some group that sent out weekly updates regarding what the standard was for children as they age: this week your child is probably sitting up, this week your child is probably distinguishing strangers from from more familiar faces, this week your child's poo smells worse - that sort of thing. I almost never read them anymore and once the child reaches one year they only come monthly. The subject header on the one I got today caught my interest though: "Girls will be Girls."

I popped it open and here's its very topical contents:

At 4, kids' notions of gender roles are becoming more defined. A daughter, for example, knows Dad's a boy, she's a girl, and she's working on figuring out what dads do differently from moms. She may not be entirely clear, though, that all moms are female and all dads are male. While she can identify males and females by their dress and general appearance, she can still be fooled. If she sees a man wearing a kilt or sporting a ponytail — exceptions that go against the "rules" she's absorbed over time — she may think he's a woman or that his gender can change.

As children observe and imitate people of the same sex, they may adopt stereotypical attitudes in an effort to get the role just right. They may express disdain for a girl who plays football or for a boy who wants to play with the girls. Even in families that have tried to provide lots of gender-neutral play, this age brings out exaggeratedly stereotyped behaviors and attitudes like, "Girls never do that!"

While accepting such stereotypes is normal for a child this age, you can encourage your child to see beyond labels. Question any generalizations your child may make or hear in the media. If your son says, "Girls can't play hockey," show him pictures of the women's Olympic team. Remember, too, that parents often unwittingly reinforce gender stereotypes. Do you compliment your daughter on her appearance rather than her actions? Do you tell your son to toughen up when he cries?

Many parents are surprised to find their sons cross-dressing at this age during play, but there's no reason to think it means anything about their sexual orientation. Four-year-olds like to copy one another and build on one another's imaginary play scenes. Gender is very much an evolving concept at 4.

I think its primary aim is to allay fears for parents of children stepping out of their gender roles. Still not much help.

1 comment:

Bluestem said...

Tell him Riley and Katy have problems with sharing. Are they calling dibs on all the fun colors, too? How obnoxious.