Sequins ( or pink nail polish) don't make you gay

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


or an Early Childhood Education guide to gender identity development. (which hardly seemed a glamorous and exciting title)

As a teacher of young children, I can not tell you how many times I had to face a father who walked in at the end of a long work day to see his son - festooned in glittery hand-me-down dance outfits, in heels with purse, playing joyously in the dramatic play area.

There was more than one that I had to step in front of before he barreled towards his son to rip the costume off the three, or four, or five year old child's body.

Moms weren't exempt either, and I fielded my share of questions about their sons love of nail polish, or their daughters rejection of dresses and insistence on short hair and Spiderman shirts.

First of all, lets be clear. Adults are Adults. Our minds race to places about sexuality, picking up on the way all our hopes/fears/biases/shame along the way. That is how adults think.

Children do NOT think like this. NOT AT ALL. Their default mode of thinking is "Does that look fun?", "Will I enjoy that?", "Can I join a friend in playing if I decide to be in the dramatic play area?" Questions or concerns about sexual orientation does not immediately (*normally) enter their minds. It is, quite simply, not a concern.

From the moment of birth, children are bombarded with messages about their assigned gender. We dress them in specific clothes. We give them specific toys. Back in the late 80's when I first starting working with Infants and Toddlers, I would laugh because diapers were being sold in Blue and Pink. Ostensibly they were "designed" differently...but they weren't. It was a gimmick. Apparently if you put your child in the correct color diaper, you could assure their proper gender orientation...

Along with trying to control their gender orientation by colored diapers, we surround them by the gender roles and identities of the people who are caring for them. They initially learn what women "do" by watching their mother and other female family and caregivers. Same goes with Men. They learn what men "do" by observing the interactions of their fathers and other male family and caregivers. They hear messages like "Big Boys don't cry" or "Big Girls get to wear Pretty Dresses!" constantly.

Infants and Toddlers are amazing observational instruments. Anyone who has watched a child emulate - pitch perfectly - the tone of voice or facial expression of someone they love will know this without a doubt.
By age 5, most children have a pretty solid idea of what their gender identity is - externally. They can tell you if they are a boy or a girl. They can tell you what things "boys" do or like and what things "girls" do or like.

They don't have reasons for these beliefs, of course, just the vague reinforced notion of certain things being masculine or feminine. They may know that boys seem to be defined by a penis...and that girls don't have one.  Girls may be able to tell you about their labia or vagina or clitoris.

(Here is where I interject an editorial note: I believe 100% in teaching children proper names for ALL their body parts, including genitalia. Part of our shame based societal bullshit around sex starts when we call a penis a "Wang", a "Ding" or another of a billion names. Same with girls who are told that their labia is a "Hoo-Hoo" or "flower" or whatever else people might decide to name it. We don't disguise the name of an elbow, or nose or ear with made up words, why should genitalia be the one exception? Furthermore, when a child has multiple caregivers, as in child care, when a child comes to you and tells you her "butterfly" hurts - You have NO idea what she is telling you. Parents - Get Over Yourselves. )

It is in Play where you see real ideas about gender identity and roles storm out. In those dramatic play situations, when you watch a young boy "feeding" a baby by lifting up his shirt and placing the baby near his nipple. Does this boy think he is a girl? No, of course not. He is repeating what he has seen him Mom do with his baby sister. He is emulating CARING and CARETAKING. These are healthy and wonderful roles he is exploring.

Boys seem to bear the brunt of gender socialization in many ways, particularly in early childhood. Girls have a bit of a looser, paradigm to work within - for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that their conformity is bought in more subtle one on one vignettes. We can overlook a girl who doesn't want her fingernails painted, but a boy who constantly walks in with nail polish? People might Notice!

Young children emulate the people they love. The people they spend a majority of their days with, caring for them, feeding them, washing them, taking them for walks... They become the people they Love. The truth of it is that a crushing majority of those people are Women.

Now, let me be clear, I am in no way discounting the role that Dads play. There are some families in which Males ARE the caregivers or Dads are the stay at home parents. Dads may be BOTH parents for some children. Dads may be the bath givers and story readers at night time. But for the vast, vast, vast majority of children? Women fill those roles.

So when a young boy sees his Mom, or other beloved female, with painted nails, why wouldn't he want the same? When he sees Mom, or other beloved female, wear lipstick, nail polish or sparkley skirts or high heels...why wouldn't he? He Loves her. She is more than beautiful to him. Being THAT which he finds most beautiful feels good.

Plus, the "trappings" of femininity are more Fun, are they not? Color. Texture. Sparkle. Softness. Who isn't drawn to those things? Cripes I am 40 years old and I still get excited over these things!

What adults can do is to challenge children and themselves on what they think makes a "girl" or a "boy". I can't tell you how many times I would wear my Chuck Taylors and be told, with great authority, by the 5 year old boys that I was wearing BOY SHOES. Well, Why? Why are these boy shoes? We can agree that I am a girl and I am wearing these shoes, so it is certainly Possible for a girl to wear these shoes....

Push Back when you hear your child assert that some things are done by Moms and others done by Dads. Ask Why. Ask Why Not. Stretch those questions out into conversations about the width and breadth of what makes a male or a female.

Look at the books and shows your child is consuming. Do they assert strong (often stereotyped) gender roles? Ask your child what draws them to that character/show, and perhaps find or offer alternate images or storylines which assert a different version of events or ways to be strong.

book I have loved is this one:

I love that the Mom and Dad are kind of difficult to figure out Who is Who from the pictures. It was a really conscious decision on the part of the author and illustrator to play with a different View of feminine and masculine. ( And Yes, I really do think of all of these things when I pick up children's books. Its like some kind of ingrained radar....)

Allow children time and space to PLAY with gender roles. It is in Play that children work out the ideas by they are bombarded daily. In Play, they figure it out. Play WITH them. Listen to what they are saying and ask questions - without being afraid.

Understand that Gender is not Sexuality. Sexuality certainly becomes gendered...but children aren't there yet, at least not in the way adults understand it.

And that is perfectly Fine.

(* It is possible if a child has heard repeated conversations About adult sexuality, ie adult being verbally homophobic, that the child will associate specific ideas with sexuality. They might not entirely know what being a "fag" or "gay" means...but they know it isn't good and is something to be avoided at all costs)

Resources For Adults I Love:

Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards

Supporting Boys Learning: Strategies for Teacher Practice by Barbara Sprung, Merle Froschl and Nancy Gropper

Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the myths of boyhood by William Pollack ( the first book that made me cry when I realized that I had said some of the very same things to the young boys in my care)

The Wonder of Girls and The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian ( I like him because he presents the science of HOW the brain functions differently in each gender - we are Built differently, and that's OK - It just means that boys and girls learn differently and need differently things to help them learn)


Early Childhood Education: An International Encyclopedia Edited By Rebecca New and Moncrieff Cochran

In particular Sprung's chapter on Gender and Gender stereotyping and Gidney's chapter on Bullying.
(This comes in 4 volumes...You may have to seek out a library, or online article access)

10 Baleful Regards:

drhoctor2 said...

YES!! One of the gut punching moments raising my kids is that 4-5 year old brutal take on gender roles. I was not the only influence and I had to be active to knock those media/culture messages down.
I've been reading you for the longest time. You're on my most smartest list. Always impressive.

Simon said...

I agree. It's weird that we only use diminutive nicknames for our genitals, and not other body parts.

I'm having a tough time getting that one through my noggin. Thinking about weird things like that sure keeps me on my toesies. However, if I keep my peepers open, I may run into some counterexamples.

Oh! I did think of one exception. Some people call use the word "Schnoz" when referring to their nose.

Dawn said...

Why Thanks DrHoctor.

I think I got my kick when I had carefully provided Emily with only gender neutral toys - or ones to specifically encourage math/science thinking(like a set of maple blacks and montessori math and science sorters) and she ignored them all and obsessed on Disney Princesses.

And I had been talking with her since birth - every time Terrance would tell her she was a Pretty baby, I would be right behind him saying "You are smart and strong and capable!" - and still, I had a Tinkerbell flying through my house.

I think the best thing we can do for our own kids is to struggle with our understandings in front of them, if that makes any sense.


And Simon, I think the main disparity is that there is a common ( somewhat) language for other body parts - for genitals? Can be completely different from family to family

Gurukarm said...

Another FB friend posted about this yesterday, and I put this comment on his post: "My (now 17 yo) son used to let his older sister and her friends paint his fingernails when he was about 3 or so; when an older (boy) friend teased him about it, he stood his ground and would say "I YIKE it!"

I always thought it was so sweet, and didn't worry about "what it meant". I just found, in fact, a school picture from his Montessori school, at about that age, where you can clearly see the nail polish on his sweet little fingers :-)

We adults are so stupid to respond to kids' behaviours in sexualized ways, and, conversely, to buy into media's and clothing manufacturers/fashion industry's constant pushing sexualized clothing onto kids (read: little girls in particular, of course).

the mombshell said...

Nicknames for genitals drive me fucking nuts!!!!! Also of course you just summed up everything so nicely and awesome resources too. You should probably get yourself a tenure in a Faculty of Ed. somewhere in the GTA, Trent would be nice. I'll be ready to start my masters soon. Just saying.

Hillbilly Princess said...

I think the best thing we can do as parents is to give them the freedom to say "I YIKE it." I don't know if I hijacked your blog to complain before, but as a mom of boys, I will tell you that I feel it is definitely more difficult to protect them and allow them to decide what they like and want, and what is important to them when those things are traditionally "feminine" than it is for parents of girls who like things that are traditionally "masculine". We often encourage girls to embrace those things in the interests of feminism, but there's no corresponding drive to allow boys to explore. I get damn sick of telling people to butt out when my boys, my youngest especially, constantly challenge gender roles. And I am so proud of them, because 9 times out of 10, they do stand their ground and simply say they like it, but I hear the world creeping in sometimes when my oldest starts with "That's a GIRL thing."

Dawn said...

Gurukarm, I love that image.

Oh Mombshell, I wish. I keep sending my CV's but No luck. I don't have enough "experience" as a Professor so I am not an attractive hire. Sigh. Some day a dept will take a chance on a new Professor.

HB, I think in many ways you are correct. Gender conformity is demanded of boys and girls in different ways. Girls pay a price too, but differently and, like I wrote, it is bought in "smaller" on on one interactions - More often with other girls/women who are brutal and a great deal more quiet about their brutality.

Many boys have to develop their gender identity in opposition to their main caregiver - Mom/Female. The very definition of the OTHER is a different process than that of Young Girls.

But I do think that boys have a hard road in an educational system which values and rewards "feminine" energy over their own.

roo said...

Well, as a little girl who loved pink flowers and lace, I felt traumatized by the short haircuts mom gave, the black leotards for the dance class with all the pink ballerinas, being addressed as "Young Man" even when I wore a skirt and Mary Janes.

My sister and I think its hilarious, now, that Mom gets so bent out of shape by the fact my sister lets her boys' gorgeous ringlets grow long. Its a whole new spin on sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

As a costumer, I've given more thought than most to what we wear and what it means. Fashion might be trivial, but clothes most certainly are not. And I'm going to do my best to let my little boy choose to let his outsides look like his insides, whatever that means, when the time comes.

Hillbilly Princess said...

Girls are definitely more sneaky, and more brutal in a lot of ways, and the effects last a lot longer.

roo said...

^^^ ?

 
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