I didn't want to stereotype my son by dressing him only in blue and giving him foot balls to play with, but despite my best efforts to let him explore his "feminine" side, he just doesn't seem interested. Why is that?
Most children develop a clear-cut sense of whether they are boys or girls at a young age. This sense of being "a boy" or "a girl" is called gender identity, a term that came into the medical literature in the 1950s. For most children this develops somewhere between 18 and 30 months of age. After gender identity is formed, then gender stability develops. Gender stability is the realization that girls grown up to be women, that they don't grow penises and becomes men, and vice versa. Little boys realize that their penises will not fall off and that they won't grow a vagina and become a woman.
It is during this period of gender stability development that many children develop stereotypic behaviors appropriate to their gender identity. Thus girls sometimes refuse to wear pants because "only boys wear pants." This can happen even if the girl has a mother and other female role models who wear pants. Conversely boys may becomes intensely interested in playing "army." This period of development may last through the preschool years.
Gender identity is not the same as gender, which is commonly used to mean the biologic identity. For most people, gender identity matches with biologic gender, but there is condition called gender identity disorder (GID) in which biologic gender is not the same as the gender identity of the person. This is a rare disorder but one that lead to a lot of heartache and turmoil for both the affected child and his parents. I say "his" because some studies show that the vast majority of children referred to clinics for evaluation of possible GID are boys - almost 6 to 1 boys to girls in one study. Although there are specific criteria that doctors used to diagnose GID, in a nutshell, it is when a child believes that he is really the opposite of his biologic gender.
The flip side to gender identity disorder is our own cultural stereotypes and norms of what makes a girl "girly" and what makes a boy "macho." The feminist movement of the 60s and 70s opened up many doors in our society to our daughters that had previously been closed, but this has not been true for men. Perhaps this is why most parents are not alarmed by their daughters being tomboys. I was struck by this disparity this past year when my older daughter took her first ballet class. One of the girls in her class has a brother about 8 years old. While he and his mom waited for her class to end each week, he would watch the dance classes with keen interest, and even expressed that it looked like fun. His mom commented that he would probably like to take a dance class but that he would never actually do it because it was too girly. She and I were both saddened to think that this boy could not express his creative side because of the limits our society still places on boys and men. On the other hand, we both applauded the two boys who appeared at the dance recital that spring, tapping their hearts out with the same joy as their female classmates. Maybe a "masculinist" movement is what is needed to open up doors for our sons and then, we will all come a long way, baby.
So, what's a mother (and father) to do? We want our sons to be nurturing and our daughters to be assertive. We want our children to be "well-rounded." First, we need to recognize that at certain times in a child's development, he or she will attempt to establish "gender identity" and "gender stability." To a child's way of thinking, gender identity is established by whether one has long hair or short hair, whether one wears dresses or pants, and whether one plays with dolls or trucks. Once the child realizes that his or gender is stable, then these stereotypical behaviors usually subside. This is when the parents can make real headway in helping their children become well-rounded adults by modeling the behaviors we want our children to have.
There are a hundreds of books on parenting out there. A few books that address the issue of gender stereotypes and its impact on our children are (and which are available for purchase from amazon.com):
For more information on gender identity disorder, some websites to get you started are:
- Mermaids: Mermaids is a support group for gender variant children and teenagers
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