“Boys and girls are so different!” “People who claim that there are no natural differences between boys and girls have obviously never worked with children.” “I tried to raise my kids in a gender-neutral way, but my son still ignores dolls and plays with trucks! Nature will have its way.”
These, and endless variations on them, are all things I’ve heard in my years working with young children and their caregivers. A parent or grandparent will confidently state that their child’s behavior has removed all doubt about there being innate behavioral differences between males and females. Sometimes this is with a hint of triumph, at old-world values standing the test of experience, and sometimes it’s with dismay and confusion, as in, “I painted my daughter’s room green, gave her blocks and trucks to play with, and never let a single princess item into my house, and yet she’s obsessed with pink and fairy tales!”
With basic skeptical tools, it’s pretty easy to pick apart these claims. First of all, they’re often generalizing from a sample of one or two. “They say there are no natural differences between boys and girls, but just look at my son and daughter! Completely different personalities.” Gender is one of the most salient things we consider when looking at a person: if you’re looking at a room full of people and are told to sort them into two categories as quickly as possible, gender will likely be the first criterion that occurs to you. Gender frequently trumps other generalizations and stereotypes. In a family with two boys, where the oldest is cautious and methodical while the youngest is reckless and rambunctious, the difference will generally be put down to birth order. If instead the oldest child is a girl while the youngest is a boy, the same personality traits will often be put down to gender.
Gender stereotyping is so prevalent that we frequently stereotype the exact same behavior in opposite directions, depending whether it’s being done by a boy or a girl. Little girl being protective of her baby sibling? “Oh, she’s so motherly and nurturing!” Little boy doing same? “Oh, look at that protective big-brother instinct!” A classroom that happens to have a handful of outgoing, rambunctious girls and shyer boys will often prompt the observation that girls are obviously more chatty and sociable from birth; a classroom where the boys are the more active and talkative ones will get an adult saying, “See how much more cautious girls are by nature!” We have enough gender stereotypes that we can find one to fit nearly any gender and personality combination. (Nearly any, and obviously depending on the immediate culture.)
Second, actually raising a child with no social cues around gender is impossible. Even if we could insulate them from media and peers (which we can’t and shouldn’t), we all have more biases than we’re aware of. I received a powerful illustration of this for myself, when I was briefly nannying for a friend’s baby. These friends, queer themselves in both orientation and gender, had thought long and carefully about how to handle gender and childrearing. While they used female pronouns for their baby, they gave her a gender-neutral name and dressed her in boys’ and girls’ clothes on alternate days.
Up until this point, if asked, I would have confidently said, “Oh yes, I treat children exactly the same regardless of gender.” With a transgender sibling, years of criticizing gender bias in media, and a host of queer friends, I figured I was immune to any kind of bias or stereotyping. Right up until my third day nannying, which was the first day little three-month-old baby M was wearing clothes designed for a baby boy rather than for a baby girl. I was bouncing her on my lap, holding her in a sitting position and letting her work her torso muscles, and out of my mouth popped the words, “Oh, you’re so strong!”
It’s not that I called her strong that startled me… it was the fact that it hadn’t even occurred to me to say or think that on the previous two days. When she was wearing yellow and pink and a lace-edged collar, the words that popped into my head were “pretty” and “sweet” and “cute smile!” When she was wearing broad green and blue stripes and a polo collar, all of a sudden I looked at her and thought, “strong.”
So there went all my delusions of neutrality. I’m now very deliberate about praising little girls for their strength when I see them lifting something or jumping or standing up for the first time, and I’ve noticed how few other adults do so (and how quickly they do for boys). But if not for my friends and their cross-gender clothing practice, I would never have noticed that I had this unconscious behavioral bias. I have no doubt that I have others that still haven’t been drawn to my attention.
The world children grow up in guarantees that they will absorb gendered norms and expectations. You can’t usually tell what specific influences led a person to become competitive, or empathetic, or creative, or analytical, but you can bet that the expectations and reactions of the people around them had some kind of impact. That’s not even necessarily a bad thing. Next post I’ll be writing about gender identity development and how to navigate the world of gendered stereotypes as we raise children. Stay tuned!
Featured image by greg westfall.