Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gender and Self

Just today, one of my friends posted a statement on facebook about how she didn't understand what all the fuss was about regarding boys playing with dolls.

I don't live in the same area of the country anymore, so I'm not quite sure what she was referring to, but my guess is some article has been written in the paper in her area or something said on the television about how playing with dolls, dressing up, having a dollhouse, or such things make boys into "sissys".

I'm not sure who first came up with the sissy theory.  Perhaps it was a man who felt his masculinity was impaired upon seeing a photograph his mother had snapped, capturing him with a head full of barrettes.  Maybe it came from a man's memory of running out of his house, thrilled with his creative costume, and the realization that he was ridiculed by his friends.  More likely, it comes from fathers who feel the pressure of our society to masculinize young children.  It's uncommon to see boys snuggling baby dolls in the media, or boys dressing up in nontraditional garb--or even worse, "girl clothes".  We want to imagine our little boys as being firefighters, police officers, even Wall Street wonders.  Most people don't imagine their sons as early childhood teachers, nurses, or adult models.

When my own son was four, his class had a career day.  He came home very excited at the idea and told me he wanted to be a teacher, like me.  At the time I was a preschool teacher, and he thought I had a super cool job--probably because of the toys I had in my classroom, not to mention I was his mom.  Within a few days, however, he had changed his mind and was torn as to what he wanted to be.  Why?  Because he was a boy, and boys don't grow up to be teachers of young children.  At four, he had figured out from his friends that his gender should limit his career choices.

Why should we even care whether boys are given the opportunity to dress up or play with dolls?  Why should I care if my little boy reins himself in and doesn't allow his friends to know what he really wants to be, because they'll make fun of him.  He was right, after all; most men do not choose careers in early childhood education.  Well, I'll tell you why.  Because we want boys to grow up to know how to nurture others.  It's a good thing for a man to know who he is and to make his own choices, and not based upon his physical parts.  Boys who have the opportunity to explore roles--female and male--are more confident in the choices they make later on.  Children who are provided a variety of gender-specific toys without stereotypes experience a higher level of creativity and a deeper understanding of the roles of those around them.  Any child who is encouraged to be true to him or herself in expressing his or her desires for the future has the opportunity to feel competent, appreciated, and encouraged to pursue his or her goals.

I've been married for eleven years, and I can tell you from experience that I want a spouse who is respectful of me; who understands my role as a woman and a mother and a wife; who encourages and appreciates me as a person.  When we give our children the opportunity to express themselves freely without rigid stereotypes, we give them the opportunity to develop these skills.  And over time, these skills develop into social skills that make people more desirable as citizens, friends, and even spouses.

Most of us have, at one point or another, seen a child play with a toy weapon, but we don't fear the child will develop into a sociopath who will manipulate and kill all those in his or her path.  Neither should we fear that a boy who tries on a pair of heels will become a cross dresser, or a girl who enjoys building elaborate block buildings will become a lesbian.


  1. great post Michelle!!!

    I fight this everyday in my classroom with children and parents alike. I have a bunch of little boys that LOVE to dress up in our princess dresses and carry purses and on a daily basis I have to remind the other kids in the class, that its ok for boys to play dress up too. Its so sad that at 3 and 4 years old I hear the statements, "You can't wear that dress, dresses are for girls" on a daily basis. I've also heard a very similiar remark from parents quite often and it breaks my heart every time!

  2. Kandice, the incident I was writing about with my son and his "career day" took place when he was four, and it was heartbreaking to hear a four year old come home crying, saying, "I can't dress as a teacher because that's for girls". And as a parent, as much as you want to encourage him to stand up for what he WANTS to be,you also don't want him to be a target for teasing and such. It's unfortunate that adults can't seem to accept children in this way, and that lack of acceptance is passed down so readily to children.