Do you have a child who is expressing gender-related behaviours that have you scratching your head? I was one of those kids for a period of time.
At about age eight or nine, I wanted my family to call me Sam instead of Alyson. I even campaigned with posters around the house. I was the youngest and the only girl. I had three older brothers and I desperately wanted to get their attention and acceptance.
I remember feeling that I was the outsider as the only girl and the smallest. I wanted to show them I could be a guy like them -- that I could keep up and hold my own.
While my story answers why I chose the behaviours that I did, each child is unique and has different explanations that include the various components that make up this complex thing called gender.
We are not just a simple cookie-cutter of being either a “boy” or a “girl.” Gender must be understood as a composition of three elements:
1. Biological sex (our body parts and hormones),
2. Gender identity (how we feel about our gender on the inside) and
3. Gender expression (how we act and behave and present ourselves to others).
If all three line up, we say the child is cisgender. But if they don’t line up, that’s referred to as being gender-expansive, which includes transgender.
Cisgender and gender-expansive children conform or are non-conforming to culturally defined gender roles. And we haven’t even talked about sexual orientation and who we are attracted to. Like I said: it’s complicated!
So, when your little girl wants to go swimming in boy’s trunks and no top or when your boy wants to wear nail polish, you can’t possibly know for sure what this means about their world. Heck, they don’t even know yet.
Are they experimenting while they learn about their gender identity? Are they modelling a parent oblivious to gender roles? Do they feel a sense of being a gender that differs from their biology? Will they grow up to be transgendered or gay?
YOU HAVE NO WAY OF KNOWING RIGHT NOW!!!
Defining our gender is a fluid, non-linear process that has some important developmental milestone years. Children and youth can and do fluctuate with time.
It will take years and years of seeing persistent and consistent behaviours and feelings before you or your child can make any conclusive determination about where they land in their gender exploration.
To ensure your child is fully supported as they discover their gender, here are seven tips:
1. Follow your child’s lead: Allow them to play with whatever toys they want and dress in whatever clothes they want. Allow them to choose their own hairstyle. Call them by the name they prefer.
2. Speak up for them: If others make denigrating or judgemental comments, speak up and voice your concern. Do this whether your child is listening or not. You may not change another person’s opinion, but you can demand your child is always treated with respect.
3. Privacy: Your child’s personal development is of no concern to others, so you don’t need to disclose anything if they want to go to camp or a sleepover, for example. (Of course, if they choose to transition, ensuring their safety requires special considerations.)
4. Language: Use gender neutral pronouns like they instead of he or she. This will show you're onside.
5. Listen: Be sure to keep the lines of communication open.
6. Avoid negativity: Never shame them or make them feel they have disappointed you, or that you think they are somehow defective.
7. Inclusivity: Be sure all doors and opportunities are open to them. Never exclude them from activities as a way to “hide” your child from family or society.
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Try to focus less on gender differences in general, Brown said. One way is to remove gendered speech from your language as much as you can. Constantly referring to people by their sex or gender labels it to children as something that matters very much, she said, and therefore tells them that it's an important part of who they are -- perhaps more important than factors like their personality or strengths. “I try to just make it not something that really comes up much,” she advised.
“There's a lot of individual differences among children that don't follow gender lines,” Brown said. It's far more productive to focus on the things about our children that have nothing to do with sex or gender: their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and personality traits. “The reality is that gender is pretty irrelevant for predicting what kids are like,” she said. Moving away from a focus on what boys are like and what girls are like allows us to instead discover what is actually unique about our child.
“It's important to know the facts,” Brown said. “[Parents] should know that there's no differences whether they have boys or girls in terms of academic differences, personality, etc.” In fact, when studying infants and young children, the research shows very few inherent differences based on sex, she said. Boys tend to have a bit less inhibitory control at birth and girls tend to talk earlier, though this does even out as male and female children age. In general, Brown said, research tends to match what we know about development in general -- as in, differences that show up between boys and girls as they get older are related to how we treat male and female children differently, not due to any inherent differences between the sexes.
While studies show only slight differences based on sex, they do illustrate that a strong focus on gender norms can be harmful, Brown said. For girls, the negative effects can include poor body image due to the universal value placed on appearance, specifically, a very narrow definition of acceptable appearance for females. For example, Brown said, “By the time they're 12 years old more than 70 percent of girls aren't happy with how they look.” In addition, we've seen that girls stay away from careers in science and math (STEM careers) because they perceive themselves as weaker in those subjects, even when research shows that their actual abilities are the same as for boys.
But gender stereotypes can hurt boys too. “One of the most disturbing outcomes of stereotypes for boys is that we really tell boys that you shouldn't cry, and parents worry if they're son is very sensitive,” Brown said. Parents can focus too much on trying to avoid introversion and push assertiveness on boys who just don't fit that personality type. But studies don't show any differences between boys and girls tending towards being natural introverts, she said. At the same time as we could be preventing boys from expressing their feelings, we give them aggressive outlets like violent toys. “We shouldn't be surprised that boys grow up and don't know how to handle sadness and feelings well and show a lot more aggression,” she said.
Many new parents are surprised by how quickly the focus on gender begins. For example, have you ever tried to find a shirt with a cat on it for a boy? Somewhere along the line it was decided that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, and cats are for girls and dogs are for boys, and clothing and toys for even the youngest children often falls strictly on these arbitrary divisions. This can extend to our behaviour towards boy and girl children as well. Brown mentioned research that shows that people tend to read and speak more to female babies, using more complicated vocabulary, and other studies show that the number and quality of words young children hear can affect their educational success later.
Toys are not just fun for kids; they're also a learning tool. When selecting playthings for your child, break away from thinking in terms of gender or a particular section of the toy store. Instead, choose toys that foster traits you want to encourage in your children, or help them learn particular skills you value. Do you want your child to be nurturing and empathetic? Then provide baby dolls, for boys and girls. Lego and blocks help all children develop spatial skills, and ball play improves hand-eye coordination whether your child is male or female. “We want to make sure we teach the traits that are important,” Brown said, “not the toys that fit ‘their’ half of the toy store.”
Are you working on busting gender stereotypes in your own home only to feel undermined when grandma or grandpa says that dolls are only for little girls, or that all boys like to play rough? It can be tricky to get family members on board, but it's worth trying. This will ensure your children are hearing messages that matter to you and to make your family values clear. Brown said that a discussion can often avoid problems. Even if your parents or in-laws don't agree with your decision to keep your children from playing with guns or fashion dolls, they may still respect it. Barring that, she suggested, there's always the donation bin at your local thrift store. “I think it's alright to say ‘These are my kids, and I can decide what they have and how they dress,’” she said.
“Kids about three years old start to believe gender stereotypes,” Brown said. That's why it's important to consistently correct stereotypes about gender and sex when your child hears them or uses them, even if they seem harmless or silly. But it doesn't need to be a lecture or something that requires a deep discussion each time. For example, you can say things like, “Boys and girls both like to play with trucks. Your friend Jenny likes trucks a lot, doesn't she?” The key factor is making those corrections every time you hear a stereotype, Brown said, providing your children with the language they need to do it on their own when they're older and coming across stereotypes in the media or outside their homes.