Everyday judgments and the childhood gender trap

Kane_image_August 2013In the last few years, the popular press has brought us quite a few dramatic stories about gender variation in childhood. From last summer’s New York Times Magazine story titled “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?” to this summer’s coverage of controversy surrounding Coy Mathis, a transgender elementary schooler from Colorado whose parents successfully battled their local school to free her from discrimination based on gender identity, magazines and television shows and websites have splashed out stories on the obstacles and pain faced by parents trying to support their young children’s significant departures from typically gendered patterns. In my recent book The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls, I report that those obstacles are even more widespread than such media coverage suggests. Even parents whose children perform gender just a little differently, and parents who wish to encourage even a moderately more open approach to gender, face obstacles and judgments too. I conducted interviews with parents of preschoolers, asking them how they think about children’s gender. None of these were parents whose kids would be classified as gender variant and none had sought any expert intervention- these were just everyday parents from all sorts of racial and class backgrounds, in all sorts of family types, engaged in routine daily choices.

As I set out to interview these parents, I figured many would tell me that they see gendered patterns in childhood as biologically dictated (“boys will be boys”!), while also revealing relatively unconscious everyday actions that reinforce and even produce those patterns. Some of them did follow that expectation, but many didn’t. And among those who thought gendered childhoods were mostly shaped by social pressures, and who didn’t want to see gender expectations limiting their kids, over and over I heard about an everyday world teeming with judgments from friends, relatives, and even strangers if their kids didn’t stick to a narrowly gendered path. These parents were very much conscious of the social costs- to their children and themselves- of not living up to gender expectations.

Recent media attention to significant gender variance in childhood, and to the struggles faced by transgendered people of all ages, is a welcome trend for those who wish to see a world less constrained by gender rules. But the parents I interviewed offer a really important reminder that we are a long way from that world, as even more minor variations- especially for sons- provoke fear, anxiety and careful management on the part of quite a few parents. As I detail in my book, for parents, the trap of pushing children toward traditionally-gendered outcomes is sometimes baited by beliefs about biology, personal preferences, and unconscious actions. But even when it isn’t, the routine assumptions and everyday judgments of friends, relatives, teachers, children’s peers and even strangers can bait that same trap. Individual parents can try to create a less constraining world for their kids, but only if the rest of us suspend those judgments, applaud their efforts, and push for institutional change that supports that goal.

 By Emily W. Kane on her book, The gender trap: Parents and the pitfalls of raising boys and girls, which was reviewed in the August 2013 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review, click here.

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