To Our Village: Please Don’t Gender Our Children

I dread the day when my little boy realizes he isn't supposed to play with Minnie and will be mocked for his exuberant cries that "Minnie have a bow!"

This post is the email I sent friends and family asking them to assist Seth and I in creating a gender-flexible, non-hetero-normative environment for our twins. 

It truly does take a village to raise a child.  All of you are part of ours, and we are grateful beyond words to have each and every one of you.

I have been thinking about this email since before my children were born, and the time has come for me to sit down and write it.  When I thought about what I most wanted to communicate here I think what it boils down to is that we need your help.  Beyond Seth and I, you form the closest circle around O and J – a circle that has the power to build the kind of world in which they grow up.  We can’t necessarily change the realities of the outside world, but we can create a buffer, an alternative, a safe place to fall, a refuge, a place where they can be who they truly are.  It is with that in mind that I ask you to open your hearts and minds and consider how you can wield the great power you have in J and O’s lives in order to help us create that safe space.

When I went into my kids’ room this morning, my sweet J was standing up in his crib, exuberant, clutching his stuffed Minnie Mouse as he does every morning.  He shouted gleefully, “Hello Minnie!  I kiss Minnie!  Minnie have a bow!”

“Hello Minnie!”  I responded.

Across the room, my precious O was clutching the matching Mickey with a sly smile on her face.  She did a little shoulder shimmie when she saw me.  The night before as we headed up to bed, she had said softly, “Minnie?” making sure her companion would be in her crib with her.

No, my son doesn’t prefer Minnie to Mickey.  The fact is, my kids don’t know the difference between Minnie and Mickey.  They call them both Minnie.  Either doll will suffice at night when they can’t go to sleep without “Minnie.”  Why?  My kids don’t know what gender is.  Yes, they are too young, but also, we haven’t taught them.

Seth and I have worked very hard to create a household (and marriage) in which gender is not destiny.  We don’t organize our lives around gender in any way.

As you know, we distribute household labor, childcare, and work outside the home based on financial needs, logistics, our personal likes and dislikes and strengths and weaknesses, not around gender.  We want our kids to look at us and basically not think there isn’t much difference between a Mama and a Dada.  We believe we are succeeding in that.  Just as one small example, for quite a while they referred to us both as “DadaMama” and “MamaDada.”  They don’t know that for many, many kids Mamas do things Dadas don’t and vice versa.

If we could keep our kids in our home forever, they would never know that gender matters as much as it does in our culture.  They would never experience how profoundly the gender roles we are expected to play as men and women inform who we become.  Gender impacts whether we are accepted and seen as “normal.”  It determines whether we are cool or bullied, whether we are encouraged in certain activities or distracted from them, the questions grown-ups ask us, who we can be friends with, who we are expected to partner and have sex with, what others will hold us responsible for as adults, what it is acceptable for us to prioritize in our lives, and what feelings and needs we are permitted to express.

My determined, independent little girl has no idea that the world is run by men.  She has no idea that she is about to be smothered and bombarded with messages that will tell her that the world is most interested in are her looks, availability as a sex object, and her ability to “get” a man and reproduce with him.

My sweet little boy has no idea that around age three boys are socialized hard to stop showing so much emotion, to cry less, to break ties with mom and become more independent, to stuff down feelings, and not be too exuberant – to squelch down any behaviors that could be interpreted as “gay” or “girly” –  essentially, to let go of their natural excitement that “Minnie have a bow!”

Neither of my kids yet understand that Mickey is actually the one the empire was built around.  Mickey is king, and Minnie is a sidekick at best.

Just yesterday I received a message on a mom listserv I’m on.  A mom was distraught because her FOUR year-old daughter is coming home from school complaining she is fat and ugly and that none of the boys play with her or hold her hand.  The little girl removes her skirts at school because she wants to wear just her leggings under her shirt to be sexy.  Where are little girls getting the message at FOUR that the most important thing is to be attractive and liked by boys?  These are not biologically wired behaviors.  Sad to say, but they are getting these ideas from us grown-ups; our movies, our television… from how we interact with them, and from our behavior as adults.

Recently my kids each got a gift.  O was given a Minnie doll that can be dressed up in different outfits with a bow that attaches to her hair, and J got a tool belt with accompanying tools.  Both gifts are adorable, and both were thoughtful.  In fact, I think both my kids actually love both gifts and will play with them a lot.  But what happened when the Minnie package was opened? – a throw-down.   My J excitedly ripped Minnie from L’s hands and jubilantly cried “butterfly, butterfly in her hair” as he showed off the Minnie and her bow.

As I watched the most well-meaning relatives attempt to steer J away from Minnie toward the admittedly very cool tool belt, my heart sank.  I imagined a year from now when my kids will understand all too well that the tool belt is for J and Minnie is for O.  The thought of the moment when my sweet precious boy realizes not only that Minnie isn’t for him, but that he’s not supposed to want to dress her up or put the “butterfly” in her hair breaks my heart.  So too does the idea of My O learning that the tools aren’t for her, she’s not supposed to want to learn to fix and build things.

Shouldn't all kids get a cool tool belt, girls, boys, and everyone else!?

I know guys.  I know it’s inevitable.  I know my kids are going to learn gender no matter what I do.  But that’s not going to stop me from doing everything I possibly can to make our home, and our inner circle a gender-flexible safe zone – a space where my boy can be complemented on how nicely he dressed Minnie and my girl can feel the mastery of building something and vice versa.

It’s a lot easier to question and reject limiting societal ideas about gender, and anything else, when the people whose acceptance you crave most could care less which toys you play with, which clothes you wear, and how you express yourself.  I believe feeling safe being who they truly are will make my kids happier, but I also believe it will help them be strong when it comes to not conforming to other peer pressures.

So village, I ask you to help us create that safe space.  There is no way to erase gender from our minds as adults who’ve been saturated in our culture as long as we have.  None of us will be able to never communicate gender to O and J.  But I believe if we try, we can keep gender where it belongs, as a small and not very meaningful part of what makes us different as people.

I ask you, if you complement my girl’s physical appearance, ask yourself if you are doing so to a greater extent than with my son and other boys.  Consider asking my girl what book she’s reading or if she’s built anything cool lately, instead.  If my son expresses sadness or exuberance, make a space for those feelings as you would O’s, and perhaps even let him know that you’re glad he expressed them.

You are all so wonderfully generous and kind and I know at times you may want to bring my kids gifts. Please consider choosing gifts that send the message that O and J can be anything and do anything, rather than the message that there are things for girls and things for boys.  Help us stress that colors are for everyone, including pink, blue and all the others.

If you are with our kids and something gendered does happen, consider modeling a critical perspective, in an age-appropriate way.  For example, at a play group where a parent takes a doll away from her son, I might say “It seemed like that boy really wanted to play with the doll.  Boys and girls both like to play with dolls.”

The line between nurturing your children’s authentic selves and setting them up for brutality is a very, very difficult one to walk.  You will notice, Seth and I prefer more gender neutral clothing for the kids.  That is because we don’t want them to get the message that some things are off limits because of their gender.  At the same time, we wouldn’t send J to school in a dress just to make a point.  This will simply set him up for rejection.  Having said that, if he asked to wear the dress, we might let him, after explaining that some people think boys shouldn’t wear dresses.

Colors may seem benign enough, but the idea that pink is for girls eventually morphs into the idea that girls should all aspire to be princesses (and a princesses’ main goal in life is typically to find prince charming).  If pink is for girls and boys can get the crap beat out of them for wearing pink, than does that mean science is for boys?  What happens to girls who like science?  What happens to boys who are sensitive to others’ feelings?  What happens to girls who are competitive and ambitious?  What if boys are attracted to other boys?  What if one of my kids isn’t actually the gender we believe them to be (transgender)?

In my work with transgender kids and teens I have seen the devastation and damage that can be done when children are forced into gendered boxes.  Sit across the room from a teen who literally wants to die because they were born in the wrong body, and for a multitude of reasons everyone in their life is either devastated or hostile, bullying, and/or violent, because they simply want to express themselves differently.

Excellent research has been done on bullying and gender variance (gender variance being acting in ways that don’t match up with your biological sex).  It turns out gender variance is by far the best predictor of bullying, and more frighteningly, the best predictor of bullying-related suicide.  It turns out gay kids who act in keeping with their gender role do way, way better than straight kids and gay kids who don’t act the way a “boy” or “girl” is “supposed to.”  Even transgender kids who act and look most like their desired gender (as opposed to appearing mixed or androgynous) are way less bullied.

As human beings we seem to have a difficult time tolerating in-betweens.  We like either/or’s.  I am asking for you to accept in-betweens.  Only in an environment in which children believe those who love them most will love them the same no matter who they are can they honestly access their genuine selves and explore them.

When I talk to teens, I am amazed, awed, and hopeful when I hear how thoughtfully they talk about gender and sexuality – how much space there is in their minds for nuance and different ways of being.  I am also a bit envious.  I wish I had had so many options for ways to be when I was in high school.  I also wish I had reached out to that effeminate boy in my high school class who no one spoke to for four years.  I wish someone had taught me that being different is maybe the most beautiful part of being human.  There are so many options of who we can be as people hidden in the hearts of kids and adults who haven’t be taught to look for them or are frightened to explore them.

If O and J know our preference for them is to act traditionally male or female, to be straight, etc., that will blind them to their own souls and bias them against their own hearts.  On some level they will know they are choosing between acceptance from us and accepting themselves.  If there is one thing I want to give my children more than anything in this world it is the chance to truly know themselves and have a village around them who, no matter what they discover, will bust out the pom-poms and bubbly and say hooray!  Hooray for J!  O, you go girl!  Gimme a J!  Gimme an O!  Because who you are is beautiful, special, and fantastically unique!!

If you have read this far, we are truly, truly grateful.  We are attaching to this email a list of some very concrete suggestions on how we would ideally like to respond to gender, sexual orientation, sex, and some others things when it comes to O and J.  If you have the time in the next few weeks or months to take a look at it, we would be so, so appreciative.  (See Part II, coming soon).

We are not expecting this email to be the final word, but rather the opening of a dialogue with you that, when they are older, O and J themselves will join.

I leave you with this… a masterpiece by Dar Williams called When I Was a Boy – it you’ve never heard it, it is worth a listen, but get out some tissues.  It is about what we are forced to give up in order to meet the expectations of our gender.

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