My good friend recently confessed that she wished her eight-year-old daughter were more interested in ‘fashionable’ shoes, lamenting that little Maria always insists on wearing sneakers- even with skirts. “Some day soon,” my friend comforted herself, “Maria will want to be more like a girl - she’ll want to wear make-up, and shoes that compliment her outfits. I guess she’s still just a little young for all that.”
In light of that remark, I should have known when I agreed to babysit that Maria would show-up wearing shoes that limited her mobility. Had I been thinking of that conversation with her mother while arranging our day together, I could have saved the kid some pain. Instead, I thought of my own sneakered childhood, and planned to tour the neighborhood playgrounds, gardens, libraries, and ice-cream parlors with her – on foot. Since I don’t usually think of eight-year-olds wearing high-heels (although it seems to be a growing phenomenon), I didn’t even notice Maria’s ‘fashionable’ shoes until the poor kid started complaining of blisters and aching feet. Her mom had bought her the ‘pretty grown-up shoes’ the day before, and told her that big girls don’t wear tennis shoes with skirts.
Little Maria’s feet had fallen victim to gender-policing, the imposing of perceived ‘typical’ gender behaviors on another person.
As it turns out, gender policing is far from rare, and any kid who escapes adolescence with just a few blisters as a result can count herself lucky. According to research published in the journal Sex Roles, kids who’s parents over-correct “… gender atypical behavior (GAB) i.e. behavior traditionally considered more typical for children of the opposite sex” are at greater risk of developing adverse adult psychiatric symptoms:
Negative parenting style was associated with psychiatric symptoms. Structural equation modeling showed that parenting style significantly moderated the association between childhood GAB and adult psychiatric symptoms with positive parenting reducing the association and negative parenting sustaining it.
To put it a bit more succinctly, it isn’t being different that put kids at risk, it’s being punished for being different.
We are constantly goading kids, in a variety of ways, to conform to culturally-set gender roles. The rules can be so strict, that crossing a gender line can earn a kid punishment from parents, teachers, and peers. This hostile situation makes life particularly difficult for transgender children, for at an age when all children are seeking to define themselves, transgender kids are torn between embracing behaviors usually aligned with the sex they know themselves to be, and those behaviors that their society expects them to adopt. The more ‘gender atypical behaviors’ a child displays, the more severe the gender policing tends to be – increasing those children’s risks.
Yet, even for kids who identify strongly with their birth sex, gender policing can cause lasting problems. Girls run a constant risk of being taught to associating femininity with frivolousness, and we might be teaching boys a form of subtle misogyny as well. As Sociological Images notes, “unlike men, who are supposed to reject all things feminine, women are encouraged to balance masculine and feminine characteristics.” NPR’s article “Two Families Grapple with Sons’ Gender Preferences” seems to give credibility to this assertion. While the boys who name their animals girl’s names, identify with female characters in movies, and want to wear skirts might get taken to a psychiatrist; girls are expected to identify with male characters in movies (there might not be any female ones), can wear only slacks (I refused skirts and dresses for years), and are free to name their stuffed bears whatever they’d like (mine was Tom). The implication that girls can aspire to be male, but that boys shouldn’t condescend to act like girls is disturbing.
Of course, being aware of the problem doesn’t always solve it – and I’m even guilty of occasionally trying to police my nieces away from frilly versions of femininity. Knowing that gender policing is potentially dangerous for kids, how do we let our children explore their gender identities in their own ways – despite the messages all around them implying that anything but strict adherence to their prescribed gender roles is bad, or even unsafe?