Punishing kids for cross-gender play is abusive, not “tough”

It’s my dream: I got to write about a Dear Prudence column in the Guardian. This week it’s about a mom who wrote in to Prudence concerned that her husband freaks out when their son wears mom’s ballet flats, and expands into the way we gender our kids from birth:

That parental anxiety was highlighted this week in a Dear Prudence column in Slate, where a mom wrote in concerned about her husband’s over-reaction to their son’s penchant for playing dress-up in mom’s shoes. Dad makes the kid remove the shoes, then punishes the kid when he gets hysterical – all over donning a pair of ballet flats. The dad in question isn’t an unusual tyrant; parents across the US punish their sons for playing dress-up, painting their nails, wanting to grow their hair long, or engaging in other activities that the parent deems “feminine”.

Christian parenting manuals instruct parents to quash any sort of play that involves identifying as a gender other than the one the child was assigned at birth. When I was a kid, I had a male friend who loved to dress up in women’s clothes – in particular, his sister’s gold lame skirt. After he refused to take the skirt off one day, his dad cut it off of him and burned it in the back yard.

The result of harsh gender policing isn’t upstanding masculine sons and submissive feminine daughters. It’s kids who are hurt, confused and alienated from their parents.

It should go without saying that the majority of kids who play dress-up in gender non-conforming ways don’t grow up to be gay or transgender. But some do, and many of the kids who grow up to be gay or trans will point to cross-gender play as an early indicator, for them, of their sexuality and identity. Others still are confused about their sexuality.

The best ally any kid can have as their identity takes shape is an involved, accepting and loving parent. No amount of parental intervention will make a gay kid straight or change the identity of a trans kid. But positive parental actions that affirm your child’s individuality and identity can mean that your kid comes to you with questions. She’ll know you’ll be her biggest advocate in a world that is notoriously cruel to anyone who’s different – whether that means gay, transgender, gender non-conforming or simply a boy who wants to wear nail polish or a girl who wants to play football.

The full piece is here.

About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
This entry was posted in Gender, Life, Parenthood, Sex and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Punishing kids for cross-gender play is abusive, not “tough”

  1. Donna L says:

    After he refused to take the skirt off one day, his dad cut it off of him and burned it in the back yard.

    This is horrible.

    • EG says:

      Yes, it is. Destroying beloved things is abuse. That father is an asshole.

    • Sharon M says:

      After he refused to take the skirt off one day, his dad cut it off of him and burned it in the back yard.

      *speechless* WTF. What other abusive behavior does he do?
      That is straight up woman hating, child abusing sick.
      That poor kid.

      • Computer Soldier Porygon says:

        Yeah, brings back a lot of ~really great~ memories for me. And is definitely not the kind of thing that is a one-off. You just know there was a ton of other shit going on. Blehhhh.

      • BroadBlogs says:

        So sad on so many levels.

        So much fear of the feminine. Tomboys are okay (when they’re little, anyhow). Sissies never are.

        Yet we all benefit from broader personalities, providing so many more resources.

        Plus, the kid likely has no idea what it’s about, anyway. Dad’s punishing me for something I enjoy. It’s likely nonsensical to the kid.

    • Ally S says:

      [Content note: abuse, transmisogyny]

      Reading that was horrific. It’s just what my father would do if he saw me wearing femme clothes, except he’d probably use his bare hands and rip my clothes apart (like he’s done before under different circumstances, entirely unrelated to transmisogyny). The thought makes me feel sick to my stomach.

  2. dawnofthenerds says:

    This is one thing I think my parents got very very right. When my sister and I were little, they gave us toy dumptrucks and barbies. We used the dump trucks to haul our barbies around. We played sports and took piano lessons. When I wore my dad’s worn out hand-me-down jeans for all of junior high, my mom shrugged and taught me how to patch them up. We got very little in the way of gender policing growing up.

    • Sharon M says:

      My folks refused to buy dolls or except dolls for me. I also had the awesome Free to Be You and Me album.
      Here is an interesting link contrasting how much advertising has changed from the 70’s to now.
      http://trouble.room34.com/archives/3732

    • kittehserf says:

      I had two dolls as a kid; I liked toy animals much better. The only reason I had the first doll (a Sindy – Barbie was outside our budget) was because Mum made the BEST ballgown for my sister’s Sindy. I lusted after the dress and sis wouldn’t give it to me ’till I had a doll to put it on. The other doll was a Chrissie, and I only wanted that because LONG HAIR. (Mum wouldn’t let me grow mine long.)

      I had a dump truck, too. Yellow with red wheels. And a robot, though I always used it as the monster in games.

      • Kerandria says:

        I remember my younger siblings playing with those heavy metal tonka trucks — I wasn’t daring enough to try, but I daydreamed about hauling my barbie dolls around in the back of the dump truck. Looking back on it now, I’m not sure if I didn’t say anything because of breaking gender-coded play rules or if I just didn’t want to deal with the hassle of borrowing toys from my three younger, stronger, and rougher brothers.

  3. DragonBreath says:

    My daughter and sons all played with each others toys and clothes. Oh my! The sons Gasp, cook, wash clothes, and clean house, horror of horrors, are they in danger of being kicked out of the macho men’s club? I seriously doubt it. Daughter fixes her broken appliances and unplugs her plugged sewer; is she less feminine? In a word no. My conclusion those guys are gender insecure “morans” left overs from a bygone age.

  4. Fat Steve says:

    Reading the Dear Prudence letter and response at least encourages me that the husband’s behavior is somewhat atypical as the wife and Prudie both see how wildly off base it is.

  5. AMM says:

    If you want a rather different way of responding to cross-gender play, try the [a href=”http://www.raisingmyrainbow.com”]Raising My Rainbow[/a] blog.

    • Ally S says:

      I’m afraid square brackets don’t work in HTML. You’ll have to use angle brackets < and > .

      • AMM says:

        Yeah, I know. Half the sites I post on use bb-code, which is a lot like HTML except for square brackets, and it was late and I didn’t notice until it was posted.

        Here’s the link again, hopefully I got it right this time: Raising My Rainbow Blog

        It’s by a mother whose son (now in first grade) likes “girly” things and all the stuff they have to deal with. (At least his parents are on his side!)

  6. AMM says:

    Punishing kids for cross-gender play is abusive, not “tough”

    Somebody remind me again:

    What’s the difference between “abusive” and “tough”?

    (Aside from the fact that “tough” is socially approved of and “abuse” is not.)

    The two always feel the same to me.

    • Kerandria says:

      Well, ‘tough’ can be used to describe positive qualities in a person whereas abuse is abuse. YMMV.

      ‘She has a tough spirit!’, or ‘Look how tough so-and-so is to achieve x physical thing!’

    • Andie says:

      The headline on the original article said tough love, rather than just tough, so I’m thinking maybe that was a typo.

    • Fat Steve says:

      Somebody remind me again:

      What’s the difference between “abusive” and “tough”?

      (Aside from the fact that “tough” is socially approved of and “abuse” is not.)

      The two always feel the same to me.

      I did have the same thought….but it sounded like it could a bit de-raily, so I kept schtum.

      Andie’s explanation seems most likely so I’m glad I shut my big trap.

  7. Lolagirl says:

    My three year old loves the brightest of brightest shades of fuchsia pink, and wants it on his stuff all the time, like his cups and plates and even his binkies (don’t judge). He also insisted on getting the Dora pull-ups while pottie training, and has a baby doll he loves to death and drags around with him sometimes.

    We just roll with it though (although the Spouse had some reservations about the Dora pull-ups, but lost the argument because, hey, going on the potty!) and don’t make any his three year old whims or desires into anything worth a big deal or a fight. We also try very hard to not gender stuff, ever, which is challenging here in flyover country and with a household of four boys. Our older boys get a heaping pile of gendered messages and crap from their friends and teachers at school, though, and I feel like we spend way too much time deprogramming them when they come home every day.

    Not that I’m trying to pat myself on the back or anything. Because it is hard to push back against the gendered messages our society puts in adults, and doing so with little people seems all that much harder. Because they don’t have much context into which to put all of those messages, and it seems deceptively simple upon the minds of young kids to draw bright lines around sex and gender. Hopefully, the end result will be kids who turn Into adults who feel they have the right and the space to be whoever their true selves are. Regardless of their sex/gender.

    • Fat Steve says:

      My three year old loves the brightest of brightest shades of fuchsia pink..

      I have a similar taste in color, but I never view it as feminine. I think ‘why don’t they make more men’s stuff in purple an pink?????’ all the time, and often certain accessories I wear are from the “women’s” section of the shop (i.e. pretty much no clothing items as I am distinctly shaped like a guy down to size 13 feet which I think equates to size 15 in woman’s shoe size.) However never do I think of it as trying to look like a woman. I happen to, for example, think I look awesome in red heart shaped sunglasses; and while I may be delusional and in fact I look extraordinarily jerky, that doesn’t mean I’m trying to look feminine.

      • Donna L says:

        Steve, did you know that until about 100 years ago, pink was considered the color for boys and blue for girls? (Pink was thought of as a juvenile version of red, a masculine and martial color, while blue was thought of as calm, pacific, and feminine. Hence the common portrayal of the Virgin Mary wearing blue. And, of course, the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio!)

        Plus, I think pink or pink-pinstriped oxford cloth shirts with buttoned-down collars have continued to be thought of as sufficiently masculine for guys, in a WASPy sort of way.

      • DannyChameleon says:

        Plus, I think pink or pink-pinstriped oxford cloth shirts with buttoned-down collars have continued to be thought of as sufficiently masculine for guys, in a WASPy sort of way.

        This reminds me. Growing up I always associated pink with girls, and blue with boys, just as I was indoctrinated to do so. These days I associate pink with hospitality. Ninety percent of food service and hotel jobs in these parts include pink oxford in the dress code. Of course such jobs are predominately filled by women (except for general management, which is still male-dominated).

      • Lolagirl says:

        Steve, I know you know damn well that I don’t view colors as inherently gendered. But again, flyover country and all being what it is, fuchsia pink most definitely IS considered a girl only color around these parts. As is Dora, and playing with dolls, while playing with trucks, or superheroes and sports are considered to be the province of boys. So, yes, gendered expectations and gendered policing are most definitely alive and well around here as well.

        Can we not get into a pissing contest or whatever about how where you, Steve, live is oh so enlightened and open minded and so the rest of the world must be that way too. Because it isn’t, and it doesn’t reflect the reality that so many other people live in and raise children. If only it were so simple.

      • ldouglas says:

        Lola/Steve- I think more than a regional difference, there’s an age/context difference. I went to school in flyover country, but pink was very much acceptable in terms of polo shirts/frat wear. It’s definitely associated with preppiness and WASP culture. That said, I think a lot of the same guys who have no problem wearing a pink button-down to work would have a problem giving a male baby a pink blanket.

      • Fat Steve says:

        Steve, I know you know damn well that I don’t view colors as inherently gendered. But again, flyover country and all being what it is, fuchsia pink most definitely IS considered a girl only color around these parts. As is Dora, and playing with dolls, while playing with trucks, or superheroes and sports are considered to be the province of boys. So, yes, gendered expectations and gendered policing are most definitely alive and well around here as well.

        Can we not get into a pissing contest or whatever about how where you, Steve, live is oh so enlightened and open minded and so the rest of the world must be that way too. Because it isn’t, and it doesn’t reflect the reality that so many other people live in and raise children. If only it were so simple.

        I know we’re used to disagreeing, but I thought my comment was totally in line with yours.

      • Lolagirl says:

        Sorry for kind of flipping out on you, Steve. The way I read your comment was more like gosh! why would anyone think pink is off limits for boys/men it sure isn’t in my slice of reality! If that isn’t where you were headed with it, then we’re cool.

        But, yeah, I’ve already gotten plenty of push back from people outside our immediate household about my 3yo love of pink, sparkly, Dora, Tinkerbell, baby dolls, etc. And now I’m getting tons of blow back because I refuse to hack off the 2yo’s adorable curls. Because he’s a boy, and boys aren’t supposed to sport cherubic curls, doncha know.

        My primary concern is always going to be raising kids who are comfortable in their own skin and with being the people they are. I don’t kid myself that the outside world won’t try and bring it’s own influences to bear on them, but hopefully I will give them the support and confidence they need to not feel like they have to give in to that.

    • (BFing) Sarah says:

      Lolagirl, my daughter wore Cars pullups for the longest! Then she realized there were pink ones ‘for girls’…sigh.

      You know what’s funny–just yesterday my daughter opened up a present (for her) of high heeled, light up dress up shoes and she and my five year old son divided them up (I get purple, you can have the dark pink) and jumped around in them for 15 minutes. Light up shoes are fun for everyone! Neither of us have a problem with it and I can’t imagine my son’s sadness if we arbitrarily (to his mind) said he couldn’t share. He would just assume it was because we were mad at him and “never let him do anything!” My son also gets upset if I happen to repaint my daughter’s toenails (at her request) while he is at school because it is “unfair” to him because his toes are not re-painted! My daughter plays with all sorts of toys…I will say, however, that my daughter’s choices are kind of constrained by her very demanding older brother so most of their games are dictated by him. I know what you are saying, Lolagirl. I dread the day that he gets pushback from friends at school b/c of painted toes or something b/c, so far, no one cares and I’ve even seen a few of his fellow five year old boys with toenails painted as well. I know there will be de-programming necessary…as there already has been de-programming necessary on the topic of princesses (boys can like them, too) and Hello Kitty (ditto). I’m worried about it, but I am very glad (as you must be) to have my partner on my side about it. I hear a lot of women say, “Oh, my husband wouldn’t go for that” and it makes me sad.

      • Lolagirl says:

        Thanks, Sarah, I know you get it.

        The 3yo has also asked to get his toenails painted a few times. He’s utterly fascinated with watching me paint my own, and I’ve obliged him when he asked. Of course he would only sit still for a couple toes worth of painting anyway, but was still pretty excited about it. I love your story of your two dancing around in the light up shoes, btw, how adorable!

  8. Angel H. says:

    That picture caption in the link… :-C

    Jill, is there anything you can do about that?

    • Donna L says:

      I just saw that. How unfortunate. Bad enough how they phrased it — “5-year old xxxxx decided he wanted to live as a girl,” as if designed to inspire responses like “Oh yeah? My 5-year old told me he decided he wanted to live as a cat, but that doesn’t mean I let him!!” — but did they really have to use her original name, given that she almost certainly uses a different one now?

  9. Funty says:

    Suspect it’s more gendered than even that.

    …that one where boys generally get punished for taking the “bad” set of actions, as opposed to punished for just being “bad”? Like the boy’s not at fault, but the thing he’s doing there sure is?

    Whereas girls, it’s generally like she’s the “bad” one and the thing she’s doing, her actions…really not so important at all.

    And you really see the consequences of attitudes like that in a classroom setting.

    • Donna L says:

      Really? I remember dozens of examples, both during my own childhood and my son’s, of little boys being labeled and punished for being “bad.”

  10. Thomas Eisenecker says:

    I didn’t really crossdress when I was a child but now that I’m 17 and in a relationship with an otherwise wonderful woman (she’s 17 as well, but calling her a girl is just wrong…).

    I sometimes like to dress up in women’s clothing and when I told her, she freaked out. She started to talk about how I can’t change “the fact that I’m a man”, among other things. It was deeply hurtful, to be honest.

    So, we had a long talk and while she still doesn’t really approve of it she tolerates it.

    What I wanted to say is: My case is definitely not the worst one or similar to the ones in the OP, but I understand completely how those children feel and I would support my child (should I have one some day, which I doubt) if they wanted to do it.

    • Ally S says:

      I’m sorry to hear that, Thomas. =[ I’m a trans girl just two years older than you, and I understand what it’s like to be bullied for gender non-conformity. I hope your girlfriend accepts you for who you are soon.

    • Andie says:

      Ugh, two things that bother me about your girlfriends attitude:

      1) the assumption that cross-dressing means that you are “trying to be a woman” (keeping in mind that I don’t know if you identify as trans* or if you merely cross dress for fun)

      2) the implication that it would be terrible if you did identify as a woman.

      For your sake, I hope she smartens up, and quick.

    • Thomas Eisenecker says:

      Thank you for you responses, @Ally S and @Andie

      @andie , it’s actually a bit of both. I crossdress for fun, but sometimes it’s more than that. I actually identify myself sometimes as a woman. I’ve even caught myself starting a thought with “Well, if I was a man…” (Chandler Bing, anyone?).

      So, I’d say she’s not *completely* wrong. I am sometimes trying to be a woman. But she exaggerates the things I’ve said. She thinks that I’ve already decided and planned a complete sex reassignment surgery (she said that).

      That may happen some day but not today.

  11. Andie says:

    I am so effin’ glad the ex-hub and I never had any boys, because seeing how he is now with his son with new-wife, I think we would have clashed over dealing with non-gender-normative behaviour.

    I offered them a couple of pairs of my daughters (fairly plain, unadorned) jeans when the boy was younger and ex-hub refused on the basis that “They were girls jeans!” This, at an age where there is little difference in how boys and girls are built.

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