Friday, November 16, 2012

Gender Roles and Gender Identity: A Parental Challenge

"Boys aren't supposed to wear pink or play with dolls!"

"Why did he say that?"

"I don't know. I guess he doesn't like playing with dolls. And I told him my dad wears pink. I don't think I want to be his friend."

This was part of an exchange I had with my six year old son after his fifth day of formal schooling in the first grade. It was his first exposure to the idea of rigid gender roles. The discussion brought me back to my college days when my fellow psychology dorks would engage in conversations about gender roles. We were full of piss and vinegar; we spend our days plotting how we would make a world free of rigid gender roles.

I had more or less forgotten about those conversations until that exchange with my son. Recalling the conversations as a parent have put a slightly different spin on the topic.

What are Gender Roles?

Gender roles are the prevailing societal expectations that influence how males and females are supposed to think and behave. In the U.S., we have fairly well-defined "masculine" and "feminine" gender roles.

Men break shit. Women fix shit.

It's an oversimplification, but this is the "big picture" view of our concept of gender roles.

Gender identity is our subjective identification with a gender role, or how we see ourselves relative to society's defined gender roles.

I may see myself as masculine, feminine, or some combination of the two. Most of us have both masculine and feminine characteristics, but tend to bend toward one or the other. People that don't fit in either role would have an androgynous gender identity.

This idea isn't to be confused with biological sex, which is defined as which parts you possess (ovaries, testes, or a combo of both). It also shouldn't be confused with genetic sex, which is determined by your chromosomes (XX, XY, X0, XXX, XXY, or XYY). Any of the above combinations could have a "masculine", "feminine", or androgynous gender identity.


Shelly and I have always had a "hands-off" parenting philosophy where we allow our kids a great deal of freedom of expression and exploration. Basically we sit on the sidelines and make sure they don't hurt themselves too badly. When they encounter something new that required explaining, we do our best to explain what they're experiencing both personally and within the wider society. Essentially we're preparing them to be functioning members of society by fostering their independence.

Admittedly, we also do this to assure they'll not only have the skill set but will want to leave the nest some day. 

For the most part, it works well. Our kids are far more confident and socially capable than Shelly or I were as children. Our recent adventures (spending about 18 months traveling the country in an RV and homeschooling) gave us a great deal of time to let our kids grow.

While they have some interaction with peers, most of their interaction is with adults in brief spurts. For example, they may have a conversation with a cashier in a grocery store. These brief conversations are too short for the adults to question why our daughter is covered in dirt or our son is wearing nail polish.

Per our parenting philosophy, we let our kids do what they want without judgment or unnecessary interference. Play is play. Parental involvement can only interfere with that process, not enhance it.

In short, they've had very few people around them that have questioned their behaviors within the gender role framework.

Back to Our Son

After he described the kid that told him boys don't wear pink or play with dolls, I paused. It was one of those crossroads we face as parents. I wanted to explain why the kids said this, but didn't want to pass unnecessary judgment on the behaviors of my son or the other kid.

After a few seconds, I settled on the complete honesty approach. I explained what gender roles were. I used some examples of things Shelly and I did that were stereotypically masculine and feminine. I then gave some examples of things each of us did that broke the stereotype. I explained society's tendency to reinforce gender roles, which caused people to say and do mean things to people that violate the roles.  I explained the idea of social rejection versus self-expression. Finally, I explained that it didn't matter if any of our kids did things that violated those roles; we'd still love them regardless.

As much as I would love for him to keep his current perspective, I know what effect peers have on children's behaviors. Odds are good a time will come when he feels more peer pressure to conform to a strict gender role regardless of our influence. It's not an inevitability, but peer social influence is strong.

This situation is a perfect example of what makes parenting difficult. We have virtually no direct control over our kids' world, which is the way it should be. When it comes to gender roles and identity, the best we can do is explain, advise, and affirm our love.


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