Countering Societal Pressures
Photo credit: stefanos papachristou via flickr
A good friend of mine posted the other day about the pressure of getting her child’s hair cut, and how the responsibility for your child’s presentation can be… overwhelming. Because not only are you trying to teach your child about taking care of oneself and body autonomy, but you're also trying to teach your kid where they fit in this world WHILE trying not to disrupt (at least not so heavy-handedly that it causes your kid problems) societal expectations about your kid. It's a lot for both of you. I think a lot about how to stop reinforcing gender norms with my kids, but it’s a lot harder than it sounds. And when I think about my own kids—two little boys—I see that gender expectations are already heaped on them by society at large. It’s so much for a small, developing person. How do I support them, while smacking down the ideas that they have to be anything? I realize I’m not particularly objective here, but both of my boys are beautiful. One in more of a brooding, stunning sort of way, and the other in a grinning, adorable, slightly naughty way. They both have smiles that’ll stop you in your tracks. And all anyone wants to talk about is how the girls will be beating down the door one day. And, although I want to say something about sexualizing my kid, I pick my battles and say, “Or the boys.” I say it enough that my mom immediately tacks it on now when commenting on my boys’ future love lives.
My oldest son has long hair—well past his shoulders—and combined with that stunning beauty of his, adults often think he’s a girl. People call him “she” semi-regularly. My initial instinct is to correct them – to tell them that “she” is my son, and not a she. Except that’s a ridiculous reflex.*
As of yet, he doesn’t seem particularly upset by it, and he hasn’t so much as flinched when our elderly neighbors have called him my daughter. But I know it’s coming. Some level of discomfort is coming. So how do I both honor him and who he is, since he identifies as cis male (though I know that can always change and he’s said he’s felt like a girl sometimes), without demonizing the idea that one’s gender identity may not match their sex or outward appearance? How do I honor his right to be called “he” without somehow reinforcing the idea that it’s bad to be called a different gender? If I correct someone when they call him “she,” what does that teach him? That “she” is bad? That to be called (or feel) different from your initially assigned gender is bad? That it’s not okay to be somewhere on the spectrum?
I know the idea is starting to sink in that being called a girl or girly equals bad. My younger son won’t wear pink or purple. My older son, in spite of being a delightful little feminist, called me into his room the other day where he confessed to me that he really wanted some of the Lego Friends sets. He loves the tiny accessories and special pieces that are unique to those sets – but he was afraid he’d be made fun of because those are typically sold as the “girl” Legos. As he was reassuring me that he knows that there’s no such thing as “girl” toys and “boy” toys, he still expressed worry that his friends wouldn’t want to play with him if they saw that he had those sets. It’s so much pressure for a person who has only been alive for 7 years.
Sometimes family and friends make homophobic, gender normative jokes as a matter of conversation, and it’s hard to stop them… but we do. Most of the time we do. Because we don’t want that shit instilled in our kids. We don’t want our kids being taught to hate themselves or hate the people around them. We want to teach love and understanding and acceptance. We want to teach them that different doesn’t equal bad.
But it’s tricky. We live in society. We live in a world that makes judgments and expresses discomfort with difference. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we all make judgments and notice differences. We’re human. We categorize by nature.
So now I’m trying to figure out how to allow my kids to categorize as they figure out this world we live in, and still teach them to keep the borders of each category a little soft. That nothing is black and white. That everything can change. And to allow for overlap and bleeding of lines and muddled, diverse classifications.
It’s a fight sometimes. And it’s hard to remember to do. I fail plenty. I fall into gender normative behaviors and opinions and allowances because it’s what I was born into. But I’ve adjusted my thinking because I’ve learned and grown. Along the way, I discovered there are boxes I don’t fit neatly into. And I want my kids to feel more comfortable with that than I initially did. I hope that if it’s something I’m actively working on, it’s something that will become embedded in their little brains. That there’s always room. That nothing is static. That they can be who they want to be and who they feel themselves to be, and that that will always be okay. That they can cut their hair however they choose and play with and wear whatever brings them joy. That I will love them for who they are, no matter what.
*For a deeply beautiful essay on completely accepting your child for who they are, read this stunning piece by Ian Belknap at The Rumpus about raising his transgender son.