Young children are socialized very early on into stereotypical gender roles. But what about the child who goes the other way? Last December there was a fascinating article in the New York Times (still available at that link) about young children who are drawn towards living as the opposite gender. The article introduces a range of professionals who believe, on one side, that children should be strongly encouraged to emulate their own gender regardless of their natural inclinations, and on the other side, that children should be supported in their exploration of gender.
While supporting an exploring child has a clear draw for many of us, that may start to break down when a 4-year-old boy wants to grow his hair long, wear only dresses, play only with girls, and change his name to a girl’s name (as the little boy featured in the story does). I tend to think of myself as very open minded about gender, but I know that would be an uphill battle even for me.
I think this particular issue can highlight the still existing gender prejudices that our society holds. We would not think much of a little girl who wore only pants, kept her hair short, played mostly with boys, and used a boyish sounding nickname. Girls like this have been labeled “tomboys” and been allowed to follow that path fairly easily for some time now.
I have been ruminating about why this particular gender discrepancy exists, and have come up with two possible reasons behind it. Perhaps it is because women have broken the gender barrier more effectively than men, and so girls are allowed a larger range of activities. Or perhaps it is because typically masculine activities are still more valued than are female activities, and so it is seen as more reasonable, more acceptable that girls try to emulate masculine activities than that boys try to emulate feminine activities. Maybe it’s a mix of the two. Maybe it’s something else all together. I’d love for anyone with more ideas on this phenomenon to post them.