Gender Trouble

Food for Thought

This morning, at breakfast, we met Stefan and Zopi’s boy, Van, for the first time. He is a year and a half old and likes to explore his environment, looking for dogs and cars. They live in a big house upstate, so he has plenty of space to explore, indoor and outdoor, but he prefers “out.” I don’t think he has learned the word “in” yet, although he must implicitly understand the counterpart if he knows what “out” means.

When my kid was a toddler, I felt bad for the boys around her growing up in New York City. For every move they made, some adult was telling them, “No!” The standard of “good boy” here is quiet, still, and docile. Running around, jumping up and down, throwing and breaking stuff are considered too uncivilized.

All the parents I know, myself included, tried our best to raise our kids gender-neutral, but it seemed comically futile. I thought: “Who are we kidding?” Naturally, a few of them did defy the established gender norms, but most of them did not need to be taught how to behave like a girl or boy. We could not stop our girl from acting like a girl even if we tried.

The problem of gender-neutral parenting is that “neutral” is also a definite position. For a child who wants to be a girl, raising her neutral means being unsupportive of what she wants to be. It’s like not supporting her natural drive to paint just because you want to keep all possibilities open.

Parents should not dictate what children should be, but if you listen to your instinct and follow your child’s lead, you do not have to be a child psychologist to figure out what your child wants to be. Yet, today, we have to fight the societal pressure to stay neutral. It’s unfortunate that every social change seems to require coercing the entire population to conform to the values of the counter-movement through guilting and shaming. That is, oppression is fought with oppression. It implies that we should resign to the fact that we cannot think and act for ourselves.

We had no idea what Van would naturally gravitate towards, but my wife wanted to give him something, so she took a chance and picked a wooden car. It worked out well.