After a recent run-in with a children’s sticker, I wrote the piece “Stickers don’t have a gender.” I thought a 2-year-old girl at the local dry cleaner looked puzzled when she was expected to like a Hello Kitty sticker. The owner of the shop had just assumed a girl would be happier with Hello Kitty than she would with Pixar Cars. Later, the toddler’s mom told me her daughter actually would have preferred the Cars option. So I blogged about how the gendering of toys, colors and clothing “confuses” kids.
Then I received some thoughtful comments on social media. Here are a few of the shared thoughts that made me re-think my word choice:
“I would say it restricts them. The only thing that confused me was when I confessed I had a crush on another boy in first grade, and everyone called me a fag. Didn’t know what it meant.”
It sure as hell confused me. It was a lot of arbitrary rules of what I was supposed to like and not like, and everyone was very sure of it and very disappointed of me…”
“I disagree tbh, I’ve dealt with a lot of kids and in my experience at least there has been no confusion.”
I agree that the stereotypes confuse them. I just don’t think that they should be born genderless as it complicates things and for now, at that young age, they and their friends won’t be able to comprehend it.”
I thanked the person who suggested gender stereotyping “restricts” kids. It really speaks to a more universal truth, because gender stereotypes pigeonhole children into the either-or binary boxes of pink and blue. And I realized it was only “some” children who might be confused by our society’s established expectations about gender. My adult non-binary child Harry, who has preferred dresses and skirts since pre-school, was only six when he told me, “Girls have a real advantage, because they can wear whatever they want and play sports.” He wasn’t confused; he was simply annoyed.
It was the last comment above however that really struck me, from the person who believed children shouldn’t be “born genderless” and that they can’t understand the idea of gender neutral. They were addressing not just the stereotyping of toys and clothes, but the whole idea of traditional gender roles and norms for kids. And I zeroed in on perhaps the best description of gender stereotyping: It limits kids.
“It’s all about democracy – for children to have the right to be how they feel they are.” –Lotta Rajalin, founder of the Swedish preschool Egalia
In case you missed it, take the time to watch the recent VICE special “Raised without Gender.” The half-hour show takes a close at Sweden, the world’s most progressive country when it comes to questioning gender and allowing children to grow up outside of the gender binary. It had me wishing I could have raised Harry in Sweden. The country introduced the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” in the ’60s and it was added to the dictionary two years ago.
A 1998 amendment to the Swedish government’s Education Act forbids enforcing gender stereotypes. A guide states: “The preschool should counteract traditional gender roles. Girls and boys should have the same opportunities to try things and develop interests without the limitation of typical gender norms.
“It’s all about democracy – for children to have the right to be how they feel they are,” says Lotta Rajalin, who founded the country’s first gender-neutral preschool, Egalia, in 2010. “We are not limiting, we’re adding. We’re not changing children, we are changing our own thoughts.”
As for the future, I’m hopeful the ongoing conversations about gender identity and gender expression, along with the sea change of hearts and minds on the subject both here and abroad, will give kids the freedom to discover gender all by themselves.
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