What Are Your Kids Learning About Gender?
They need to learn how to think about it, not what to think.
In late March, I received an email from a publicist, asking if I’d like to see a copy of “A Kids’ Book About Gender,” which came out in May.
Having written a book for adults about the history, science and psychology of gender nonconforming girls, and devoted hours to explaining the dark places that our construction of “boy-typical” and “girl-typical” came from—and how those ideas limit kids—I was encouraged that a kids’ books would teach that stuff, too.
Though the book acknowledges that gender is “difficult to define and can mean a lot of things,” and that “What gender means to you may be different than what it means to someone else,” I was surprised by what followed. The non-binary author explains how people used “she” and “her” pronouns for them when they were young and how they were “expected to be interested in ‘girl things.’”
“Girl things” is in pink, and after it, they write, “Whatever that means,” without much further exploration.
To me, the very idea that there are girl things—colors, clothes, activities, toys, emotions—is exactly what gender is about. It’s about what people assume about you, the role you are expected to play, based on your sex. “Sex” is biology, and “gender” is how people are controlled, defined, limited because of it.
But the definition in this book is the one most kids are learning today. They describe it as an internal sense of self, or “how I feel about myself, who I am, and how that fits into how people see me.” They write, “Even though the topic of gender is a big one, it all comes down to how you feel.” In other words, an entire generation is learning that gender is synonymous with gender identity. The book joins other teaching tools like the Gender Unicorn, that break gender into categories like expression—how masculine or feminine you dress or look—and identity, but almost completely ignore the definition of gender as I learned it: an external sense of who other people believe you’re supposed to be, based on sex.
As a 1970s kid, reared on Free to Be, You and Me, I learned that gender was to be exploded. For much of my childhood, girls were encouraged to reject feminine gender roles and reach for “boy things.” Boys’ clothes were often marketed as unisex (striped T-shirts and white-piped shorts). Boys’ sports became legally available to girls when Title IX passed in 1972; Little League opened to girls in 1974. And women reached for rights akin to men’s, including having credits cards in their own names or not being legally raped by spouses. Gender could be combatted, and overcome.
A 21st-century kids learns that gender—an internal sense of self that is somehow un-beholden to the cultural meaning of sex—should be affirmed, that their subjective experience of themselves supersedes the objective fact of their sex. This definition is clearly something younger generations are responding to, as dozens of gender identities are embraced. Many kids today are told that boy and girl are social, not biological, categories, and that gender identity is immutable while the body, due to medical technologies, can change to suit the brain. (This in fact is closer to the original definitions of gender and gender identity, coined by psychologists John Money and Robert Stoller in the middle of the last century; feminists took ideas from the medical and psychological community and reinvented them for their own liberation, so this conflict is actually as old as the concept of gender identity itself—which is, admittedly, not that old. Money is now reviled by many but his contribution of the idea gender identity lives on.)
This tension between something internal and immutable that must be affirmed and something external and socially constructed that must be dismantled is the heart of the gender culture war. But I propose that rather than choose a side, schools that are now teaching gender identity as fact (when it is by very definition a feeling) and ignoring gender stereotypes should instead teach both these definitions. Teach these kids not what to think about gender, but how. Rather than a battle, it should be a discussion, a framework for acknowledging competing belief systems, and what’s at stake with each.
For those who believe that gender means gender identity, the idea that “gender is a construct” and socially created is deeply threatening, and has been used for hundreds of years to deny trans people’s existence and rights. For feminists, the idea that “gender is biological” is also deeply threatening, and has been used for hundreds or years to deny their potential and their rights. It harks back to arguments that women lack the aptitude to vote, control their own bodies, join the military or practice science, or are physically and intellectually inferior to men.
Though many think such gender stereotypes went out with the rotary phone, they have not. Childhood is more hyper-gendered than at any other time in history, and schools don’t spend enough time talking to kids about that. (I offer a workshop for parents and educators, where I explain both the history of gendering childhood and its continuing effects.) My kids have learned a lot in school about gender identity and pronouns, but they have been taught almost nothing about stereotypes (other than what I’ve taught them), and have learned only one meaning of the word gender.
Yet research shows that children as young as two years old have mastered the stereotypes associated with their sex or gender identity category, learning—falsely and deeply—that the whole world is divided into pink and blue, and that they should stay on their side of the line and police children who don’t.
Our separate boy and girl LEGOs develop different skill sets: spatial relations in boys; communication in girls. Our pink and blue computer tablets ask users to select a gender and then filter everything, creating different gendered electronic universes. Meanwhile, a third of boys feel pressure to be violent, to hide their emotions and to insult girls, or talk about them as sexual objects, according to a 2018 report, The State of Gender Equality. Most of them learned that “acting like a girl” was an insult, hurled at them when they expressed any emotion other than anger. Gender norms are deeply damaging to kids, whatever their sexes or identities.
The more we research, the more we see that both definitions hold water. Gender is biological and constructed, innate and social. Some gendered behaviors have biological roots. Some are the result of socialization. Some form from the interplay between biology and culture, genes and the environment. Sex and gender are both independent and interdependent. Everything about this subject is complicated, but people claim a simple stance of “My version is correct,” and try to cancel those with other belief systems, which does us all a disservice.
Meanwhile, there’s a third definition of gender, visible on forms that ask what gender someone is and offers options of “male” and “female,” which are sex categories. People have been using gender as a synonym for sex at least since Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s secretary suggested she replace “sex” with “gender” when arguing about sex discrimination in front of the Supreme Court; “sex” might distract the nine men sitting on the bench. Gender and sex are used interchangeably in gender-reveal parties, which are based on a baby’s sex chromosomes or genitals, but largely celebrate gender stereotypes: how we expect the kid to be because of sex. Teach that one, too.
I think of these competing gender belief systems as I think about religion. I was raised as a devout atheist, but religion is all around me. My kids pledge allegiance to the flag under god. If they go to court, they’ll swear on the Bible. We can’t park in front of churches, and school is closed so often, in the most family-unfriendly way, because of religious holidays. I lived in a country founded on religious freedom, but not freedom from religion. While my kids know that many people believe in god, and I’m fine with the school teaching about the concept of religion, no one tells my kids that they have to believe in it.
Let’s approach gender beliefs similarly. Teach about the malleability of language and ideas, and how they sometimes fail us, and how some people have a strong sense of a gender identity and some people have absolutely none, and ask students to think about how to create a fair world that embraces populations with different and competing needs. Don’t tell them that there is one way to think about this, but many. A kids’ book shouldn’t assert that “gender is something authentic to each of us as individuals,” and that “everyone has a gender identity,” because many people believe that gender is something imposed on us and many people don’t have a gender identity.
I wrote to the publicist to ask why there was so little emphasis on the definition of gender I was taught, and the author emailed back a response, seeming to agree that teaching one definition was wrong. “In my experience gender identity lives in the individual, the body, the psyche, and culture simultaneously,” they wrote, and they acknowledged that all those things can be taught together.
We may never agree on what “gender” means, but we should acknowledge the multiple meanings, and why they matter. Most of us can agree that biology is not destiny, even if we can’t agree on what’s biological.
I am collecting your gender stories that the rest of the left media won’t report. Please reach out to me if you’d like to talk.
Pic from Picopedia, Creative Commons license