Friday, May 09, 2008

Parenting a New Child in a New World

It seemed very old hat--so sixties. But I guess it wasn't. Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching the eleven year old give a presentation on gender identification and gender stereotyping in her school's kindergarten. Its the kind of school where she and her co-researcher have volunteered all year in the kindergarten to play with the little kids, the kind of school that strives to be gender inclusive and open about everything from racial diversity to sexual diversity. There's a transgender father who used to be a woman, and many of the teachers are both gay and married (thanks to MA's proud new history of equal marriage).

It was very well done and indescribably funny and thoughtful. For instance, she and her co researcher asked the kids “what their favorite activity” was hoping to sort it out into distinct categories like “sports” or “dance” but often got answers like “I like to punch the air.” Or when they tried to ascertain “what is your favorite color” kids would answer “redpinksilvergold.” After determining that there was a fairly distinct gender split over whether the kids would prefer to learn a “dance” or a “sport” they also asked them whether they would be more willing to try if the team/dance consisted of “all boys” or “all girls.” The boys, who were more gender rigid than the girls all the way along, were slightly more willing to try something new if they thought all the other participants would be boys but many children of both sexes rejected outright the notion that they should engage in something that was limited to one sex and though that the activity should always be fifty/fifty boy girl.

The most interesting moment was produced by their last graph which demonstrated that when they mixed up gendered categories like object (truck/doll) and color (blue/pink) the girls were at ease crossing boundaries while the boys really wrestled with the choice. In other words when offered the choice of “blue doll” or “pink truck” the girls were happily able to assimilate the doll into their play but the boys seemed stumped and were conflicted. This led to my other moment of maternal pride when my other daughter (age nine) raised her hand and asked “Ok, so you've demonstrated that its easier for girls to go against gender stereotyping and harder for boys to cross gender lines but why do you think that is?” Naturally, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree and slightly failing to answer the question her older sister headed all the way back to ancient Sumeria and cults of the mother goddess before winding up in a rather incoherent peroration about post Victorian gender stereotypes. Still, points for effort.

But the point of posting this isn't to brag about how cute my little girl scientists are—its to say that god I hope I would love all the things about them even if they weren't operating in the appropriate gender roles. Because that, apparently, isn't a given. This morning Hilzoy has a long post up ("Close My Eyes, Its All Pink") about an NPR piece covering the struggles of two families with little boys who want to be girls. Please go over and read the whole piece, as well as the comments section, because both are fascinating. But briefly, here's the story:

Two little boys at quite early ages identify with, enjoy, and pursue stereotypically female activities, body image, and play. Despite their own parents resistance to this they both are determined and don't enjoy the "right" kind of play, playthings, playmates for their birth sex. We are talking about very young children--beginning at ages two and three.

One family found a therapist who agreed that the child should, essentially, be allowed to live and thrive as he/she wants. If he identifies as female and wants to live as female, the therapist thinks, that's just who that kid is. That child is thriving in a school that accepts and cherishes him as female. Has lots of friends, is loved and loves life. Meanwhile, with the best and most loving intentions in the world, the other family has fallen into the hands of a much more rigid therapist who has insisted that they remove all traces of the feminine from their son's world. That child is being forcibly divorced from all the toys, play, imaginary friends, and even colors (!) that he prefers and left in a barren social and emotional wilderness because all those things are seen as harmful to his identity as a male. As a parent I look at the work that those parents are doing to re-orient their child—to push him away from dolls, princesses, the color pink my heart just stops from the horror of it. There is so much embedded anger at women and at transgender and/or gay individuals in what this therapist is doing--and so much fear on the part of the parents that if their child steps out of gender line he will be punished for it later in life.

Is it that degraded to be female in this society? Is it that dangerous to a child to live life as female, even an anomalous female (with all the social difficulty that might entail) that you would strip your child's very toys from their hands, remove the color pink from their world, in order to prevent some future harm? Clint Eastwood had a great line in some movie “Tomorrow is promised to no man” and I think about that often as a parent. Because we can lose today in our worries about trying to control an uncertain future.

Its a delicate balancing act to think ahead for your child, to prepare them for a future they can't imagine and also to relinquish control to your child to let them develop in the way that is best for them, that is integral to who they are. It can be hard to strike that balance with *any* child--they all have their strengths and weaknesses, things to be built on and things to be curbed. That's why despite localized and temporary pain we put braces on their legs if they need them, or send them to school instead of letting them play all day. But the question of whether one should enforce present pain for hypothetical future happiness isn't really that difficult to resolve--we face that question when we look at medical treatment all the time. Is it worth putting a sick child through needless surgery to correct a minor problem? Or is it worth putting a dying child through major surgery that won't even correct a major problem? So this gender reassignment question really ought not to be so difficult. You are making a straight up tradeoff between giving a particular child a happy childhood and crossing your fingers and hoping that he or society changes enough so he can have a happy adulthood. Or you are explicitly deciding to give your child an unhappy, stifled, childhood in the hope that in some distant future they will suffer less from societies judgments.

As parents we often have to take those choices on for our children legally, economically, morally. But at bottom we don't have the right to put our desires and fears above theirs. The pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness isn't a right that is vested in families but in individuals, including children--at some point parents and therapists and professional busybodies need to pull back and ask "what hypothetical future conformity to social norms is worth crushing the life out of a child in the present?" Not only is the present all that child has but ultimately the present child--the one who wants to be just who he/she is, is the only human being who has rights. Not the future "model boy" who may never come into being but this little boy who wants what he wants.