Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hobby-Horses On The King's Highway

Vivian Gussin Paley’s book The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter is the true story of a preschooler who insists he is a helicopter. In spite of his absolute conviction, it is evident to the adults in his life that he is indeed not a helicopter. His classmates, however, take him at his word and befriend him as a helicopter.

I was reminded of this story recently when Susan wrote this:

There was a girl in Reid’s preschool who was very boyish. Always had a baseball cap on, always in jeans. Named Andrea, she insisted on being called Andy . . . (Reid) said she was mad because everyone found out she was a girl. This was startling to me on two levels. First, I’d never seen a kid who so clearly wanted to be the other sex. But even more shocking was the fact that kids in Reid’s class didn't have her clearly in their minds as a girl. How could they not? As an adult you look at a little girl, see she has a girl name, and she goes over there on the girl list. That kids would . . . not even try to have her in a category – that had never occurred to me.

I have a similar story. Our friend’s daughter insisted from a very young age on being called Joseph and wearing boy’s clothes. As with the helicopter and Andy, it was evident to the adults in her world that she was indeed not what she claimed to be, but her classmates took her at her word.

This is the place where I could link you to research about young children and gender identity, but I’m confident that my general observations here will more or less jibe with the science. These are the tendencies I’ve observed, by age group:

Two-year-olds tend to be, at best, vague on gender identity. Most parents can dress their little boys in a sister’s hand-me-downs, for instance, without a fight. If I play “princess,” the kids don’t seem to suffer from much cognitive dissonance. Boys might be more often drawn to play with “cars,” and girls to “dolls,” but I’ve seen nothing that leads me to conclude that they’re making conscious decisions based on how they perceive gender. These might well be choices driven by the biology of gender, but not gender “identity.”

Three-year-olds are starting to develop their own theories about gender. You’ll probably have a hard time getting most 3-year-old boys into “girl’s” clothing, for instance, and when I play princess they demonstrate that they get the “joke” by laughing, or the dissonance by insisting that I “take it off.” Three-year-olds will likely be able to tell you that cars are for boys and dolls are for girls, but they don’t tend to consciously divide themselves by gender – it’s more an accident of the toys/games they choose. In spite of this, their understanding of gender identity is still pretty superficial and malleable. Ana, for instance, insisted that in spite of my beard, I was girl because I wore an earring. If I took the earring out, I was a boy. Many threes have insisted to me that they could change gender by virtue of the clothing they wore.

Four-year-olds are becoming hyperaware of gender. They have absorbed much of our cultural stereotyping, are convinced that their gender is a fixed characteristic, and tend to actively seek out same gender playmates. If someone is going to play the “no boys/girls allowed” card it’s going to be a 4-year-old. When I play princess with these kids, they’ll usually engage in long discussions about why I, as a boy, can never be a princess, but that I can instead choose to be a prince. They often have very strongly held convictions about what it means to be a boy or a girl, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary. My own daughter, for instance, insisted that girls do the cooking, even though her father does 90 percent of the cooking in her own household.

I’m uncomfortable writing about gender, which you can probably tell by the way I’ve twisted myself into a pretzel inserting weasel words like, “tend,” “likely,” “often,” and “most.” That’s because when it comes to gender there are no absolutes.

Many years ago, my wife and I belonged to a couple’s book club. One of the books we read was Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand, which catalogs the different ways men and women communicate and why we so often misunderstand one another. Everyone in the book club agreed that Tannen had hit the nail on the head, yet every one of us also agreed that the dynamics she outlined didn’t apply to our own relationships.

That’s because the “theoretical” person bears no more than a passing resemblance to an actual person. As useful as labels are when it comes to thinking of people categorically (as in the development of advertising campaigns or flu vaccines) they are at best useless when we apply them to individuals, and often quite harmful. For instance, I know that men tend to have greater upper back strength, but I also know that there are thousands of individual women who would put me to shame in the weight room. If I use gender as a basis upon which to judge physical strength, such as in determining who gets the job as the firefighter, I harm all of those women who could kick my ass.

When it comes to our friends and family, when it comes to the individual students in my class, there is nothing important to learn from Teacher Tom’s observations or Deborah Tannen’s parsing of gender and communication. Labels have their uses, but not when it comes to real relationships between real people. The only labels that matter to individuals are the labels they apply to themselves, be they 2 or 92. It’s not our place to insist that they've mislabeled themselves, but rather to try to understand and accept them at their word.

The great 18th century author Laurence Sterne conceived of the world as a place in which each of us rode through life on our own special “Hobby-Horse.” It’s because we sit astride our horses, that we each have a unique perspective on the world, none more or less legitimate than another. He saw the world’s problems as stemming not from our differences, but rather from our habit of insisting upon others adopting our views.

“ . . . so long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, -- pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?”

Are the labels I hang on myself delusional? Probably, but no more so than everyone else’s. Only we know what labels are best suited to ourselves. At any age, we do one another no greater honor than to simply tip our hats to the other Hobby-Horse riders with whom we share the king’s highway, be they helicopters or boys named “Andy.”

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Jason, as himself said...

Well said! This is a touchy issue that has yet to be explored.

As a child I wanted to be a girl. I played with girls' toys, enjoyed dressing up as a girl, and acted like a girl. I outgrew the gender "confusion," unlike so many others. I no longer wish to be female, but I can feel for those males who do.

Thank you for addressing this issue at such a young level.

Monkey's Mama said...

Last year Logan asked me when he was going to be a mommy like me. After I explained he was a boy, etc. He was constantly listing off the boys and girls in our house - mommy's a girl, daddy's a boy, Logan's a boy and Kitty's a girl! still does it sometimes (even though poor Kitty is gone). But she still has a special place in the gender list.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

That last quote is great! I agree and that goes for everything in life...if it's not hurting me or others, it's nobody's business.

PS - I have an award waiting over at "my place" for you. :)

dv.x.3 said...

beautifully said!

I was just blogging about how my son Jules, at almost four, has been wanting to be a witch for Halloween. And before that a female superhero named "Mega Mindy". I can't disguise my glee (and sometimes dismay) at watching Jules figure out gender through this kind of play, and am a little surprised at how much I WANT him to experiment with girls' "roles."

That being said, when he donned his superhero costume and went to the park yesterday and an 8 year old boy asked him what he was, I caught myself silently wishing--"don't say Mega Mindy, don't say Mega Mindy" because I was afraid the bigger kid would tease him or tell him he was wrong to be a girl.

The gender question has always been such a chicken and egg thing for me. So many parents swear their boys are hardwired to love trucks and girls to love dolls and pretty purses, etc. But I don't think we realize in just how many ways kids are socialized into these things, how we all do it unconsciously, and how, even if we resist, gender messages come from all over.

I don't mean to say that the socializing is bad, either. It's how we make sense of the world. But if we're not conscious of how and why we label, we'll never get very far into understanding how to best react when our labels for others (or others' for us) don't "fit."