Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Nature? Nurture? Who cares? It's Respect That Matters

As a new parent, I was convinced that our daughter would grow up to be a sports playing, hammer wielding tomboy. After all, I was playing the role of stay-at-home-parent in our family, and I just assumed that my male influence would make it so. We didn't exactly try to raise her in a non-gender specific way, but her mom was the one heading off to the office, while her dad handled childcare, cooking, and cleaning. Not only that, but we both preferred her in short hair and overalls, and for the first couple years of her life, whenever she was out with me, everyone just assumed she was a little boy, a mistake I didn't always correct. If anyone was raising a child outside the cultural expectations for little girls, it was us.

When she was around two-years-old she came across a bejeweled crown in a toy store, put in on her head, looked me in the eye and said, "You don't know what girls do." She then proceeded to wear a crown, princess dresses, tutus, and sparkles every day for the next three years.

I wasn't disappointed, exactly, but I was surprised. After all, the mainstream debates over gender back then tended to be of the nature v. nurture variety and I was convinced that our nurturing would, of course, result in a girl who was not so, well, girly. I began to wonder if maybe nature had, indeed, won out. It was around this time that the two-year-old daughter of one of our friends began to dress herself in her brother's "boy clothes" and insist that the rest of us call her Joe. It wasn't a "phase" and today, 20 years later, we all know him as a young man. Was this even more evidence for nature? Or was it nurture?

Who cares? I mean, I'm sure there are scientists out there trying to figure it all out, and I'm convinced that they will continue find that it's some combination of both, but as a parent or educator in the real world, my responsibility is to stay out of it. If the child says they're a girl, they're a girl, even if it's only for a day or a week, and even if they aren't choosing frilly dresses. If they say they're a boy, they're a boy, even it it's only for a day or a week and even if they aren't choosing overalls. And if they don't want to be forced to pick a gender, it's not my job to push them one way or another. 

I know that for many, our attempts to raise children in a gender neutral way seems like a radical concept, simultaneously dangerous and silly. "Dangerous" because they fear our nurturing will result in forcing something on their children and "silly" because they expect that in-born gender wiring will win out. But "gender-neutral" only means that we seek to be neutral, which is to say we strive to take their word for it.

We do it because we respect children and there is nothing dangerous or silly about that.

In my interview with Australian early childhood expert Maggie Dent for the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit she tells us that she continues to have to "heal the wounds" she has suffered due to gender expectations and stereotypes. Even though her gender identity matches her biology, she was, as she tells it, a loud, physical "tomboy" who was forever being told to quiet down, know her place, not get to big for her boots, and, above all, to be compliant, because girls are expected to be "people pleasers." She tells of an old family photo in which she is wearing an expression of "rage and disgust" over being forced to wear a fancy dress.

She's not the only woman to object to being shoved into the "woman box" even as she identifies as a woman. I can tell you that as a man, I resent being shoved into the "man box." We are all more and bigger than the stereotypes. Maggie talks of Australian fathers who are upset when their boys come home from school wearing nail polish fearing that it will somehow turn them gay or female, which is as silly as thinking that a stay-at-home father will turn daughters into macho men. As for the argument that children will be somehow confused if we don't stick with their "biological" gender, I ask you to consider how confusing it must have been for little Joe who knew, even at a very young age, that he was a boy even as the rest of the world was telling him he was wrong. 

Everything is confusing until it is not. That's what learning is all about. Humans can deal with confusing. It's lack of respect that wounds us.

We are born with genitals, but the rest is a social construct enforced by expectations and stereotypes that serve no one but those who would shove others into boxes. I might continue to struggle with things like gender neutral pronouns. I have 60 years of social conditioning to overcome. But I'm working on it, not because it's politically correct, but because I want to show my fellow humans, even if they are young children, the same sort of respect that I want for myself.


To watch my full interviews with Maggie, please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. When we respect children we begin to heal the world!

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