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I Don't Have a Problem with Gender. I Just Don't Want to Crush Kids' Dreams.

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I don't have a problem with gender. At least I don't have a problem with people having gender. In fact, I'm all in favor of people having gender. (How does one not have a gender?)

I just did a quick online search at Dictionary.com, and “gender” is, simply, “either the male or female division of a species, especially as differentiated by social and cultural roles and behavior.” So it’s our culture that determines which characteristics about humans are more commonly associated with either male or female.

I think it’s natural for humans to associate themselves with gender roles. I’ll admit it. I love certain things about stereotypical gender roles. I love when my groom opens my car door; somehow, it makes me feel more ladylike, in a good way. And I think he likes it when I let him open my car door; it makes him feel more gentlemanly. For me, that’s an example of “etiquette plus gender.” It’s courtesy combined with gender roles.

Alternatively, there are plenty of courtesies that I find important, regardless of gender. For example, opening the door to a building or a room (as opposed to the former example of opening my car door). If you’re the first one to the door, regardless of your gender or your age, you open it for those who are behind you. That’s just plain old etiquette.

That said, if you are a man, and you insist on holding the door for me, instead of letting me hold it open for you? Well. Again. I’m old-school on this one, folks. I gladly will oblige, with a smile and a “thank you,” just like my parents taught me. I know some women may not agree, but for me, there are good gender roles and there are bad gender roles. And I don’t think men are doing anything but showing women respect (read: something good) when they hold open the door for them.

Some gender roles aren’t bad, necessarily, in and of themselves, but they get manipulated in a way that is hurtful. Seemingly gender neutral behaviors – such as women becoming fighter pilots and sports referees, or little girls loving toy trucks, or little boys emulating Princess Elsa and Queen Amidala, or men working as dancers, nurses, flight attendants, and stay-at-home parents . . . somehow, our society twists these either innocuous or even salubrious behaviors into unhealthy behaviors or character flaws. How can a toy define a child’s gender? Or a pair of PJs? And why on earth would we want to discourage half the population from pursuing any vocation, especially a vocation of service, like the military or nursing?

Unfortunately, because of certain gender associations that have developed over time, we adults sometimes make gender biased comments without realizing how influential they might be to the kids around us. If you’re struggling to think of an example, here are a few, taken just from the last few weeks.

Example #1: Playful polish

Four-year-old Jimmy delightedly asked his mother to paint his nails pink, one of his favorite colors. But when Jimmy’s neighbor, a teacher, saw Jimmy and said, “Oh, Jimmy! Why do you have pink nail polish on?”, Jimmy cried, and insisted that his mom change the color to blue. Until that moment, Jimmy hadn’t realized pink was anything other than a gorgeous hue. But now, Jimmy knows what many people think…that pink apparently is a color exclusive to little girls (and one pretty popular with professional athletes…just as an aside.)

So Jimmy’s mom changed his nail polish color to blue.

The very next day, Wendy, Jimmy, and Jimmy’s sister were checking out at the grocery store. Sure enough, the cashier, thinking nothing of it, chuckled and commented on Jimmy’s colorful fingernails. “Wow! Your mom lets you wear nail polish? Let me guess. Big sis did it, right? Well at least she didn’t paint them pink!” Jimmy’s mom tried to deflect the unintentional criticism and reminded Jimmy that his nails looked great, and that pink was a wonderful color...for anyone.

These days, it’s not uncommon for kids to pull out the nail polish and get messy. Girls and boys. Why is it so fun? Because it’s paint…that you get to put on your body! What kid isn’t gonna absolutely love that idea?

Jimmy just wants to play. To him, painting your fingernails is as much about playtime as is coloring, finger painting, pushing Tonka trucks, or climbing a tree.

Example #2: Kids’ beach towels

Dennehy got out of the hotel pool. She grabbed one of the several beach towels draped over a chair, and began to dry herself off. A sweet woman nearby grabbed a towel with Disney princesses on it and said to Denna, “You want a girl towel, sweetie?” Dennehy stared at her blankly; I could tell that Denna had no earthly idea what this nice woman meant by a “girl towel.” Dennehy just continued to use the towel she had, and dried off, saying nothing.

Now. Of course that woman didn’t mean anything negative by this gesture; she only was being thoughtful. But that’s my point. We adults have had these gender biases implanted in our brains for so long that we don’t even realize what we’re doing by saying these things. What if a boy had picked up that Disney princess towel? Would that woman have switched it out for him and given him a “boy towel” instead? What if that little boy happened to like princesses? After all, they’re basically heroes to little ones. What if that little boy wanted to be brave and competitive like Merida or Mulan, or sing like Ariel, or rescue people like Pocahontas, Anna or Elsa? How would such an interaction – over a towel – make him feel? Would he still think those Disney princesses were cool, or would he now shun them?

Example 3: Airport convenience store clerk

I had been in D.C. for work (other job), and was making my way home. I stopped in an airport convenience store to grab some souvenirs for my kids. The clerk asked if she could help me. “Just looking for some souvenirs for my twin girls.” We walked around the store together, glancing at the things on the shelves. In passing by a parachute toy (one made of a soldier with a parachute attached to his/her back), I remarked that the twins “already have that toy.” The clerk looked at me incredulously and said, “But that’s a boy’s toy, isn’t it?”

I couldn’t help it. I had to play.

“A boy’s toy? What’s that?” I asked, with as little emotion as I could muster.

“You know. It’s a toy for little boys. You said your twins are girls, right?” she shot back, taking full grasp of my bait.

“Yeah…my twins are little girls. But I’m not sure I understand what you mean by ‘a boy’s toy’ or a ‘girl’s toy.’ Do toys have gender? Are toys male and female?”

To her credit, the clerk laughed and (honestly she said this), “I never really thought about that! I guess you’re right! A girl could play with [the parachute toy]!”

We continued around the store and had a few more chuckles over the silliness of separating toys by gender. Ultimately, I ended up buying the girls some playing cards as a souvenir and some adorable soldier dolls (a bit larger and more decorated than the teeny-tiny figurines we played with as kids) as stocking stuffers. (I attached a picture of the soldier dolls below.) They love talking about soldiers; they’re fascinated (rightfully so) by what they do. So they’ll love opening those little soldier dolls on Christmas day.

So long as no one “reminds” them that they’re “boys’ toys.”



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