“Do you want him to be gay?” Musings on gender roles, assumptions, and raising self-aware kids

Guest post by Amanda
By: D. Sharon Pruitt - CC BY 2.0
By: D. Sharon PruittCC BY 2.0

Recently, we sat at the dinner table with friends talking about the baby. I was saying how I hope he gets my taste in television so I don’t have to sit around watching judge shows all day with him and his dad (you know, when he’s a teenager, because of course he’s not allowed to watch TV until he’s at least 16… and then only on weekends… for an hour). Because I’d rather watch HGTV. And this friend said, jokingly, “Do you want him to be gay?” and laughed.

And I cringed.

When I was growing up, my mom took offense whenever anyone said anything that might remotely be considered judgemental. About anyone. Ever. It was so annoying. Like when I was all “Hey, mom, look at that guy’s funny pink shoes with elephants on them!” (points and giggles) And she was all “He can wear whatever he wants, just like you.” (looks at me disapprovingly) And I was all “Geeze, mom, have a sense of humor once and a while.” (rolls eyes and walks away)

But now I have a kid of my own. And I get it. (Did I really just say that?)

She wanted me to be confident in my own skin, no matter what I liked or didn’t like, no matter what I wore, or whether I dated boys or girls or nobody at all. She never wanted me to feel bad for who I was. And her way of drilling that into my head was giving me disapproving looks if I said anything remotely offensive about anyone ever.

But it must have worked.

I was a Tomboy. Big time. I spent my time mountain biking, climbing trees, playing soccer/basketball/baseball/you name it, I played it. My favorite toys were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Hot Wheels. I hated when the cashier at McDonald’s put the girl toy in my Happy Meal. My hair was rarely more than a few inches long. I wore baggy jeans and ripped tee-shirts. Old ladies shooed me out of public restrooms insisting I was in the wrong one. And I remember the ONE TIME a waitress correctly called me “Miss” instead of “Sir.”

But I also plastered my walls with posters of JTT and Brad Renfro from Tiger Beat magazine and wrote love letters in my diary in big girlish swirly letters to all the boys I was majorly crushing on. I even occasionally put these letters in the mail (Yikes! Sorry boys!).

And I never thought there was anything weird about that… until I eventually learned that not everyone has parents who let them break from traditional gender roles in almost everything they do.

We spend a lot of time talking about empowering girls to break gender barriers. Which is important — we should. And there is plenty more work to do in that arena. But now I have a boy to raise. And if he wants to play dress-up instead of hockey, or wear his hair long or short, or become a fashion designer or watch HGTV instead of judge shows (fingers crossed), or if he likes girls or boys or nobody at all, I want him to know that it’s OK.

But here’s the thing: as much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, I’m not the sole influence on my son’s life. Duh. There are plenty of well-intentioned folks in his village (who we love dearly, by the way) who may say things that I don’t want him to hear, or teach him things that I don’t want him to learn. And on top of that, there’s a great big giant world out there just waiting to tell him who he’s supposed to be. And I haven’t been doing this long enough to know how to handle these situations.

Having said that, I’m already having major anxiety about letting my kid loose in this world and he’s only three months old! He can’t even hold himself up without support! How am I supposed to make it through the next 18 years?

How are you talking about gender roles and expectations with your kids?

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Comments on “Do you want him to be gay?” Musings on gender roles, assumptions, and raising self-aware kids

  1. Wonderful.

    Also sounds a lot like how my mom was and still is to this day. Unfortunately not everyone is as wonderfully sensitive. But as long as we the parents follow in our mother’s footsteps I think we’re good to go.
    My almost 2 year old plays everyday with the doll house I bought him. Sometimes even his trains get put in the little beds and he says “night night” to them.

  2. Mine is only 13 months, but at this point I think my main goal is to have our home be a safe space. People out in the world can and sometimes do say things that make you feel unhappy or scared, and you can decide whether you want to speak up or be quiet because both have benefits, but at home you are going to be 100% supported. All the time. No questions.

  3. I think it’s really important to be very clear and up-front with those members of your community about what you expect. The hubs has some very “onbeat” parents, and we’ve been very clear with them about what kind of language we expect around our 1 1/2 year old son. This has helped, although they’re not perfect…and neither are we.
    Modeling what you would like to see (Danny, I like how unique your pink elephant shoes are) helps.

      • I’m slowly trying to work on my husband’s language now, before we’re even ready to start trying to have kids. And trying to be more aware of my own. Especially about gender. We do both agree that our kid can be whoever they want to be and do whatever they want. I’m hoping for a girl since he’ll have an easier time with a girl doing whatever and being whoever than a boy. Despite having varied interests himself and being offbeat, he still finds it hard to escape the idea that there are things men do and don’t do.

  4. Your kid is going to hear you talk more than anybody else. Yours are the messages he’s most likely to internalize, both positive and negative. I’m guessing that every person you encountered as a kid wasn’t as open-minded as your mom, but it’s her lack of judgment (and disapproving glare) you remember. That’s a huge responsibility, obviously, but it’s also a comfort in a world that isn’t as generous and equitable as we want it to be.

  5. It had never occurred to us that this would be an issue. We didn’t get gender specific toys, unless it was a special request, and most of the time our three boys would rather draw, play with legos, or do something crafty. Then, we went to the local children’s museum, where there happened to be a temporary Barbie exhibit. I asked to go in, since I had been a Barbie girl from the get-go (and no, I am not unhappy about my body now, so don’t go there…), and when we went in, our five year old lit up at all of the pink. We approached kid-sized dress dummies where the kids could drape fabric and create their own fashions. He was so happy. At that point, I started asking him some of the things he wanted. They were: Barbie, Polly Pocket, and Littlest Pet Shop. We started catering to these tastes. When we did, it gave our families to do the same. My sister recently obliged a request from my 2 year old for a “red dancing skirt”, but underneath it, he is still all boy. Each kid is different. Our oldest is all building sets and games, our middle is all pink, Barbie, and books, and our youngest splits his time between Hot Wheels, Barbie, and dinosaurs. We’ve had all three in the dollhouse at the same time. We don’t censor what others say (except for what they say to each other), we just show them by example that there are no “right” toys to play with.

  6. I agree that we need to break free of the gender rolls assigned to boys. Why is it OK for girls to like trucks, blocks, and sports, but not OK for boys to like dolls, dress-up, and pastels? I work in child care, and while in the 2 year old room, a few of the boys were trying on the tutus and skirts. A mom of a girl came to pick up her child and said to a boy in a skirt in a testy voice “that’s for girls. Are you a girl?” I wanted to snap back “he’s being creative and he likes red, so lay off.” Too bad I couldn’t.

    • It shocks me that anyone would say this to a child. I run in such liberal circles I sometimes forget these people are out there…and there’s millions of them. Yikes.

  7. One of the best things I’ve ever run across on the internet was a link to a flow chart that shows which toys are for which kids. The chart starts with “Does the Toy Involve the Use of Genitals?” Yes? THIS TOY IS NOT FOR CHILDEN! No? THIS TOY IS FOR ALL CHILDREN. Love, love, love the message and it’s one we’re trying to get across to our family and friends well before our baby is here so there are no surprises or awkward conversations later.

    • I’ve seen said charts as well! I’m pregnant with my first and all I could think was “If it’s a boy, he can’t play with a kitchen set?! My husband is a chef!” “If it’s a girl she can’t play with cars and car mats?! I have like 200 at my parent’s place that were mine!” Ugh. So weird. Actually about the car mat thing, I was at a party for a 2 year old in December and one of her gifts was a “girl’s” car mat. All pink and stuff. It really aggravated me. Are there girl and boy roads in real life?

  8. This is what I struggle with in my house now. I’m the only girl in a house full of guys (fiance’ and 3 sons). Anytime I hear something negative about being a girl, or girl toys, painting nails, etc., I always question their statement and make them think about it.

    It’s frustrating on my part because I grew up without a girly influence. I became a toyboy-lite. I want so bad to know what it means to just be girly, and I’m trying, but against all these boy forces it is tough. So I still try to show them it doesn’t matter if it’s girl or boy-targeted. If you like it, then like it. That’s all.

  9. Our daughter, from daycare and now school, has been picking up messages about ‘girls like pink, boys like blue’ for example, despite our best efforts. We’ve tried to actively avoid ‘princess’ stuff at home, as she’ll get plenty of exposure to that elsewhere (so I don’t mind it happening – it’s not totally banned or anything) and we aim to buy her a variety of toys, clothes and books. This means that there will be some princesses and pink and so forth – but I want her to know she does have a choice and doesn’t ‘have to’ like X or Y because she’s a girl.

    And given she decided to dress up as a ‘Spiderman explorer’ the other day, I think something about having her own choice is getting through!

    • Ha. I totally identify with your daughter. I used to dress up as Superman and Mighty Mouse ALL THE TIME…I think probably I just thought they were cool because they could fly. I didn’t care what gender they were.

  10. I address it head on. We talk about this stuff all the time. I read a study once that showed it wasn’t enough to lead by example when it comes to these things, you really must talk about it with them. And so we do. He’s only 5, but he’s heard me say that gender is a social construction a hundred times. We do this with other issues too like race and sexuality (well, he knows it’s perfectly okay for two men to marry, he just might not know what all that really means). It is a struggle. But I can’t change society and I can’t change the things that some people will say to him. So I do my best to be that little voice in his ear that tells him it’s okay to be whoever you are.

    • TOTALLY this! My son and I recently watched Afro-Chic at the art museum the other day, and I started breaking down the ideas behind the video so he could grasp it. He’s about to be four, so I don’t know how much he understood, but I think it’s so important to have these conversations as often as you can, and to make them a natural part of your life. Like, I wouldn’t start spouting off about racial and gender stereotypes over breakfast, but since I had really easy and obvious opportunity to do so, I took it.

      I love this: “But I can’t change society and I can’t change the things that some people will say to him. So I do my best to be that little voice in his ear that tells him it’s okay to be whoever you are.” SO much. <3

    • Love this!! My son is 6 and we’ve had many conversations about gender and society, sexuality, race, etc. I grew up most of my life feeling like who I was was not okay because it was not who I was expected to be and I never want my kids to feel that way, particularly around myself. My son is in love with the show “Glee” and I recently had a family member comment that they would never let their kid watch that show because there are too many “issues” that are brought up with it (insert major eye roll from myself). Actually, watching it with him has often led to discussions, often instigated by him, about sexuality, gender roles, bullying, and other “issues” that this family member thought were somehow better left avoided.

    • I totally agree that talking about it is way important. My family didn’t really (and my parents were still pretty strictly within gendered lines) and I fully intend to spend more time talking about it with my kids, giving them that voice that even if they hear something that does not match with what they learn at home, that is okay but we will let our kid be whoever they want to be.

      That being said, I had trucks, Barbies, My Little Ponies, Legos, etc. I wore overalls, roamed pretty free, Dad wanted me to play hockey (or at least ringette).

  11. We are very conscious about gender stereotypes and our son. Luckily, our family is on board with us. He asked for Abby Caddaby shoes, so we let him pick them out and he loves wearing his bright pink and sparkly-haired Abby slippers. He loves wearing my bracelets, necklaces, and headbands. He also loves animals, dinosaurs and trains. I think it is all about encouraging and not discouraging.

  12. I think it’s also important to pay attention to how you react to these things with other people. For example, my son is 2.5. He wears pink shoes, has long (like past his shoulders) hair, and has an assortment of unicorn and Star Wars stuff. He plays with shopping carts and trains, etc. We DO get reactions at the playground. Sometimes, other moms will make comments like, “My husband would never let my son wear pink shoes!” And I just respond with a smile and “Well, pink is just a color and it’s Liam’s favorite (which it is).” Or sometimes other little boys will tell me, in front of him, “He looks like a girl!” To which I’ll reply “And girls are awesome!” or, if I’m comfortable with the other parent, ask the kid why which usually leads into a discussion about hair cuts and styles. What it comes down to, is I want my son to see me engage in positive conversation about these topics and where some of these stereotypes come from. I try not to get defensive. At Disneyland, most of the cast members call him princess and he just says “Thank you!” 🙂

    At preschool, there really haven’t been issues, but I’m most nervous for Kindergarten. So, we’ll see.

    • I love this. My first reaction is always a bit defensive. It’s hard not to sometimes when there is jsut so much gender stereotyping out there. But that is something I will certainly be working on.

      • Yea, it’s REALLY hard. And I’m not perfect. I realized, though, that when I got defensive about people mistaking Liam for a girl, I was unintentionally showing him that it was bad to be mistaken for a girl (which I don’t think it is!). Reacting more positively will, hopefully, show him that it’s more than okay to NOT match up to the gender stereotypes and expectations.

        And I totally want to sit there and have a full on discussion about identity construction, and have to work hard to hold myself back. I’m excited for a time when I can discuss this stuff with my son. It’ll be interesting, too, if/when he gets to the point where he gets mad or embarassed when someone mistakes him for a girl. It’ll be an interesting conversation to see where those feelings come from.

        I’m just happy to see there are other moms out there thinking about all this stuff, too. In my community, I’m kinda the “crazy liberal one who overthinks everything.” 😉

  13. When I first started talking to my daughter about the world, going for walks in the stroller and her asking the names for everything, I never described the other people we met as a “man” or a “woman.” I always said “person.” Eventually she will learn to distinguish, and that the distinction matters to some people, matters a lot to some people, but her first language won’t be gendered. Her first understanding will be of people, undistinguished. It may not be much, against the whole face of the world, but I believe in the power of small actions to bring revolution.

  14. I’m very conscious around not gendering characters in storybooks if there isn’t a pronoun attached to them. I do something similar to Elizabeth in calling people people and kids and babies kids and babies rather than identifying folks by their gender. I want for my child to value themselves and others as more than a gender or sex. I also don’t want for my child to think that their gender constrict them in any way regarding who they play with or what activities they engage in. We have a very supportive alternative parenting community in Berkeley but I still run into problems. I was getting my kid’s hair cut, they are 23 months old, and the hair stylist looks at my child and said boy or girl? I said “They haven’t told me yet.” After a few moments the hairstylist came back with 1990s Zach Morris and Pageant girl type magazine photos and said, I need to know which type of cut – Girl or Boy? I said “Can’t you just cut their hair? Does it have to be a gender?” Finally I looked up a photo of Shiloh Jolie Pitt on my phone and my little Em is totally stylin now. We mostly use female pronouns but sometimes use non-gendered pronouns or if folks use male pronouns so do we. Gender is fluid and I try to respect whatever gender expressions Em is projecting into the world. We use Emma for Femme Days and Emmerson for more butch days. We also have some great books on gender fluidity for children. Em’s chosen family uncle is transgender and so is our baby sitter so Em is surrounded with lots of examples of different gender expression. I’ve found a pretty radical kindergarten thru elementary school that really values creativity and freedom of gender expression and fluidity but not sure that we will do pre-school. I know there is a world out there that prescribes to gender normativity but I want to raise Em to be a critical thinker of princess culture. If she wants to be a total femme princess that is totally cool but I want them to have the tools to deconstruct that culture and then they can claim it in their own way if they want to.

  15. Ha! My mom was the same way. When my little brother would cry, no one was allowed to criticize it, no matter how ridiculous the situation – something that he quickly became privy to and used to his advantage.

    We talk a lot about women being oppressed, but it’s really masculinity that is king in our society, not necessarily men. Masculine flaunting of even female sexuality, and of course boys can be boys and girls can be [tom] boys, but boys aren’t supposed to act ‘like girls.’ My son is 2 and the amount of thought other people put into everything from his long hair to his behavior is totally baffling and appalling.

    Stick with it — Maybe we’ll really be the generation that changes things. 🙂

  16. I am ALL for not perpetuating gender stereotypes, however taking it to the extreme has caused some difficulties around here lately.

    I’ve been watching a friends five year old kid for years and now that she’s in school, I watch her a few days a week when her parent works late. Her parent has been so hyper focused on breaking gender barriers that they go out of their way to NOT get their daughter ‘girl’ stuff; especially clothing. They dress her almost exclusively in black t-shirts and hoodies, blue jeans and skate shoes. I would have 100% no issue with this if that’s what the kid ASKED for, but she hasn’t. She doesn’t get a choice, that’s just what’s presented to her.

    Recently she’s started getting teased at school for wearing ‘boy’ shoes. I’ve talked to her about bullying and to tell the other girls that she can wear what she wants if it makes her happy. She’s still so upset though. She desperately wants to go to the store and buy some ‘girl’ shoes. I’ve heard her asking her parent more than once (on the phone though, not sure what my friend answered back).

    I love this kid to death and want so badly to protect her and make her happy but I’m worried to overstep the invisible boundaries of being a non-parent. I wish I could bring her on a clothing shopping spree and let HER pick out what SHE WANTS to wear.

    I feel like her parent is doing the exact same as the people who say only ‘girl’ stuff for girls and ‘boy’ stuff for boys. They’re not giving the kid a chance to be herself! So frustrating.

    • I definitely get what you’re saying. If a girl wants Lisa Frank, or Hello Kitty, what’s the harm, if that’s what the kid wants? It sometimes seems like society is tougher on “girly” stuff, and I have a feminist theory about that. Being feminine or girly, whether you are a boy or a girl, is seen as a weakness, and even today, males are still the stronger sex. Even women fall into the trap sometimes. In a way, discounting feminine things, for no other reason than they are usually associated with females, is another form of anti-feminism.

      I was talking with my boyfriend and my roommate the other day about the barbie debate, and I said that I would let my kids play with Barbie, if that’s what they wanted, because I loved it when I was little. My roommate then said to my boyfriend, “You hear that? She wants to let your son play with Barbies.” Of course, I stood by unintentional gender neutral statement and replied, “Well, why not if that’s what he wants? I played with matchbox cars too, and I turned out fine.”

  17. I’m working on a story with two couples who live in the same house. One has a boy and the other has a girl, and they were born within three months of each other so they end up being good friends. They get gender neutral toys and books for their children, as well as books with strong females and gay couples (because the boy has two dads). Unfortunately, both families have members that don’t listen to requests for gender neutral stuff, so the two couples decide to turn a spare room in the house into a playroom for both children and then they put all the toys in there and let the kids play with whatever they wanted to. When they started getting into the whole ‘this is for girls and that is for boys’ they talk to their children about why those rules are there and how those rules don’t apply in their home and the children can play with what they want. When the girl became interested in princesses, she chose Anastasia (a non-Disney princess who was strong, smart, and spunky) as her favorite.

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