Do my interactions with strangers shape my toddler's view of gender?

January 7 2016 | Guest post by Celeste Bocchicchio-Chaudhri

smile-2My son's hair is long and curly. Wet, it hangs down between his shoulder blades in fine brown tendrils to the middle of his back. Dry, the curls gather in loose spirals at his shoulders. He has smooth, soft skin and small pink lips. His thick, dark eyelashes give his chocolate brown eyes an intensity and depth beyond his limited age.

What I am getting at here is that he is beautiful. Not with a face that only I, as his mother could love, but instead with a face that stops pedestrians in their tracks, turns heads on the train, and elicits constant exclamations from strangers:

"What a beautiful little girl you have!"

"Look at her curls!"

"Ooo she has dimples too!"

The last occurs as my son smiles, waves bye-bye, and blows kisses to his adoring masses.

He learned to tell male from female at a little over a year old—surprising me by consistently signing "Dad" at men and "Mom" at women, at people walking down the street or in picture books. Always, he got it right. Almost always those same people got it wrong, complimenting me on my daughter. Now at nearly two we ask him "Are you a baby?" to which he definitively answers "noooooo."

"Are you a little boy?"

"Nooo!"

"No? What are you then?"

"Morgan!"

It is tempting to write too much into this, to suppose that my child knows that the deepest truth of his self is neither male nor female but simply Self. Then again, we have yet to ask him if he is a little girl. Maybe if we did he'd echo back all the strangers who call him she.

And if he did?

We picked the name Morgan months before we conceived our child. At the time, I was certain that I would not want to find out the sex of my baby until it was born in an effort to avoid the prenatal gender stereotyping that runs rampant in baby shower gifts. Knee-deep in queer theory in my women's studies graduate courses, I wanted a name that could go both ways in case my child did.

Now, three years and a thousand miles away from my graduate program and the endless discussions on what it means to resist dominant discourses of heteronormativity, I find myself tempted to cut the curls I adore. I believe that little boys should be able to have flowing tresses and that rosy cheeks and pink pajamas are not the property of femininity. And yet, I get tired of correcting all the well-meaning strangers who compliment my child with the wrong pronoun. And despite myself, I wonder what message Morgan learns from their confusion.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think that the erroneous "she" slipped into conversation will "turn" my son gay or transgender — should he grow up to date boys or dress in skirts or answer to "she" and "her" instead of "he" and "him" I will hug her and tell her again about the first time I ever kissed a girl. He will be who he will be, and the stereotypes of pediatricians and bus drivers from his childhood will not be the deciding factor in his self-identification.

But this does not mean he doesn't hear a message in their errors. And perhaps more importantly, in my response. People stammer their apologies, offer lies to claim that now that they are really looking they can tell that he is a boy (as if he or I would be offended that they thought he was a girl). I am eager to smooth over their embarrassment. "It's the curls," I say. "They confuse everyone, but I can't bear to cut his hair."

I absorb the discomfort of others into myself. To ease it, I reinforce the stereotype I wish to dispel. It's my fault, I teach my son. Long hair is for girls, I confirm, even as I beg his father to grow his out. What else do I teach him? That it is better to smooth over the awkwardness of strangers than to take a stand? That it is the role of women to always seek to make others emotionally comfortable?

Later, I ask Morgan, "Should I cut your hair?

"No!" he yells. "Hair on!"

  1. He's too young to know what he wants or feels towards it yet. My kids have two mums and we've specifically steered clear of gender stereotypes in our home. Yet our almost 5 year old currently will tell his little sister that certain things are for girls and certain things are for boys. He will still play with dolls and the like, but society reflects these images and our children absorb these messages. I've heard little kids parents say "that's for girls/boys." And it sickens me. I don't think it's wrong of you to want to cut his hair. I also don't think it's wrong of you to want to leave it long. Eventually, he will tell you what he wants anyway!

    • My daughter has overheard comments from other parents about what is for boys/girls in shops and sometimes she repeats them back to us. We usually say yes that is in the boy/girl section but it's really for everyone.

      It's so hard in our society to give our children room to figure out how they wish to express their authentic selves without bringing the social construct of what gender is or should be into it.

      • At three, kids also "know" they don't want to take baths, eat their veggies or go to the doctor. I'm not saying the parents shouldn't consider his feelings about it, but I wouldn't leave the decision entirely up to him at that age

  2. I never corrected anyone when my daughter was a baby. She was called he a lot, she was very bald till she was 18 months old and I tended towards pretty gender neutral clothing. I was especially was amused when told once oh what a cute little boy you have and asked what his name was. I replied thank you and [insert very gendered first name]. The person replied in a shocked tone Oh what an unusual name for a boy. I just smiled and laughed inside.

    These days at almost 3 she is very girly by her choice, insists on wearing dresses most days and accessories are a must. And revels in her adoring audience telling her what a pretty girl she is. And the times she's wearing jeans and her favorite pirate or dinosaur shirt and she gets misgendered. She is the one who says loudly I'm a girl not a boy! Because it's important to her

  3. I was sitting here thinking about this article for a while because gender stereotyping irritates me as well, but how in the world do you instill that in a child? They get messages about gender every day. My conclusion was that it's their choice, and while I do not have any of my own, I've been around them enough to know that as young as two they will tell you what they want. In short of having a closet full of "boy clothes" and "girl clothes" and stressing over which one your child might pick, if a 3 year old boy wants to wear a dress he will say so, whether or not the option is there for him. Calm down and let them make their own decisions. While I agree with everything the author is saying, it almost sounds like she's trying too hard and stressing out about it in the process. It's really the child's choice and they will let you know what they want.

  4. Never have I heard someone else echo my own experiences so clearly, so thank you for helping me to see that it's not JUST me! My son can be described almost exactly the same way, with golden curls instead of chocolate. His big brown eyes, long curls, and dimple have caused strangers to tell us how pretty he was since he was a tiny baby. When he was 2, the fact that his hair was consistently in his face, and the pressure of societal norms, I cut off those curls. It made me sad. He was too little to care, but it hurt my heart. I kept his hair cut short for about a year, and the mistaken gender questions stopped.

    When he turned 3 he asked me "Mom, can we NOT cut my hair?" I was thrilled to let him. We set some ground rules (you have to wash it & comb it….and we'll trim it as we go so you don't rock a mullet!) and started the journey to growing back his curls. His hair grows very quickly, so by the time he started kindergarten, he had chin length hair, and by the end of that year it was hitting the center of his back. There have been times where he wanted to cut it off, and I always give him that option, but there is never any real desire (last summer we cut off about 5 inches of it at his request, and he said NO more). Since we started growing it out, the gender comments have returned, both from children and adults…but more often from adults. For example, my son plays on an all boys soccer league, and I've overheard more than one parent from opposing team discussing the girl on our team. I try not to let it bother me, and it helps that my husband is also a long haired man (with a big, full beard), so affirms the idea that he can be masculine with long hair if he wants to be.

    However, what I can happily say is that it really doesn't seem to bother my son, who is now 6 years old. When it first started to get long, he would get upset that people didn't see him as a boy. At 3, that was important to him. We assured him that he is welcome to correct their error, as long as he does so respectfully. So he does. A waiter asks "what can I get for you, princess" and he says "Um, actually, I'm a boy, but can I have a hamburger." More often than not, the person is embarrassed at the mistake, but the fact that he doesn't dwell on it or seem upset helps to relieve the sting. We've had teachers and other parents give us strange looks that we don't MAKE him cut his hair off, but we've also received praise for letting him be who he wants to be. But no matter their opinions, I know it makes my son happy and gives him the freedom to express himself in a world where 6 year olds have very little freedom to make their own decisions, and that is good enough for me!

  5. My friend was a beautiful baby boy. He had long, blond curly hair, big blue eyes, long eyelashes, and a cherubic face. He was constantly mistaken for a little girl. Looking back, it never really registered with him when his mother had to correct them. And, he grew up to be a short haired, hetero male. The mistakes of others in his toddlerhood really seemed to have absolutely no effect on who he wound up being.

  6. From one mom of a boy with long hair so pretty that we were stopped by strangers everywhere to another I can tell you you're overthinking this. I never bother to correct random strangers though because what's the point? Making a big production of the fact that he's a boy with long hair only tends to embarrass the strangers and has the potential to make him feel like people thinking he's a girl is bad. Also, fwiw my daughter looked identical to my son as a baby except for a slightly rounder face and although most of the time we had the same experience with people stopping us to say how beautiful *she* was the instant I put her in something remotely gender neutral we started getting "he". I think it's just easy to remember all the times someone got it wrong and you just don't notice all the times someone was right.

    You're not going to be able to shield him from the existence of gender stereotypes by cutting his hair; much better to use it as a jumping off point for conversations. In my house we've had multiple conversations about how it's not what you wear or how long your hair is that makes you a boy/girl, it's your penis/vulva. Then of course we've talked about how some people are boys or girls on the outside but inside their brain they know that they're not a boy, they're a girl or vice versa.

    My son is now almost 7 and in the last several months has started refusing to let me trim his hair or bangs because he wants his hair to be even longer. He still sometimes gets misgendered even when wearing very "masculine" clothing (he really loves dinosaurs and trains) but he doesn't seem to care either. The only time it's ever come up was this summer when I wanted to use a pony tail and barrettes to hold his hair off his face while I applied sunscreen and he wouldn't let me because "barrettes and pony tails are for girls." Even pointing out that his dad wears his hair in a pony tail every day was not enough to change his mind about letting me do it so we moved on.

  7. I'm with the other commenters, I don't correct people when they misgender my child. It's not hurting me or my son, and it heaps a whole ton of unnecessary guilt and embarrassment on the stranger to point out their error.
    In the same vein that when I have my friends children, I never correct people when they say how cute my kids are, even though they're not actually my kids.

    • Ah, this is an interesting perspective–allows me to relate a bit. I'm a kidless lady, and I like to take a friend's daughter out to fun events. While we're out, people often refer to me as her "mommy" and I always hustle to correct them. Once someone got away too fast, and the kid asked me why she said that. I said she just made a mistake and I should have corrected her. She just shrugged and said she didn't care.

      What I'm getting at here, is that, in my limited experience, the kid wants to know that the people who are important in her life know the truth as she understands it. What the stranger said didn't matter to her, but she would have been worried if I actually *thought* I was her mommy. Likewise, I think little kids want to know their gender is understood correctly by the key players, not the world at large.

      • That's such a good point Rebecca, kids care what the people close to them think. If they care about the strangers opinion, kids have no problem correcting people. I've been a nanny for over 10 years, so I've been mistaken as "mom" a lot! I've come to the point where I take it as a compliment that I love these kids so much people can't even tell I'm NOT the mom.

  8. Lol man buns are in right now! Long hair is not just for females. I have always had a few male friends with long hair and my dad never had short hair for as long as I knew him. Hair style is just a choice. It shouldn't really be a gender thing. If you like it long and he likes it long, more power to you.

    I work security, which is a very male dominated field. I wear men's clothes, because it's just easier at work. I get misgendered all the time… And I don't bother correcting people. Those people, who I won't likely meet again will either figure it out or not. They don't matter too much in the long run.

  9. Another mama of a beautiful, long-curly-haired boy here! He has a wild lion cub mane that we clip back with barettes or tie into ponytails during mealtimes so he doesn't give himself a yogurt hair treatment. Sometimes strangers accidentally misgender him or compliment him effusively on his hair or eyelashes (sometimes they do both). Usually I just say, "Thank you, I love his hair so much!" which seems to clear everything up without making the other person feel awkward.

    On a personal level, his curls are a clear reminder of his first mom (we adopted him as a newborn), so they are even more special to me. He has her hair for sure, and I won't cut it unless he asks me to.

  10. I get the impression that the biggest tragedy in the correction/embarrassment exchange is that a child will learn that being misgendered is bad or embarassing. I've often wondered what would happen if you just intentionally never gendered your child until they start gendering themselves? Is that even possible? I'm talking about never correcting someone, using gender neutral language, and not telling someone their gender. Years ago, I remember my sister in law talking about how someone in her mommy group was doing this. Unfortunately my SIL was very disparaging and dismissive so she never got more information about it from the child's mother.

  11. My son got mixed up as a girl plenty of time despite not actually being especially pretty in a way that would induce people to make a mistake. As a baby I aimed for gender neutral clothes partly because I wanted to be able to reuse things and mostly because I think putting an infant in a frilly pink ball gown or a suit is a bit silly when there's a 90% chance they will spit up on it. But even as he got older and started wearing "boy clothes" people still though he was a girl sometimes. Much less often now, as he is four and very emphatic that he is male. Although if you ask if he is a boy he will usually say "No, I'm a Name!"

    He does however have strong opinions on his hair and has since he was about 2 (he's 4 now). He hates having hair in his face and if it gets to long he wants it cut. It isn't that he thinks long hair is for girls, since we know a few guys with long hair, and my husband has been growing his out so he sees that Daddy has longish hair.

    Kids are pretty resilient and usually very sure of themselves. As a kid I was extremely sure if the fact that I was a girl despite the fact that I was a bit of a tomboy and was very fond of some "boy" things. I liked "girly" things like dressing up and playing with dolls as long as it wasn't playing house, and I liked "boy" things like trains, and lincoln logs, and medieval weapons. But I look at my son and He likes all those same things. He loves to dress up though he prefers to be Batman or a knight while I preferred to be a Lucy from Narnia or a mermaid. He loves playing with people toys best more than any other and his favourite toys are his superheroes and knights, and no matter what people might call them those are still dolls. I played with my dolls the same way he plays with his: by sending them on fabulous, fantastic adventures. And everyone should appreciate medieval weaponry. Its just so damn cool!

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that it isn't a huge deal. People will look at the things my son does and say "Wow, he's such a boy!" and while he is, people said "What a girl!" when I did the same things.

  12. My son will be six next week and the only hair we have cut is the what I thought would turned dready, but in reality were what we called in the olden days rats nest!!! So he has hair down to his butt when it is wet and when dry curls to the middle of his back. And he has those chubby cute cheeks and big blue eyes. Everyone calls him a girl. At first he didn't even notice. Now he says and I quote, "I am a boy and I have beautiful hair!" He doesn't want it cut. Oh well. He also wears very boyish clothing, trucks on his shirts and stuff like that. It could go both ways but he is very much into construction equipment so to me it is obvious that he is a boy. He does wear some tie-dye, can go both ways there. We are not offended and try to be polite if we correct people. We also home school so we are limited to his karate, my work and library friends. Hey maybe we can rock it out with the boy bun instead of the man bun!!! But my son doesn't like his hair up. Only two clips in the middle to keep it out of his eyes. So from this I have learned to never make assumptions about people. A good principle to live by.

  13. I am having trouble with this concept. I see parents trying very hard to keep gender stereotypes out of their child's life. I understand this. I applaud it. I also think some parents are going further and trying not to gender their child out of respect for how that child will eventually gender themselves…which I also understand. But then the article and comments reflect frustration over their child being MISgendered by strangers, which indicate to me that you HAVE assigned a gender to your child. Would the following be more authentic to the goal and cause less embarrassment for the stranger? "We try not to assign gender to fashion choices (or toys, or activities, etc.), but I realize this can cause confusion for people who automatically think feminine when they see long hair. Biologically my child is male, but only will be able to decide on gender.". As a well intentioned stranger this would be an awesome conversation starter, or at least thought provoking as I walk away from the encounter. Also it seems like a very clear message for the child at the center of the conversation to hear.

    • Are we reading the same comments? I don't see anyone in the comments who is frustrated by people misgendering their kid. I do see a bunch of us talking about how we don't bother correcting strangers because it doesn't matter which is pretty much the opposite of being frustrated. I also see a few anecdotes about kids not wanting to be misgendered but surely that's their prerogative. In addition you seem to be confusing the idea of not limiting our kids to gender stereotypes with the idea of genderlessness and they're not the same. That being said there's nothing wrong about your suggestion for what to say except that I have zero desire to have that conversation with a million random strangers. I'm just not invested enough to put the time and energy into it and quite frankly most of those strangers aren't either.

      • Sure we're reading the same comments, we're just reading them differently. Which is pretty common. I was picking up on the comments asking what message does it give my child if I correct someone when they misgender him or her. There are lots of responses saying I don't correct them because it's not that big of a deal or I don't want to get into it with strangers. Also, I did state that some parents are avoiding gender stereotypes types and some parents are trying not to influence gender choice. I am not confusing the two. I am saying that how you choose to respond (or not), to gender stereotypes, is influential to a child's understanding of their gender identity; gender stereotypes types and gender identity intersect. With that in mind I was trying to think of a response other than choosing to not correct them or difinitively stating, my child is a boy. What is a good answer for the child to hear? What sort of overheard conversations give children the tools to say what they mean in future conversations?

        • See, the message I'm trying to send my child by not correcting strangers is that "It doesn't matter if someone thinks you're a girl because it doesn't matter what gender you are" and more broadly "It doesn't matter what random strangers think of you." I feel like the problem with correcting strangers is more about their reaction than anything else. It's not big deal to say that my son is a boy but when they get all flustered and apologize for thinking he's a girl I feel like that's sending him the message that being a girl is bad. Does that make sense?

          • This is actually why I leave the correcting to my son. If he chooses to tell them that they have misgendered him, that's ok, but if he doesn't, that's ok too. Either way, he is the one who has the control over his identity, and I think that sends a powerful message. I've given him the opportunity to express himself, with the only expectation being that he does so respectfully and even at the age of 6 he understands that.

          • Yes, Kate, that makes perfect sense. We're just approaching it differently. As I understand it, your larger message is to not worry so much about what others think. I am totally on board with that message. But I wasn't looking at it that way. I was looking at it from the experience of a girl child who is thrilled an adult thought they were a boy, and what would it feel like to hear a parent say, no, she's a girl. Or the girl who loves firetrucks and hears her dad not object when someone calls her a boy…does that reiterate that only BOYS like trucks? would,"No, she's a girl who like's firetrucks and that is awesome!" be a clearer message to a child? Not better, just less open to incorrect interpretation by a kid….? I don't know. Which is why I post, not to say do it this way, but to ask, what does a child actually take away from the words they overhear? How do we mitigate the misinterpretation of the very young who are raptly listening to every word?

          • When they say "I'm sorry!" I tend to just shrug and reply "Why? There's nothing wrong with being a girl. He's just not one. He likes having long hair like his Daddy." Usually they're either stumped and exit the conversation or visibly relieved that they haven't offended anyone with an honest mistake.

        • Ok, so I get your larger point but it really is a much larger point. This article was about a little boy being migendered because of his appearance, specifically the fact that he has long curly hair and that's what most of us were responding to. I absolutely would say something to an adult who assumed that my daughter was a boy because she likes trains/trucks/dinosaurs/whatever random thing they decided was masculine for exactly the reason you stated. I'd do the same for my son if they said something like "Oh, she's so sweet with the baby, what a little mommy."

          As for a girl who was thrilled that someone thought she was a boy that's more complicated and a lot more fraught. Is it because "she" is trans* and actually "he"? Is it because she's absorbed the messages from our culture that boy > girl? In either case it's a much bigger problem and I can't think of an innocuous reason a girl would feel that way other than they're in costume as a male character.

          • I frequently tried to pass as a boy when I was younger. It was very much born out of a love for costume and character, not gender dysmorphia. Actually having some one act like I was a boy would have given me the same thrill as someone calling me "Your Highness" while I wore a princess dress. But I accept I'm an anomaly.

          • But Anie, did your parent(s) know what you were doing and would your they have made a point of telling those strangers that you were a girl? If they knew and they did than that was bad parenting and I'm sorry.

          • Probably not. I mostly remember doing it at Summer Day Camps. I'd leave for the day in slouchy clothes and then put my hair up in a cap once I got there. Honestly, there was never really a chance of it working, but I still enjoyed it. I can't remember if I ever just went out with them dressed that way …

  14. Having a beautiful son, more so than the average child, I've found will always have people referring to them as female. Boys aren't "meant" to be beautiful.

    As a newborn, I had a staff member in hospital insistent that my son was too beautiful to be a boy, that he must be a girl. A few years later he could not have been dressed more generically as a boy, shaved head, navy singlet, black shorts truck socks and chunky brown shoes, and I had a woman exclaim to me how beautiful my daughter was. Even now at 16 his features are commented on as being beautiful, not handsome. And he is a 6foot 2inch solid lump of a man-child. It's just people.

  15. Being a long-haired dad myself, and having a name that is used as female in most of the world, I still get people confused about my gender, in my almost-40's. Ignore their wrong pronouns is all I can say, don't try to correct them. Don't try to ease their awkwardness, don't make it yours. Just ignore them. Your kid – like all young kids – is not yet conditioned and knows the truth is that we are just souls who happen to come to live into a body we don't choose. Our body is just a tool.

  16. I got that all the time with the long blonde curls on my son. He would wear the superhero shirt with cape with his twin sister in a dress and I would get your daughters have beautiful hair. I admit when I saw another little boy with long blonde curls . I told the father how much I loved his son's hair. How I couldn't bear to cut my son's either because it was so beautiful. Then joked that their was plenty of time for them to bald when they grew up.

  17. Hopefully I don't sound mean in saying this, but…I feel like he's saying "Nooo, I'm not a little boy, I'm Morgan" because he's been taught that. Maybe you said "You're not a little boy, you're my Morgan" a few times and he picked up on it eventually . Just like how other little kids learn to answer "Are you a silly billy / have you seen my sweet baby" with "Nooo, I'm a little angel / nooo, I'm a lion, remember, roarrrr"

  18. My son had long, straight hair past his shoulders until he was five. We tied it up for school, left it out most of the other times. He got misgendered more often than not but I left it up to him whether he corrected people or not; "I'm a boy with long hair". Unfortunately my parents and brother worked on him pretty hard about how long hair was for girls and he should cut it, so one holiday he came home with it bobbed, having 'asked' to have it cut. It was only a few months later he asked to cut it very short. I'm still a bit sad about it! I'm hoping he'll grow it again but it's his choice and we live near my parents now, so it's easier to enforce such things. As an aside, his father had long hair too but is not in our lives right now to add his two cents' worth.

  19. I have a long-haired boy, as well.

    I usually thank them for the compliment and throw in a "he is, isn't he?" This way, I acknowledge, soft-correct but still make sure my son (who feels he is a boy at this point) hears me use the right pronouns for him. Sometimes the listener gets it; sometimes they don't, but it's not worth a fight since there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a girl/woman.

    If he is going to respect all people, that starts with my example. Whether it is general manners and how you act, to how to speak to strangers, to showing there's nothing wrong with being any (or no) gender, it all starts with me.

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