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Why are kids the gender police?

Posted by Margot Magowan at 20th January, 2011

Originally posted to my blog ReelGirl on January 20.

Lots of comments on my last post about Peggy Orenstein’s new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and that no matter how no matter how hard parents try, girls and boys adamantly refuse to be nudged out of their prescribed (marketed!) gender roles.

Orenstein elaborates on this challenge in her book: right around ages 2 -3, kids begin to understand that there’s something called a ‘boy’ and something thing called a ‘girl ‘and that something important differentiates between them. The problem is, they’re not sure what that is. Orenstein writes, “The whole penis-vagina thing does not hold quite the same cachet among the wee ones as it does among us.”

Orenstein recounts a story about a kid, Jeremy, who wore his favorite barrettes to school and was taunted by another kid who said, “You’re a girl!”

Jeremy denied it, arguing that he had a penis and testicles. The classmate replied, “Everyone has a penis, only girls where barrettes.”

Orenstein asks: “If toting the standard equipment is not what makes you male or female, exactly what does? Well, duh, barrettes.”

Making things evermore complicated, kids at this age also don’t understand that identity is fixed, a girl might grow up to be a dad or a mom. All this ‘slippery stuff’ can make a kid nervous– if she cuts her hair too short, she could turn into a boy!

Orenstein quotes the neuroscientist, Lise Eliot, author ofPink Brain, Blue Brain: “The prefrontal cortex of the brain is what looks to the future, and that’s the slowest part to develop. Another example would be death: young children have a very hard time understanding that a pet or a person who has died is gone forever. They may listen to what you say and seem to get it, but secretly, they believe it can change.”

(Note: I feel the same way about death– eek!)

Orenstein says kids’ solution at this stage is often to “cling rigidly to the rules and hope for the best.” Lucky for them– the Disney Princess marketing machine is here to help! Orenstein writes, “Developmentally speaking, they were genius, dovetailing with the precise moment that girls need to prove they’re girls.”

There’s no simple solution here, but plenty to think about, the main question being, when your child is looking for an identity, do you want the Disney executives to be the ones suggesting it to her?

About Margot Magowan

Margot Magowan has written 18 articles on this blog.

Margot Magowan is a writer and commentator. Her articles on politics and culture have been in Salon, Glamour, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, and numerous other newspapers. She has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN, Fox News and other TV and radio programs. She is the co-founder of the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership.

Category : Community Member Projects and Updates / Culture / Media / Women

3 Responses to “Why are kids the gender police?”

  1. In general I agree with you, but your comment that gender identity is fixed and immutable from birth is simply not the given in modern American culture that it once was.

    Transgendered and even agendered people are living happy, healthy lives, many of them having first expressed their felt gender by just such things as wearing barrettes or boxer shorts at a young age.

    Cis or trans, I don’t want anyone else picking my kids’ genders or gender roles for them beyond the necessity of a pronoun with which to refer to each of them.

  2. 1010 says:

    @ Susan

    that’s exactly the dilemma that came to my mind. How do you reassure a kid who has anxiety about this without potentially harming transgender and transexual kids? a phrase like “no matter what happens to you, you will always be a girl” which might help a cisgendered kid, turns to a slap in the face when directed at a little trans boy, and you can’t necessarily know ahead of time.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Woodhull Institute and Lee Hyman, wende1716. wende1716 said: RT @Woodhull_Org: http://bit.ly/ht1ID4 Why are kids the gender police? Must read for all parents and teachers – by Margot Magowan #par … [...]

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