Sunday, May 31, 2009

Crossdressing toddlers

Today we went off to a birthday party lunch for a gayboy friend of ours, and in honour of the occasion I dressed Louis in a t-shirt that says, When I grow up I want to be a princess.

We had planned to go to a playground en route to burn off a bit of energy, and Lovergirl took his T-shirt off and tucked it in the nappy bag. 'It's okay with our friends, but I don't want him getting teased in the playground for our sense of humour,' she said.

In the end it was irrelevant because we were running late and didn't make it to the park, so the t-shirt went back on, but I'm turning it over in my head.

How much gender role playing do we do with and to our children? How much gender role indoctrination is appropriate? There's a line, I think. I want the children to be proud of their sex - it's good to be a boy, it's good to be a girl. I think it's okay, even important, to have 'boy's things' and 'girl's things' - I like the idea of the 'Dangerous book for boys' & 'Daring book for girls' although I haven't actually read them. But I don't want them to feel they have to conform to gender stereotypes.

Cruising around the internet, I was reading another lesbian mum blog which made me feel a bit sad. I'd be hard pressed to find it again, but they described their two children as "all boy" and "a hundred per cent girl". Maybe they didn't intend it, but it sounded defensive to me - look at our PERFECTLY NORMAL children! No traces of gay-training here! I wrote a couple of days ago about creating my own pressure to be a 'perfect family', to demonstrate that lesbian-headed families are completely valid. I keep coming back to gender roles - what I'm modelling, what I'm teaching them. If I was in a relationship with a man, would I think so much about whether it is okay to dress Louis in girl's clothes? Will people think we are ashamed of his sex? That lesbians hate men therefore we are trying to emasculate our boychild?

Naturally none of these issues come up when we dress Pearl in overalls and little red t-shirts with trucks on them. She just looks cute and tomboyish.

We have good friends whose son was crazy about pink, and frills, and sequins, and glitter, until he started kinder. Then the kindergarten teacher spoke to a psychologist about her concerns, and called in the mums, and said he had to wear more appropriate clothes to kinder. I don't know all the ins and outs of the mothers' decision making, but they approached it with him by saying he needed a kinder 'uniform' (he had a big sister who wore a school uniform so that was okay) but he could still wear anything he liked at home. In the end he gradually grew out of the pink frilly stuff all by himself.

As they develop, I find it eerie to see just how much gender-stereotypical play Pearl & Louis are starting to engage in. It could just be coincidence, as Suze pointed out some posts ago. And it's not all-encompassing - Louis is crazy about trains, buses and motorbikes, but also loves flowers and putting on necklaces (he's particularly fond of pearls, but any shiny beads will do). Pearl carries a stuffed toy with her everywhere, and chases after Louis, shoving bits of food in his mouth - Louis, on the other hand, never tries to feed Pearl. However Pearl is the more physically active of the two, rarely sitting still, and also much more bossy.

In a few years my children will be wandering through all sorts of situations unmediated by my presence. Children can be cruel little reflections of their parents' bigotries without the thin veil of social niceties that stops most adults acting on their own prejudices. I don't want my children to be teased or bullied. But I want them to avoid this by being resilient and confident, not by being conformist.

I don't want my boy to feel shame about wearing pink, or girls' clothes. If he feels shame about doing things associated with girls, what is that teaching him about girls? About the validity of being soft and gentle? But also, I don't want my children to suffer because of my beliefs about how society should be.

One of the maxims I keep in the back of my consciousness is, If you want to live in a world without homophobia, act as if you already do. For me this means being out about my family in any situation where I would normally talk about my spouse and kids. No evasive partner tactics, or avoiding pronouns. A world without homophobia would also allow men and boys to wear pink, and aspire to be princesses, or train drivers, or princess-train drivers.


meli said...

that's very interesting!

i was recently in australia and visited my cousins one year old baby. she has a name that is a female version of a male name, and her nickname sounds exactly like the male version of the name. she's sweet and friendly and bubbly but doesn't have much hair yet.

her grandmother (my aunt) annoyed me terribly by constantly declaring 'oh, she's such a girl', every time she did anything. especially if she cuddled anyone, implying that cuddling is a girlish thing to do. ???? it freaked me out.

Mikhela said...

Oh, my mother does that! It is annoying. It's as if nothing can just 'be', it all has to be interpreted through their emerging sense of gender. And boy babies are very cuddly, in my (vast) experience of one.

Nice to hear from you after all this time - I have to link on now, to see what you're up to!

May the Beauty said...

It is a difficult line! We've observed of ourselves that we get a kick out of dressing our boy very boyishly. We moved out of the cutsie baby stage very early and he was on to stripes and jeans.

I also think that people in general are more invested in keeping boys boys than letting our girls get a little tomboyish, and I hope we don't do that to him.

Maybe I'll put him in pink tomorrow.

And thanks for the reminder about "acting as if." I didn't correct a stranger who asked about his "dad" the other day. I need to talk about his donor...

Mikhela said...

Yes, I think you are right about being a general thing, that boy children are more restricted in how they can express themselves (I think it evens out as they get older, and boys have lots of options while girls have to be pretty). I feel as a lesbian parent that decisions about how masculine he appears will be interpreted in a number of ways I don't intend.

stephLove said...

One of my daughter's male preschool classmates came to class in a dress the other day and I have to admit I did a double take, even though when my older son went to the same school there was a boy who regularly came in dresses. I guess since it's the end of the school year and I'd never seen him do that before I didn't have him in the "sometimes wears dresses" box in my head. I've often wondered what I would have done if my son had shown an interest in girls' clothes, how cool about it I could have been. He never did, though. It's much easier, I think, to put his sister in his hand-me-downs than it would have been if we'd had the girl first.

Mikhela said...

Yes, wearing dresses would be challenging for me too - again due to my own internalised homophobia I think. I'd be worrying that people were thinking I somehow made him wear dresses, even though I know it is a common stage for boys to go through. Wearing pink T-shirts, even pink glittery t-shirts, is one thing. I feel quite confident that pink=girls is a cultural construct and if you have a problem with it, it is YOUR problem. Dresses, now, ratchets up the discomfort level considerably. (Of course it shouldn't - think kilts, and dhotis, and sarongs, and those Greek traditional white men's dresses [not togas, more modern than that, you know, the short full white skirts worn with white stockings] ...)

Anonymous said...

My son was wearing my hair clips yesterday, he's two and a half so I figure it doesn't mean anything except that at two and a half kids like to try stuff out, particularly the things they see their parents do. It's not something I had thought of as important, I probably wouldn't have even noticed if he'd wanted to wear them down the street. Then my mother in law rang and while I was speaking to her he asked me to fix them, I explained why I was breaking the conversation for a second, and she replied "you don't want to encourage that" or some similiar crap about it being all very well at two and a half but it would be behaviour worthy of panic if he keeps it up. Actually I couldn't give a rats if he wants to wear hair clips at age 25, I would just be scared for him, because I know what it's like to be queer kid in our culture, and I don't think the problem is with the queer kids. I know how much damage all the (relatively low level) homophobia that floats around in our society has done to me and to my friends, how hard it made growing up, and I want so desperately for things to be different for our kids and their friends. But it's a huge cultural shift, and there's only so much energy I have to counter every casual remark at playgroup or family lunch. So I fail a lot.

Mikhela said...

You know, the thing that is interesting about that anecdote, Innercitygarden, is how fluid people believe sexual orientation to be. Wearing a hair clip can turn your son gay! How powerful is that? It's a common theme. A newspaper columnist here recently wrote that gay union ceremonies should not be allowed as it would encourage others to be gay. Like it's just a decision you make on a whim! I think I'm going to do a long post on this...

blue milk said...

Fascinating topic. I now have a son and the other day my mother-in-law was looking through his wardrobe and found a pink frilly outfit and was astonished that I am considering dressing him in it. I explained to her that it was given to me when my daughter was a baby but she was already too big for it and that it was a really sweet outfit and a bit of shame to not use it. She clearly thought I was being ridiculous.

Aaaanyway, I feel a similar fear to yours about being seen as emasculating my son on account of being a feminist.. but I can see that people's radars would probably be even more sensitive to lesbian parents and that the judgement you face would probably be worse.

For the record, I love the t-shirt you described your son wearing - too, too cute.

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting. My son is 7 and I can't find the terms I want! Anyway when he was 5 and at nursery they had a fancy dress day and he wanted to be a fairy princess. I tried to tallk him out of it, because I thought he might be teased. at the same time I didn't want to say no...he dressed as a fairy and certainly wasn't teased by the male nurse or the princess...Sometime I think we teach our children to tease by trying to protect them.

More recently he was asked to be a page-boy at a wedding (my brother and wife) and told he could wear what he wanted. he choose the pink fairy dress, wings, sparkle hairband and wand. He claimed he was the wedding fairy. I tried really really hard to be supportive and defended him to the rugby playing father of the bride but I must admit part of me would have preferred not to have to!

Alex Elliot said...

My 6 year old son is very into princesses. I ended up writing him on his kindergarten questionaire that was sent home with each child because I didn't want to have the usual "Do you know that your son likes princesses?" conversations that we always seem to have. He told a friend of his that he wanted Sleeping Beauty Polly Pockets for his birthday which was this past week. He opened it up at his party. There was a couple "what the ?" comments from some older boys but the majority of kids didn't even blink. Their parents sure did though!

fred00 said...

I have read the comments here on this website. I enjoy them. It makes me also reflect on my own past of growing up. I was the one who wrote an earlier blog, about a doll my Dad took away from me. I guess I was upset about that in my heart, as I remember the incident. But I wonder too, why was I given the doll in the first place? I have a male body. But of recent years I am learning more about this, that a body does not constitute what actually is inside. I guess I never was able to explore this area when I was a kid. I was not allowed to. So I am having to do it now being as a grown-up. My mother who had let me have the doll, died shortly afterwards. So I never had the chance to explore my gender with her approval. But I do remember somewhat, that even when she was still living, I would try to walk in her high heel shoes, I would wear wear her old dresses and skirts which she gave me, she gave me her old handbags and purses. she gave me her old lipsticks though they were a bit messy, she gave me her old cosmetic kits, she gave me her old beads and jewellery. I was by then, about nine years of age. I did not know anything about gender, or about that I should be a boy, or what girls were, etc. When my mother died, my Dad remarried, and my new stepmother was rather strict. One time, I fell and had a deep gash on my head. I still have a scar. It probably should have had stitches in it, as it took some time for to stop bleeding. But I was crying at the timewhen this happened. My stepmother said, to stop the crying, as boys should not cry! I tried to, but it was hard to do. But a later time, as I was playing "tag" with my friends, she told me, that I acted so much "like a little girl!" Also, when trying to play ball (I had a terrible time trying to catch a ball and throw a ball), she said, I "threw like a girl!" I had no idea what the difference was in just throwing a ball. It became, that I never cared for sports at all!! I was rather a quiet child (still am really rather quiet) , and enjoyed just reading.
Now I am grown up. But not quite sure what gender I am. But lean towards more of being as a girl inside, though I on don't show it. Perhaps even, this is why I am here ... on a women's website. (I had not thought of that until just now!!) I hope the women here understand and do not think I am kind of weird. Hope too, that perhaps there are understanding women here who can identify with me, and maybe even be my friend. But interestingly, this all goes back to my childhood.

Cathy Williams said...

That is a very cute post :) My nephew did the cuddling thing at the age of 1. But for me it's not annoying because we have taken the thing normally :)
But once, I remember, my cousin's daughter did the same and I was freaked out like meli said:)
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