Sunday, November 17, 2013

It's a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World

Something I didn't think of when I wrote about gender-nonconformist children a few days ago: a commenter (writing as "Guest") on the article I started from complained that parents shouldn't indulge the "whims" of young children where gender is concerned.
I am not judging him, I am questioning the decision by his parents to indulge him. Not every whim a child has should be embraced. We are so worried about offending our children's tender sensibilities we are failing to be parents.
It occurred to me today that people like Guest, when confronted with the Politically Correct gender revisionist position of liberals and feminists, like to claim that most children don't have to be pushed to conform in their gendered behavior and attitudes: boys just naturally like to play with Tonka Trucks, and girls just naturally want to dress up Barbies, so these preferences are not the result of conditioning and parental influence, they're natural! and parents should just lay off the kiddies and let them be boys and girls.

I don't know if Guest would have agreed about this, and I wish I'd thought to ask at the time.  But I think it's a safe bet that most "traditionalist" parents would agree that the whims of young children about gender-appropriate toys should be indulged and embraced, and only the whims of young children who depart from the norm are to be quashed, and it would have been interesting to see what Guest's opinion would have been.

The trouble I see is that much "boys will be boys" behavior is harmful to girls, to other boys, and to much of their environment.  (It also is harmful to the boys themselves, as when Boy Culture norms interfere with their academic performance, or leads to self-destructive behavior.)  And the traditionalists are quite ready to countenance that harm, excusing emotional and physical tormenting of children at school by gangs of boys who are All Boy as something natural, there's nothing can be done, it's a force of nature and anyway the victim deserved it by being different.

It's clear, I think, that gender traditionalists treat children's whims differently, depending on whether they approve of them or not.  Guest was quite worried about the "discomfort" of people who are disturbed by the sight of a boy in a dress (even on Halloween!), for instance, but not about the discomfort of children who are forced to dress in ways they personally don't like. 

But this gives no comfort to most of Guest's critics, who assumed that a sissy boy's preferences are "wired" into his brain and should therefore be respected and indulged.  But the same bad science which would claim an innate biological cause for gender nonconformity also posits an innate biological "hardwiring" for gender conformity.  If Lisa Duran's son C.J. was born with the wish to be girly, so are "normal" boys supposedly born with the need to beat C.J. up and make his life a living hell.  Even in less extreme cases, false generalizations about boys' alleged mechanical abilities and girls' alleged lack of mathematical ability come from the same bogus science that claims gender variance is "wired."  You can't choose only one of these options: they're inextricably bound together.  We don't know why people make the choices they do; biology can't be invoked to defend or reject them.

Anatomy is not destiny; or rather it's just that no one really knows which destiny is dictated by biology.  Even in areas where the anatomy is uncontroversial, it doesn't determine our lives or our choices.  A woman who's anatomically constituted to conceive, gestate, and bear children is not doomed to do so; she can make choices about her biology.  A man who's biologically constituted to sire children might decide not to, nor is he compelled to sire as many children on as many women as possible, let alone to force conception on unwilling partners.  And sexual biology has nothing to do with clothing, the division of labor in household chores, the toys children play with, the jobs adults seek. I wish this were obvious, but years of conversation and debate with people on all sides of this question have forced me to recognize that it's not obvious.

It may well be the case that young children make up their own gender stereotypes, even without pressure from adults.  Cordelia Fine wrote in her book Delusions of Gender (Norton, 2010),
At just ten months old, babies have developed the ability to make mental notes regarding what goes along with being male and female: they will look longer, in surprise, at a picture of a man with an object that was previously only paired with women, and vice versa. This means that children are well-placed, early on, to start learning the gender ropes. As they approach their second birthday, children are already starting to pick up the rudiments of gender stereotyping. There's some tentative evidence that they know for whom fire hats, dolls, makeup, and so on are intended before their second birthday. And at around this time, children start to use gender labels themselves and are able to say to which sex they themselves belong [211].
Whether those stereotypes suit parents and judgmental outsiders or not, they may still be mistaken.  What they decide are "the gender ropes" will often, even mostly turn out to be wrong, even within the culture they were born into.  "Fire hats" can be for women too, for example. A child acquiring her first language will make mistakes as she tries to make sense of it, and gender is not different in that respect.  Making a kid adhere to her starting misconceptions about gender would be like forcing her to speak like a two-year-old ("I maked a mudpie") throughout her life.  Often children will correct their mistakes by themselves as they grow and learn more.  But boys can play with dolls, girls can learn to hunt, boys can cook, girls can play baseball.  There's no reason why any particular boy must play with dolls if he doesn't want to, but there's nothing wrong with informing him that some boys do play with dolls and are no less boys for doing so.

(I can imagine some traditionalists objecting disingenuously, "Hey, they're just toys!  Who cares what children play with?  Let a kid be a kid!" and the like.  Actually, I agree.  But traditionalists do care very much which toys children play with.  If they were so laissez-faire about sissies and tomboys, I wouldn't disagree with them, but they aren't.)

If C.J. were hurting anyone -- really hurting them, I mean, not just making rigid people uncomfortable by embodying normal human variety -- then his parents would be right to put limits on him, just as they would if a cisgendered boy were pulling the little neighbor girl's hair.  "Boys will be boys" doesn't excuse hurting others, and "boys will be girls" is irrelevant to kids like C.J.  His parents would also, in my opinion, be correct to press him not to hold too strict a view of what girls, or boys, can be and do -- just as they would with a cisgendered child.  If a little boy thinks that helping with the dishes will make his penis shrivel, it's never too early to broaden his horizons.  But there are no a priori rules about these decisions; parents and eventually the children themselves must make judgments.  You can't base those judgments on biology: you have to create those judgments, and biology can't be an excuse or a reason.

My mother believed that boys shouldn't have to wash dishes or laundry or cook or do housecleaning.  With four sons and no daughters, that was inconvenient for her, and convenient for her sons.  But maybe because we didn't have a sister (whom our mother would presumably have forced to wash dishes and vacuum the rugs), none of my brothers was listening to our mother when she said that.  All of us were interested in cooking, washing dishes, and helping around the house.  A good thing too, since only one of us married, and we more or less had to do those chores for ourselves.  When our mother re-entered the workforce later on, I hope that was helpful to her.  But it's good to remember that children aren't totally malleable to adult attempts at regulating gender.  They have minds of their own, and parents have limited ability to mold us.  Which has its downside, since kids don't always decide rightly, but also its upside, since the cultural norms are often simply wrong.