A parenting guide for the rest of us

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In this excerpt from her recently released book, Jessica Mills cuts through a world of gender codes challenging the nature vs. nurture paradigm

Gender identity, coding, and socialization remain at the forefront of my consciousness, especially because I have a daughter. The data about the nose-dive in our daughter's self-esteem during adolescence, teachers short-changing them in the classroom, widespread sexual harassment and violence against females, and the links between stereotyping and a disturbing loss of competence and confidence as girls approach adolescence are no strangers in the headline news. And because adolescence is something that creeps up, sneaking in with its unpredictable makeover, the poor things can barely get a grip on why they're left feeling the way they do. I know I couldn't when it happened to me. The hormones are raging uncontrollably and unfairly, while society and culture are busy stereotyping you - girls and boys alike - telling you how you should be looking and acting and marketing these looks and behaviors to you in every form of media.

Still a decade away from Emma-Joy's adolescence, I felt obligated to continue the on-my-toes vigilance to fight back against sexist gender coding. Emma-Joy had grown from a baby into a toddler, and the gender-coding was far from over. And I knew from experience that it gets worse with age.

One time while at the credit union, she asked the teller, "Excuse me, please I have a sticker?" The teller replied, "Oh, I'm sorry. We only have stickers for boys. I'm all out of the girl stickers." I spoke up, "Oh, what a coincidence. She's Michael today." (It was true. My daughter had recently become captivated by the movie Peter Pan and had, for that portion of the day anyway, renamed herself "Baby Michael Darling.") Confused and reluctant, the teller slowly handed my daughter a sticker with a picture of a truck on it. My daughter was happy, but I was still peeved. Peeved at the teller for pushing that gender-coding crap on my kid and mad that I had to fight gender-coding daily. If I hadn't spoken up, she would have been denied access to something solely because of her sex. At two years old, denied a sticker. What would she be denied at age twelve? In the thick of adolescent Middle-School-Cool, she probably wouldn't want me at her side to stick up for her then. Will she stick up for herself? Will she at twenty-two?

After that incident, whenever we were lucky enough to land ourselves at that teller's counter space after that incident, the teller snidely asked, "Who are you today?" The teller looked as if she were constipated when Emma-Joy once proudly replied, "I Bob the Builder!" She handed Emma-Joy a "girl" sticker, a pink one with a My Little Pony on it.

The Formation of Gender Identity

Psychologists suggest that gender identity emerges by the age of two or three, is fully formed by age five or six, and is later reinforced at puberty. It is influenced by a combination of biological and sociological factors. Gender identity refers to a person's deep, internal self-awareness of being masculine or feminine, boy or girl, something in-between, or an entirely new self-identified "other."

That gives parents and other trusted caregivers just a few years to be on their toes, recognizing, examining, and taking action against the societal coding of such identity formation so that the kids they love will have better chances of growing up being able to truly look and act like whomever they wish to become. I know from my own life experience that even though gender identity may be formed by age five or six, it's strictly enforced by society through gender roles for years thereafter, complete with rewards and consequences for playing by its gender-role rules.

Ernesto and I earnestly tried to reinforce our simplified-so-a-toddler-can-begin-to-understand, healthy gender-education mantra, "You're female, but you can be a boy or a girl." We didn't encourage one type of play over another. Instead, we followed her lead. We played with dolls and dug in the dirt with the same frequency. Same with toy, book, and clothes selection. She chose. (We had a mantra that applies to books, clothes, and toys, too, "All things are for all people." We explained that there's no such thing as a toy that is only for boys, just like there is no such thing as a toy that is only for girls.) If while playing with other kids, I'd overhear one of them say, "You can't play with that. That's for boys" (or vice versa), I'd playfully interrupt to offer a contrary idea.

Once, one of Emma-Joy's male playmates took a football from her, telling her that she couldn't play with it because it was for boys. They just happened to also be playing dress-up and he was wearing a long, flowing wedding gown. I told him that if she couldn't play with a football, then he couldn't wear a gown. He stopped what he was doing for a second and then gave a little chuckle before giving her the football back.

I know that particular situation could have gone either way, he could have ripped the gown off and ran away with the football, touchdown-style, but I just did my best and felt lucky that it worked that time.

Nature or Nurture?

There are, of course, plenty of parents who have sworn that they didn't try to push their kids into gender-specific roles, but are nevertheless surprised that their daughters like princesses and dolls and their boys turn everything into guns and swords. I sympathize, because eventually, Emma-Joy, too, loved loved loved her princess play more than she gravitated towards playing with trucks. I cursed the gender-coding outside world all around her. Believing that gender differences were more socially created and learned than innate biological differences in cognitive abilities or hormones, testosterone (male) and estrogen (female), I was stumped and set off to find out if there really was any scientific claim on the idea of predetermined sex and gender differences.

It was a frustrating search. I wasn't able to find the smoking gun of a definitive answer about whether differences were innate or learned, because even the scientists can't agree about sex and gender difference in the research literature. There are hundreds of sex and gender difference studies wherein the only point that most scientists could agree upon was about the strength of socialization in regards to kids learning gender lessons. But I found two reports that were particularly interesting. They suggested that there are innate differences existing along a continuum, therefore a gray area and not black-and-white differences in male and female behaviors. They also argued for individual freedom to explore preferences.

Selected excerpt from Jessica Mills, My Mother Wears Combat Boots: A Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us. Reprinted with permission of the author and AK Press.


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