Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mer-Nate: Pretend play and gender binary

This post has been a long time coming. It's taken me ages to sort out my thoughts into coherent sentences. They probably still aren't as coherent as I would like. I have a lot to say. Most of it boils down to this:

Stop with your stupid preconceived notions.

Nathan is my little boy. He loves to run and jump and crash his trucks and be a super hero and play football. You know what else he loves? My little Pony and dressing up as a princess and the color purple. And every one of those things is okay.

A month and a half ago Nathan decided he wanted to be a princess. He borrowed a dress and a crown from his Auntie Anna. He wore them both constantly for nearly three days.

He told me he was Elsa from Frozen. It was adorable. 
But it also led to questions. More than one person made comments about not showing it to people, or concerns that he could be gay. 

A few weeks ago Nathan was playing at the park. Some girls were playing with princess dolls and Nate asked if he could join. He told them that he loves to watch Little Mermaid and Frozen and that he likes to dress up as a mermaid. They told him boys couldn't be mermaids and proceeded to ignore him. Nate was sad and kind of hurt. I was hurt for him. I think he makes an awesome mermaid. 

Here's the thing: My little boy likes to dress up as a princess. And a mermaid. And there is nothing at all wrong with that. But there are so many things wrong with these reactions. 

Gender doesn't have to be binary
Let's preface this by saying that I'm talking about gender, not sex. Sure, something like 99% (according to some estimations) of people are comfortable with the gender associated with their sex. But a toddler isn't aware of things like that. He is exploring his relationship to the world. He isn't trying to understand complexities or assert his orientation or subvert the gender binary. He's just trying to understand his place in the world. We start assigning gender from birth. We put our boys in blue clothes and our little girls in dresses (Though I though Eleanor looked cute in blue)

We decorate their rooms in the assigned colors. It's a societal norm that his been entrenched for ages. But no person is necessarily all male or all female all of the time. We each have all of our intricacies and subtleties. And reducing it to male or female, black or white robs us of the true complexities of humanity. Moreover, a toddler didn't choose those things for himself. Simultaneously he doesn't understand why they were chosen for him. He is exploring where he fits into all of that. Which brings us to...

The importance of Pretend Play
Dress up, dolls, cooking in a play kitchen. All of these are forms of pretend play. Study after study has shown that pretend play has huge developmental benefits for children, including increasing creativity later in life. Why would we not try to encourage those kinds of things? Yet when you look at the things I suggested before, like dress up or playing with dolls, we overwhelmingly associate them with girls. There are very few boy baby dolls. When I wanted to look for dress ups for Nate I had to think about alternative options (Goodwill, Halloween costumes), rather than simply buying them in the store like I could with princess dresses. In the long run this is only hurting our children, boy and girl, because...

We are teaching them that women are weaker than men
It sounds strange to say it like that at first. Society is perfectly comfortable with the idea of a tomboy. We are okay letting our girls play as boys. Sure, we get a little uncomfortable when women start to look too "butch" but most of the time we don't call girls derogatory names when they like to climb trees or play sports. But what about our boys? When a boy likes to play dolls we start suggesting he might be gay. If he wants to play dress up people start asking what we are doing wrong as parents. I suggested to Dan at one point that I would be offended if someone told Eleanor that she couldn't be what she wanted, the way those girls told Nate he couldn't be a mermaid. I felt it was unfair to him. And it was, but it's more than that. What's happening here is society is placing more value on masculinity than femininity. We are saying it is okay for a girl to act like a boy because we view males as having an intrinsic value to society. But if a boy acts like a girl, we view him as weak and begin suggesting that there may be something wrong with him. Suggesting that femininity is not something of value but rather a weakness. Further, the suggestion that any sign of femininity in a boy is a sign of sexual orientation is a problem too, because...

It sexualizes children
When my son dresses up as a princess, it's because he saw one in a movie and thought she was beautiful and magical and he wanted to be good-looking and magical too. It has nothing to do with whether he likes men or women. You know what he likes? Cookies. We need to stop saying to ourselves, or each other, that pretend play (dressing up, playing with dolls, etc.) is any indication of future endeavors or preferences. Kids aren't sexual beings. So why are we putting that kind of pressure on them? It doesn't seem right. 

There's so much more that could be said here about all of this. It's a complex and complicated pile of issues. But I'll leave it here for the sake of brevity (though it seems too late for that). Suffice to say I want my babies to be who they are. And I want them to be happy.