The One Habit To Teach To Raise Kids Who Actively Question Gender

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Last night I walked in late from my clinical practice and grabbed a quick dinner before bed. My kids were amped up and excited, and my son (Tyler, age 8) and daughter (Eve, age 5) played on the couch. They are like little puppies, often jumping all over each other and constantly touching, talking, and engaging, for better or worse. I mostly try to quiet the constant buzz of noise that too easily seeps into my brain, but last night I caught wind of a statement and then a question directed at me.

"Eve, you are tomboy. Mom, Eve is a tomboy, right?"

Eve continued pouncing on her brother unaware of the implication, but it gave me pause. I listened, thought, and noticed my own internal reaction.

By all outside accounts, I guess Eve is a "tomboy." She is tough as nails, rides dirt bikes, wrestles (and sometimes dominates) her big brothers, and often takes her T-shirt off when she’s hot.

I am proud of her. I was a "tomboy" too. What I wanted to say in that moment was, "Yes, Eve is a tomboy, and she does whatever the f*ck she wants." My friends joke that she is my feral child, fiercely independent. If I were to disappear for a week or two, it would be Eve who figured out dinner for everyone. She would probably ride her dirt bike to the local coffee shop and negotiate an IOU contract with a confused yet impressed barista.

The thing is, she is not a tomboy. Or a boy at all. She is herself. She is a girl. She likes dirt bikes, wrestling, winning, and can weather physical injury better than a cage fighter. She also loves puppies and playing house, and her most favorite thing is cooking with me. We share a deep love for beautiful napkins, dinner parties, fancy flowery perfume, and cool heels. She is Eve. She is cool. And she is all girl.

I push them to ask themselves: Why do we say what we say? How do we know that to be true? Where did that come from? Where did we learn that? What are we actually trying to say?

I know this personality makeup well as we share passions that are often paradoxical and opposing to the outside world. I am a woman with varied interests, and I feel all woman. Eve is a girl with varied interests, and as far as I can see now, she is all girl. It is that simple.

Although in my own inner dialogue, I want to say, "Yeah Ty, Eve is a tomboy, so watch out," that would undermine everything about those qualities being feminine, too. I would be gendering behaviors that aren't inherently gendered. My automatic response is not appropriate for the current culture anymore. And the responsibility falls on me to notice my automatic thought, process it, and say something different.

Although it might seem that I am advocating for gender equality for my daughter, this is a direct message to my son, too. The message I want all my children to hear loud and clear is that you are you. There is no expectation from me around how you should behave based on your gender. Of course, there is an expectation to be kind, polite, welcoming, hardworking, and courageous, to name a few, but those are expectations I have across the board for all of my children.

Teaching the art of questioning.

Gender stereotyping is reductive and limits the horizons of possibility, and denying expression is only harmful to our kids' health and well-being in the long run. One of my parenting priorities is to offer as much opportunity as possible so my kids have the freedom to choose their path themselves. I want to build self-efficacy. Ultimately, my hope is that they lead an empowered and self-led life. Training starts now, not in adulthood. We need to be helping our kids build a sense of self from the inside out.

So, in the moment, I teach Ty that tomboy is a dated word that doesn't apply anymore. But what I am really saying is it is OK to be you—in whatever form that is. I constantly challenge them to think critically about the language they use. So much is absorbed from school and the outside community, and the best defense I have is to teach intellectual and emotional curiosity.

I push them to ask themselves: Why do we say what we say? How do we know that to be true? Where did that come from? Where did we learn that? What are we actually trying to say?

For example, any time they say, "that is a girl toy or a boy toy," I ask them to think about what makes it so. Inevitably, they can see the flaw in their assumption; they learn to self-reflect, wrestle with meaning, and what I love the most—it removes me from the often annoying power position of teacher saying yay or nay. I can join them in an intellectual exercise rather than impose a way to behave.  

Much of the meaning we create as a culture is so nuanced and implicit that we all participate in perpetuating ideas that we do not even buy into it. The first step in teaching kids to be open is to notice our own bias and challenge ourselves. We need to ask ourselves the same questions we ask our children.

Why do we think this? Where did it come from? What are we actually trying to say? It not only combats gender inequality and toxic masculinity, but it pushes kids to be more self-aware and tighten the language they use, not relying on automatic (what I call) "lazy language." Say what you actually intend to say.

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Taking small steps.

Listen, some parents will be far more comfortable and at ease dispelling gender than others, and that mostly has to do with our own progress toward questioning and deconstructing gender, a process that many adults are still going through themselves. That's OK. Some parents are bravely raising "theybies" and "gender-creative kids," for example, and that's amazing; meanwhile, for many other parents, that's just outside the scope of what they're capable of right now, no matter how much they want to support gender diversity.

But all parents can teach their kids the art of questioning gender. If you want to raise kids who feel free to explore their identity with complete freedom, it starts with raising kids with access to the tools of curiosity and open-mindedness. Raise kids who are open to following their interests, willing to explore, and committed to noticing the meaning embedded in our culture. Although those may seem like a tall order for such young kids, these are traits that are easiest to internalize the younger they are.

Here are a few simple habits to consider introducing in your household and parenting style to encourage a culture of questioning gender:

  • Notice any gendered language (i.e., anytime someone says someone did something because "they are a boy or a girl"). Notice it, name it, and encourage your kids to get curious about what that means.
  • Offer all options to all children. Boys are welcome to play house, and girls are welcome to play in the dirt. If the children naturally segregate, split time in both activities.
  • Create mixed-gender groups at home, with friends, and at school. Avoid the desire to tease your kids about "having crushes" on their friends of other genders.
  • Especially with boys, empathize and validate emotion. Positively reinforce sharing of all emotion with words. Help boys build a strong sense of identity that includes caring for and loving others.
  • Manage your own discomfort when your child wants to explore something outside of their culturally prescribed behavior (i.e., Eve wanting to take her shirt off, or Ty wanting to sit on the toilet to pee). Children are honest and will give feedback if it makes others uncomfortable. Your job is not to promote or rescue but rather to follow your child's lead.
  • Notice how work is divided in your home. What nonverbal messages are you sending? Be self-aware and reflective and see if your behavior matches your intentions.
  • Lastly, be self-compassionate. Know you will make missteps. So will your kids. Be honest. Be curious. And create an open dialogue.

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