Children, Parents, and Gender Non-conformity

By Alexandra

Like Ryan, more and more gender non-conforming children have been able to express their identity to their parents, and present themselves how they want to at school. Dealing with gender during childhood can be difficult because children are just developing the ability to articulate the differences between genders, while battling with their own understanding and identity. The American Psychological Association offers suggestions for parent’s dealing with a child who is gender non-conforming or trans. Although some of the terminology in their explanations is outdated such as “transsexual” their guidance is supportive for transgender youth suggesting parents do things like “Educate yourself about transgender issues.” Which is of course a very simple suggestion but staying currently educated is vital when these issues are affecting someone you love. They also offer reminders that “There is not one universal way to look or be transgender” and to “Keep the lines of communication open with the transgender person in your life.” I do not believe suggestions like this offer solutions to the struggle of being a trans or gender non-conforming person, but with a empathetic family, these reminders can be key for making transitioning a comfortable process.

Even if the family life of a gender non-conforming child is positive, other institutions such as school can make their expressions seem shameful. Karin A. Martin researched how early children are gendered. Starting in preschool, the separation and inconsistent treatment of boys and girls can be observed. Martin notes that “Children are physically active, and institutions like schools impose disciplinary controls that regulate children’s bodies and prepare children for the larger social world,” (497). So as a child understands how to freely express their body and identity institutions are also limiting them, which can create a feeling of shame as they begin to understand their desire is “wrong.” In a situation without supportive or educated parents a child can suffer as their comfort, which may rely on clothing or toys or a certain hairstyle, is taken away. Martin talks about clothing specifically, saying “The clothes that parents send kids to preschool in shape children’s experiences of their bodies in gendered ways,” (498). Clothing is an outward identifier for gender, especially in children and babies, so it is to remember when considering parts of a child’s gender identity. When considering the source of identity, Bussey states “many cognitive and social psychologists understand gender identity formation to result from a process of learning, cognitive development, and social reinforcement,” (qtd. in Fausto Sterling, 58). There are many factors and instances that can influence gender, and although institutions and family life are two of the largest factors there are also biological and psychological factors to be considered. Having a child that is gender non-conforming is not a result of something that went wrong, or a parental mistake.

When considering gender identity as a multi-layered part of existence, parents of a gender non-conforming child should consider how different parts of the mind and body might reflect their child’s identity. Anne Fausto-Sterling articulates this point in saying “chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, internal reproductive organs, external genitalia, and pubertal hormones are not direct determinants of gender identity” (44). Another interesting thing that Fausto-Sterling concludes about children is “children first develop sex and gender knowledge including the sensory and cognitive skils to make culturally ‘correct’ associations between adult activites and males and females […] But surprisingly, and often amusingly, at first kids do not think of gender as a permanent state of being,” (55). The socially constructed implications of gender are not as deeply rooted in children, as they have not had to deeply and consciously experience them yet. So their freedom and looseness with gender makes sense. In the video Ryan even uses terms like “tom girl” to describer herself, not cully clinging to one gender or the other. This exploration is in line with the idea that “… gender identity emerges. It does not suddenly pop out; rather it inches into the open one step at a time,” (54). By allowing a child to constantly engage with gender in an open way, their understanding of their identity later in life will reveal itself more naturally. Another thing to remember is that children are growing and learning very rapidly—their identity can change. When there is a shift or a move towards more masculine, then more feminine, then more masculine again, it does not mean the time spent with a feminine identity was invalid. Shifts and movements and changes in identity are natural. We’re all always growing.

Overall, it is great that more children, like Ryan, are able to express their gender in a way they feel comfortable with. But it is important to remain educated, and not forget there are many children who do not have the freedom to exist how they want. There are many adults who do not have the freedom to exist how they want.

Sources:
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World (New York: Routledge, 2012), 43-69

“Answers to Your Questions About Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression.” American Psychological Association. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Martin, Karin A. “Becoming a Gendered Body: Practices of Preschools.” American Sociological Review 63.4 (1998): 494. Web.

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