Gender, play, and toys

This was the first year we didn’t buy Miles any gender atypical presents. Among other things, we got him a real but kid-size hammer, a small trampoline, a Shaun White balance board, this book (one of the only ones I’ve found about trains with an African-American character), and Gordon and Henry.

The previous two Christmases, we gave him a black doll (it’s more of a little boy than a baby), a kitchen set, and a pink stroller. I had a sense that these would not be his favorites, but Travis and I have agreed to occasionally introduce Miles to forms of play outside his typical interests.

There was an initial flicker of interest in the doll. I asked the then two-year-old Miles what he wanted to name it. He said, out of nowhere, “Ebby!” But no matter when and where I tried to reintroduce Ebby into our play, Miles would immediately strip off the doll’s clothes and chuck him onto the floor. I’d say, “Oh, but Miles, he’s your baby. Can you be his Papa and feed him?” “NO! I’m not Papa. I’m MILES!”

The only time poor Ebby managed to get attention again was during potty training six months later. In the midst of his own travails with pee and poop, Miles would trot out the naked Ebby and devilishly announce, “Papa, Ebby peed on the floor!” He laughed hilariously when I pretended to wipe up the pee and gently told Ebby, “It’s okay but next time try to make it to the potty.” Eventually, Miles would join me in helping Ebby make it to the big-boy potty. He’d hold him at the rim of the toilet and make a dramatic “Pssssssssssss” sound.

Last year, we gave Miles the stroller, and I reintroduced Ebby. “Look, Miles, now you can take your baby for a walk!” Every single time—seriously, every time—Miles would grab Ebby by the hair and chuck him across the room. Then he’d load about 20 matchbox cars into the stroller and push it, fast, in laps around the dining room table.

After those experiences, we focused our gift-buying this year on: (1) things that he asked for (trains, trains, and trains), (2) things that could help him burn energy and learn new physical skills, and (3) things like blocks that have potential to be new interests. I’m not giving up on trying to introduce him to gender atypical play, but I didn’t see a need to buy more dolls or things that he’d ignore.

My takeaway so far isn’t that my feminist ideals about gender and child rearing are useless but that there are lots of nuances to these issues. It’s too easy to let a few gendered behaviors become an explanatory identity for everything he might feel and do. I don’t like it when I hear parents constantly refer to gender when describing their kids. There may be truth to it, but I think more harm than good comes from repeatedly declaring that gender rules.

Here’s how Peggy Orenstein put it:

At issue…is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine.

Miles is incredibly strong, agile, and active. He stood all by himself, arms resting on a chair, at two months. He hardly ever stops moving. He will build a block tower, but, at least up to now, he’s been more interested in making it crash to the floor. He likes to run—full-speed, from a room away—and body slam me. Twenty times a day.

I can see how active little boys like him get read as “tough little guys” and have their sensitivities and individual character traits ignored. (Ever heard “When I Was a Boy” by Dar Williams? It’s a flash from my college past, along with the mayhole at Bryn Mawr’s May Day.)

Once in a while, Miles wants pink, sparkly shoes and says he wants long hair. He’s extremely particular about what clothes he will wear and what food goes into his mouth.

He’s an extremely sensitive, empathetic kid. There was a period of about two years when he burst into tears whenever he heard another child cry. He still covers his ears when he feels scared, overwhelmed, or disturbed. He, among his classmates, is the one who will notice and report to the teacher when another student is hurt. He fixates on any instance of someone being unfair or unkind. But I think it would be so easy not to attend to these sensitivities—not to nurture his empathy—by letting the category of “boy” and its brute predictions take over.

I want my son to be who he wants to be without having to constantly hear how boys are. I want him to have a full menu of options and role models. I want to instill in him flexibility in interests and an ability to adapt to other people and settings. My suspicion is that buying toys like the doll was useful even if they weren’t used much. Lately, for the first time ever, he’s consistently wanted to sleep with one of his teddy bears. I like to think it’s because we’ve continued to offer nurturing forms of play and attachment as an option.

There may be certain realities—on average—about gender difference, but it doesn’t serve our kids to constantly reference those differences and explain them as manifestations of gender. It certainly doesn’t help the kids who are already gender atypical. And it doesn’t cultivate the potential elasticity of our kids’ emerging gender.

At least that’s what I’m think today. I’m wondering what happens next, as Miles becomes more aware of gender and aware of other people’s awareness of gender. Today, referring to the female “Thomas the Tank Engine” train, Lady, he asked, “Does Lady have a vulva?”


6 thoughts on “Gender, play, and toys

  1. The Thomas comment is priceless!

    We, too, are trying to raise our kids in an environment where they can explore gender and gender roles. With our big kids, they had many years before we adopted them where I assume they were exposed to gender normative play. It’s been really interesting to see that shift and unfold over the past five years. Our daughter is now really comfortable with the more traditionally masculine interests and aspects of her personality (she’s a 16 year old self-declared tomboy with a love of transformers in addition to art, make up and shoes). Our son has definitely more emotional intelligence than I often have seen in boys of his age (he’s a 14 year old who isn’t afraid to cry and loves to cook in addition to video games and anything electronics). I think we queers do a pretty good job of exposing our kids to a world where there’s lots of fluidity in gender.

    • It’s fun to hear about how this plays out with older kids. I guess you’re right about us queers. It’s kind of inevitable that our kids will be exposed to gender fluidity, isn’t it? Not just because we’re not opposite-sex couples…but also because so many of us lived–often awkwardly or painfully–on the outside of gender norms when we were kids.

  2. I think you’re dead on here, Josh. Being aware of how we, as parents, play into the gender roles our children perceive (or don’t) is key. I love that you don’t attempt to push anything with Miles, but instead make suggestions outside of what he may normally ask for. I think that you’ve succeeded even if he’s only aware that there are a variety of people, genders and orientations out there.

    • Thanks, Ryan. I might be guilty of an occasional push. ! But yeah, mostly I try my best to keep things light and choicey. I do like the idea that he might be a pretty cool straight guy who’s been exposed to lots of different ways of living gender.

  3. I like that you are consciously making an effort to nurture every part of your child’s personality, including the sensitive, nurturing, supposedly gender-atypical parts, while still recognizing and valuing the rough and tumble supposedly gender-typical parts.

    As the grown up version of a kid who never really fit any one “gender” box, I’d just like to say thanks. Parents like you give me hope for a better world.

    • Thank you for leaving a comment–nice to know it resonates with people out there. I definitely don’t have the answers, and every day presents something new. Parenting for me is such a test of keeping true to my convictions but with a good dose of flexibility.

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