Raising Trouble

Liza Featherstone
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"Look, I'm giving this one a really cute vagina," Ivan, age four, proclaims with delight. We are decorating gingerbread people. Chocolate chips, he finds, make convincing boobs for a gingerbread lady. Ivan chuckles as he puts the finishing touches on another denizen of this soon-to-be-eaten cookie world, who has "a really, really big penis."

Then he examines a more ambiguous individual. Ivan has created this confectionary eunuch – cheerfully outfitted with a bright red hat and blurry genitals -- but now he's not sure what to think.

"Is this one a boy or a girl?" he asks me.

"Maybe you can't tell?" I ask. "You can't always tell by looking at people."

"No, Mommy," he says, suddenly serious. "You're wrong."

Sex differences are an endless source of playful, even raucous amusement in our household. It's gender that causes confusion. Experts like Diane Levin (co-author, with Jean Kilbourne, of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids) tell me that young children are attracted to neat dichotomies. Preschoolers are struggling to figure out how the world works, and where they fit in; that's why they're so compelled by gender stereotypes, especially those marketed to them by kiddie pop culture.

In this blog, "Raising Trouble," we'll be exploring this state of affairs extensively over the next couple months. Anything in particular you'd like explored? Let me know in the comments section!

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17 Comments Have Been Posted

Pink and Blue


That is all...

It would be interesting to

It would be interesting to see how the gender schema of children raised by or around androgynous or genderqueer adults differs from those who aren't, (if it does that is).

It absolutely does differ

It absolutely does differ greatly. I am raising two children in a household with a trans male and my son chews me out every time I say "she" lol. He completely understands gender roles and how they vary and has as early as he can remember. It is amazing to know that these little ppl will one day change the world :)

My son (age 7) btw is gay.

My son (age 7) btw is gay. Something I had always suspected until he confirmed it recently, but he still thinks dating is yucky :)


You're right, anonymous, it would be interesting! Anecdotally, I would say yes, but I will try to find out if there is any research.

an educational opportunity

That's the hook; now you can teach him all about DNA!

Gender troubles

Gender is troublesome for young kids. When my daughter was three her guesses about men/women were about 75% correct. She thought grandma was a man. She was very distressed to find out she was wrong about her guesses and the whole man/woman game spun her into a brief period of hyperfeminine dressing.

Some of the problem is captured by the following joke from England. A young boy is shown a picture of a naked man and named woman, and he is asked to identify the man and the woman. His reply: "How can I possibly tell? They don't have their clothes on!"

RSS feed

LF, please get one so we can subscribe.

preschoolers are fascinated with bodies

their own and those of the opposite sex, which they discover are different in some ways ... both preschool boys and girls are fascinated by babies and where they come from. Karen Horney, psychoanalyst, wrote about "womb envy" that little boys have, and is documented more than Freud's false "penis envy" of little girls. My 2 and 4 year old grandsons love playing with the baby dolls I gave them, granted they are rougher on them than their female cousin who is 3, but they feed them, hold them, are obsessed with their pooping and peeing, and also give them medical exams with their doctor kits. Then they get bored and grab the Transformers and pretend they are autobots. The 4 year old LOVES pink clothes. The 2 year old tries to figure out where to put the tampon .... I'm interested to see how it all works out in the end. Living with small children makes us rethink and reflect on how we became socialized into, well, everything ... if you are one of those people who overthinks and analyzes everything!

gender variance

How early does gender differentiation start? And how do you hold a conversation with Ivan (or any four-year-old) about gender variance?

Gender Bender

I think the only way to "teach" gender variance is to show it to kids up close with actual people, because otherwise you can talk all the talk you want, kids are going to believe what they see with their own eyes and what most of them see is a world very clearly split into boys and girls. I've read them <a href="http://www.sevenstories.com/book/?GCOI=58322100167510">"10,000 Dresses"</a>the children's book about a boy who loves dresses and they both know all the words to <a href="http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/freetobeyouandme/williamsdoll.htm">"William Wants a Doll"</a> but they still separate even the rocks they find into boy and girl rocks. Plum's preschool teacher, says that by 3 all the kids are self-separating themselves by gender long before they have any sense of separation by race or ethnicity.

At Luna's school, there are a few gender variant kids. The mom of one sent a letter to parents at the beginning of the year, giving them a heads up about her kid, Cole, who by 5 very clearly dressed and "acted" like a girl. She suggested that if our kids asked if Cole was a boy or a girl, we could say he was a boy but a "girl in his heart." Which is sweet, but a little confusing for kids since is it in our hearts or our pants that gender lies? Or some combination.

For International Women's Month, Luna's homework was for us to interview her about gender. When asked if there were things "girls could do that boys couldn't" she didn't say "have babies" which was what I thought my practical seven-year-old would say. Instead she said, "keep secrets" and "be responsible." When it came to what boys could do that girls couldn't, she was stumped. "Can you think of anything, mama?" she asked. I settled for the anatomical lesson the interview seemed inclined to invoke, "Have penises?" I suggested. She wrote that down and went off to read.

Talk the talk

While children do learn best from experience, I don't think it is the only way to teach. Due to a combination of my own reclusive nature coupled with the small community in which we live, there are many things (queer culture included) that my children do not experience in their daily lives. While we are planning a move in the not too distant future, for the time being I rely a lot on conversation (and occasional trips to the city) to help my children understand that our community does not reflect the diversity found in society at large. At three years talking to my daughter about difference seemed pointless, but now at close to five years she shows a pretty good understanding of difference. I am not sure if the change is developmental or if the concepts took a while to take root, probably both. I try to draw analogies between differences that are easy to see and understand and those that are harder.

10,000 Dresses response

Hi Rachel- this is Marcus Ewert- who wrote 10,000 Dresses.
I'm psyched that you're reading 10K D to kids, natch, but- oish! - Bailey's not a boy who wants to wear dresses, she's a girl who wants to be accepted as such. I'm a big believer in the idea of 'affirmed' versus 'assigned' gender. Hence the consistent and persistent authorial use of 'she' and 'her' whenever discussing Bailey.

Everyone is always entitled to their own readings, always and forever (I wouldn't be a writer if I didn't believe that) - AND, that said, IMHO, 10K Dresses isn't about a boy at all, and to my mind that's kind of the whole point of the book.

Well, that, and the idea of how cool it would be to have a dress made out of magical windows!

Hey Anonymous, you can get

Hey Anonymous, you can get the RSS to the whole Bitch blog here:

I'll be posting on this issue of gender-variant kids later in the week...

thanks for weighing in, everyone!

School environments

As a stridently feminist teacher who teaches in a pretty conservative state, I'd love you to cover how adult allies who may not be parents can help in other environments. I can't be as out and out supportive as I should be without losing my job, but I'd love some tips on conducting thought provoking discussions that won't get me fired and can get some little minds thinking that not everything about gender is a strict dichotomy. I hate to sound like I'm being overly cautious, but there are so many horror stories in the news about teachers getting fired for voicing opinions, and I figure that it's better to have a feminist, supportive teacher in the schools than have them out and replaced by the (unfortunate) army of christian conservative ones waiting in the wings.


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