Parenting a Girl, a Boy…or a Child?

Parents-to-be think incessantly about the gender of their child. They imagine how their little girl will look and act, and how they will raise a girl. They imagine how their little boy will look and act, and how they will raise a boy. They openly state a preference for having a girl or a boy. If they have (or want to have) several children, parents have a preference for their birth order. The old-time politically correct answer, “I don’t mind, as long as it’s healthy,” is unheard of now. Relatives will freely give their opinions:

  • You should keep going until you have a boy
  • He can be the man of the house
  • She will be mommy’s little helper
  • It will be so fun to dress her up

Then, there is the barrage of family commentary:

  • Are boys or girls easier?
  • Do women in the family always seem to have girls? boys?
  • Does the dad want a son and the mom want a daughter, or vice versa?

You are supposed to colour-code the baby’s room, carrier, car seat, clothes, toys, and every kind of furniture and equipment. You are supposed to buy or borrow it all again if you have another child of the opposite sex. You are supposed to clothe your child and act toward your child in a way that makes its sex obvious.  As children become toddlers and preschoolers, they are supposed to identify with their same-sex parent and reject behaviours of the other.

From a biological and cultural point of view, it makes some sense: the parents have successfully bred, and they are passing along traits and world views that will make this likely again in the next generation. The community will grow and maintain its ways.

On a more personal level, if mom has always felt valued as a girl, she may enjoy spending time with her sisters and going for girls’ nights out. She may like female-identified activities such as crafts and baking, so she might want her child to be a girl – she’ll imagine sharing all of these things with a daughter. Because if life has treated you well, as a female (for example), why would you not believe your daughter will enjoy the same ease in being a girl?

This same mom may see male children as being very different from herself and unlikely to enjoy her favourite activities. Or she may feel that these activities are unhealthy for a boy’s development, because he should identify with his father.

It is difficult for parents to choose otherwise. Even if they want to raise their children with less emphasis on their sex and gender, the child’s grandparents, caregivers, teachers, and coaches will form a strong front, abetted by the media.

Before I became a parent, I had lots of experience babysitting, and I had worked with children in several jobs. I didn’t really form conclusions about what boys were like or what girls were like, because I looked at their families and thought, “Hmm, I see why this kid turned out the way he or she did.” It seemed obvious to me that children came with their own personalities, and they were deeply molded by the way their families treated them, which included such things as:

  • a “protective big brother / helpless little sister” dynamic
  • a “Mommy’s boy / Daddy’s girl” dynamic
  • an “older/bigger/capable” versus “younger/smaller/not taken seriously” dynamic

and so on. I always marveled at how distinctive each child’s personality and interests were, despite being raised in the same culture and family.

Families with both boys and girls often remark on how their boys and girls are different from each other and how there really are biological differences. In many cases, the parents reinforce those differences from the youngest age. While not denying biology, I believe that if you take any two children:

  • 2 boys
  • 2 girls
  • a boy and a girl

the differences between each pair will be equally great. For example, of the 2 boys, one might be quiet and the other boisterous. Of the 2 girls, one might be aggressive and the other timid. Of the boy and the girl, one might be bookish and the other athletic. In each case, it would not be substantially because of their sex. I just think there is great variation among people!

When I had my own child, I really did not mind if I had a girl or a boy. While good health is very much welcome, I thought I could cope if my child had health or development problems (which, as it happened, Link didn’t). I did not especially delight in strongly-gendered play interests (such as playing with toy trucks or dolls), but they were not restricted either – a child should have varied experiences, and over time, come to know who they are and what they like.

Before my baby was born, I made a series of pledges. I made them not knowing whether my child would be a girl or a boy, and I did not change them when I knew. Now that Link is grown up, I believe I did honour them.

First of all, I believed that I did not “own” my child: I was responsible for providing a secure and loving childhood, and for launching a well-adjusted adult. My baby was not my “property.”

I wanted to raise my child to be confident, independent and resourceful.

I pledged to be mindful of how I could help with my child’s development at each age and stage. I paused to evaluate how I was doing as a parent and how Link was doing as a child! I listed what was working and what wasn’t, and tried to “right our course” as needed. It was all quite deliberate!

I pledged to help my child follow up on personal interests, and not push my own agenda excessively.

However: I pledged to share my own values (as well as live them) in the hope they would someday be adopted – but knowing they might not be. I would not hesitate to guide behavior. I would be the parent and not the best friend.

Later, realizing Link would be an only child, I vowed that Link’s friends would always be welcome in our home. Link would need to develop a wide circle of friends and a sense of community to bring into adult life.

So those are the premises – and promises – that brought Link into the world!

…to be continued…

9 comments

  1. Thanks for putting these thoughts into coherency. Gender didn’t cross my mind when I was pregnant and the only “huh” I had when F was young was his wholly expressed distaste for playing with round objects (contradicting my assumption that all primates like playing with balls). In his final week at high school, he “came out” as a ballet dancer who, though male, is straight. Of course, he grew up in the almost weirdly gender and sexual orientation neutral Bay Area, but he would have been what he is anywhere. Congratulations on getting Link to adulthood!

  2. While I don’t promote “gender specific” toys or games in my home, there is one instance where I believe a “gender targeted” toy should be used with any child—-baby dolls. First thing that pops into everyone’s mind with this is “girl” toy. I spent quite a bit of time shopping for the perfect one 6 1/2 years ago. I was pregnant. This sticks out in my mind because everyone kept asking me why I wanted a “girl toy” in my home, I had a son and was pregnant with another boy. Simple answer was “there are no boys toys or girls toys and my son wants one. I also want him to have one.” It was the perfect way to show the child at home that a new baby is not a threat and how an older sibling can help out with care. Worked perfectly and I recommend this to anyone having a 2nd/3rd/4th/etc child, whether the child at home is a boy or a girl!

    • I strongly agree! I also hope that families get Lego, toy trucks, basketball hoops, kitchen toys, dress-up accessories, etc for boys and girls. Have you ever noticed that some kids will play with “opposite gender” toys away from home, but not in front of their parents or siblings? It starts young!

      • I actually find the opposite. My children are 7 & 9 so they seem to always be mindful of what their friends think. They will play with “gender opposite” toys at hone though.

      • That must mean they don’t feel belittled by you, and can be themselves at home!

  3. Jocelyne

    I always find topics of gender interesting, because when I was younger I wanted so badly to be a boy. As I grew up I realized I didn’t so much want to be a boy; I just liked a lot of things that are considered “boyish”. Having children I was worried about having a girl. I wanted boys because I thought I would feel more comfortable with them. When Audrey was born I was nervous. I would see other people with little girls and they would be all dressed in pink and have bows in their hair and I felt like I was doing something wrong. I find it interesting watching Audrey and Job’s behavior as they get older. I’ve tried not to push or discourage certain behavior that is considered “boyish” or “girlish” in either of them. Job is a very “typical” boy in a lot of ways, but he also enjoys some things that wouldn’t be considered typical. The same is true with Audrey. She loves to dance and asked to take ballet lessons, which I would never have wanted for her (nothing against all the ballerinas out there…ballet just isn’t my thing.) On the other hand, she loves playing with trucks and transformers and consistently wears Job’s underwear. I’m hoping I’m raising well rounded children who enjoy certain things just because they do and not because they are “supposed” to…but who knows…it probably has nothing to do with me in the end!

    • Hi Jocelyne, I could say I tried to follow Link’s lead, but really, it’s mostly the parent who is doing the buying and organizing the activities, at least in the early years. I tried to provide a variety of clothes and toys and experiences. I know I subtly or not-so-subtly discouraged Link from certain things (such as team sports) and encouraged others (such as music lessons) because of my own interests. But I guess that’s a perk of being in charge 🙂 I do think you can influence kids – you definitely want them to have good values – but their own interests and talents and biology will always be in the mix. That’s my 2 cents worth anyway!

  4. Pingback: My Trans Parent Story | An Exacting Life

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