From the Mouths of Babes

(Unrelated: do you know how hard it is to type when a cat is sitting on one of your arms and actively trying to get you to pet her with the other? Hard.)

So lately I’ve had a lot less bathroom trouble, due to being able to use Staff Only restrooms at both of the places where I work. (It seems if you have some kind of Implied Authority, you also must be more able to read, and thus are less often accused of being in the wrong place.)

At the same time, I’ve been more often in the company of children, which means I’m more likely to hear direct questions about my gender.

Here’s the thing: children and adults alike are suspicious about gender. When they see someone who doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of binary gender, they experience a range of reactions–curiosity, fear, discomfort, amusement. But while adults channel these reactions into insinuation, skepticism, and calling security, children are much more likely to ask a direct question and be satisfied with a direct answer.

Case in point: yesterday I read to a delightful kindergarten class. As I was leaving the building, I waited for them to go in front of me (because they’d formed their line before I showed up, and nothing is worse than cutting), meaning I had to stand by the door sort of stupidly for a while. After the requisite round of waves, one boy jumped right in:

“Are you a boy or a girl?”

When I answered that I’m a girl–which is why I’m a Ms. instead of a Mr.–a little girl asked, “If you’re a girl, how come you have short hair?”

I responded that anyone can have short hair, boys and girls, just like anyone can have long hair. Another girl confided that sometimes her auntie has really short hair. (I resisted the temptation to ask if her auntie was a lesbian.) My original inquisitor, clearly grasping at straws at this point, asked, “If you’re a girl, how come you have weird glasses?”

My point is that many children are working off a very specific set of gendered cues, and when they see a person who seems to defy those cues, they want to know why. More importantly, they believe the answer. It’s adults who stick to their guns. Rather than feel foolish if they’ve made a mistake, they prefer to shame and bully the person who challenged their assumptions.

Why is this? Is it simply a case of old dogs and new tricks? Are children just that much more malleable? It seems to me that learning alternative gender cues–or not learning any at all–is sort of like learning a foreign language. The younger you are when “foreign” concepts are introduced, the better shot you’ll have at being able to integrate them into your vocabulary.

But beyond that, it strikes me that for the strides we’ve made in trying to do anti-sexist work with children–expanding the scope of career possibilities for girls and women, attempting to counteract the long-invisible work of women throughout history–we haven’t done very much, really, to expand the definitions of male and female.


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