Ever since Scout has been out and about in the world (and as a 2020 baby, that got off to a slow start 😬😳), he has never ever, not even once, been referred to as a boy. Every new person who stumbles across a Scout on their travels, regardless of generation, refers to him as a girl.
We also had the same experience with our eldest son too, so between them both I have now racked up many years of misgendering experiences. All of which have led to a lot of deep thinking making me consider and confront my own biases, open my eyes to the role gender plays in how we treat people and think about the impact of ‘the pretty effect’.
When it happens, it’s a strange one because it’s not offensive to me, being called a girl is not an insult. I correct very rarely. I am not raising children without an awareness of their gender (though I respect and am curious about those who do) but I have always favoured a pick n mix philosophy and approach to life. I don’t want the kids to see me making a fuss or getting offended by it. Currently Scout is 2 so he’s not aware of this, but he will be in around about a year or so which is when children tend to get more curious about their gender and when gender associations can start to have a much greater impact on their choices, behaviour and identity development. When Phoenix started to become aware that people were referring to him as a girl he would look to my reaction, often, taking the playful approach, after the person had moved on we would share an eyeroll and giggle and talk about how silly it is that people guess gender without finding out. It became almost like an in-joke between us. And then every now and again I would pepper it with a correction saying something like ‘Phoenix is actually a boy, but whatever, we don’t really care about that sort of thing’ – trying to show him that I will be in his corner if he wants me to but also sharing our values and beliefs with others without hesitation.
These experiences challenged me to consider what biases I have that affect how I interact with the kids that I might not be aware of. I became almost immediately sensitive to applying any pronouns to kids and have found it easier than I might have assumed to stop using expressions like ‘boys and girls’, and just say children, or when I meet a new little person simply say they/them, until I am told otherwise. I am not shy to admit I think there would have been a time when I’d have considered that a lot of mental admin and questioned if was being ‘a bit over the top?’. But evolution and expansion of ideas and getting thoughtful about our own biases is always a positive experience. And I can say now that it truly feels a lot more ‘normal’ to remain open and keep gender out of as many conversations and moments as possible. The more you take it out, the more strange it becomes when people, organisations and structures bring it back in.
As our eldest son has grown up I noticed a shift in his reaction to being misgendered. Our in-joke bonding moment did have an expiry date and as he got older, though not offended by the label, there have been moments where he became frustrated by what he was now seeing as as ignorance. I chose not to stoke this fire, but showed him I understood his irritation. Especially because this was not just the general public when out and about any more; misgendering also now occurred with teachers and peers.
Most of the time people arrive at a gender conclusion VERY quickly, immediately in fact, so we can assume these labels are decided on appearance more than behaviour (though that also comes into it, with girls who are strong / physical / active causing raised eyebrows or a second glance to check in on their status). To narrow it down even further, I think we’re talking mostly clothes and hair. Clothes and hair. I find this depressing on many levels but want to explore it from the angle of how I think the world for boys is grey, sludgy and restrictive. Whilst in contemporary culture and off the back of the much needed women’s movement, it has become more widely encouraged for girls to express qualities and styles that would be considered by many as ‘masculine’; the same gender mash-up privileges have not been so readily extended to boys. Whilst the progression and expansion of what it means to be a girl is linked to closing the gap in gender equality, equipping girls with the skills needed to thrive in adulthood (and I must add, we’re far from ‘job done’ yet), for boys any dabbling with gender-norms is still heavily linked to narratives of sexuality, even weakness. If I correct people on their gender, some people are embarrassed, ashamed almost at their assumptions, they are the ones who feel a lot more awkward than us. I am perplexed by one common response though – “he just seems too pretty to be a boy”. What does that mean? What does prettiness in a child, or even an adult for that matter, mean? Let’s just assume for a moment that prettiness equates to qualities like cuteness, friendly, symmetrical, gentle, big eyes, why is this so surprising in boys (when I think we can find these in all children), and more so, why is it so valued and celebrated in girls? So yes, it is just clothes and hair, but what this represents if we start to pick away at this scab, is a flowing river of bloody misogyny, homophobia and facilitation of toxic masculinity. Sheesh. Now we’re not just quibbling over the colour of a pair of shoes after all.
As Scout is 2, my husband and I still direct what he wears (though he already has favourites – pink jumper, orange print leggings, silver boots!!). I don’t tend to go so much for what seems to be today’s culturally agreed ‘boy code’ – dark colours, fierce animals, vehicles, hoodies, sportswear, super heroes etc, partly through personal preference, but mostly because I don’t feel the need to expose him or encourage more masculine cues because society and the culture we live in will do that in abundance. I feel it’s my role as parent to counter balance, and yes with some exaggeration, against some of the dominant narratives the kids are growing up around, because they are mostly made up nonsense. That said, I also don’t go so far the other way that I am dressing him in, what would be considered as, girl clothes – skirts, dresses, frills and bows etc. Again, it’s a pick n mix of colours and styles and of course what is practical for a life lived shovelling dirt, poking worms, scooting the streets and building sandcastles.
Our boys both had long hair. My husband has long hair, as does my daughter. There’s a lot of hair in our house, sidebar, not always ideal when you have a lot of wooden floors. My eldest son (now 12) loves his long hair. On the whole, because we have open and accepting people in our lives he’s had more compliments about it than criticism. But there have been times, for example, when the intense levelling up of peer pressure hit at around 7/8/9, when for many boys football culture is completely omnipresent, that he found himself on the receiving end of some less favourable comments. It has always been my approach to encourage and support expression and individuality rather than squash it as I believe always buckling to peer pressure may have a short term ease, in experience, it comes with much longer term risks. This relates to activities and play interests too. He was never a footie kid and that made it really hard for him to ‘fit in’. He loves skating, parkour, drawing and fashion. But in the end he fell in love with not fitting in and grew to not care what people thought, seeing it as ignorance rather than a criticism about him, reflecting back some of our earlier experiences together when he was misgendered. He is now one of the few kids I know his age who wear a range of clothes and styles and I see the joy and pride it brings him, how something so simple as having a range of colours in your life embeds the idea that there are more options, more possibilities, we don’t have to do everything the same as everyone else. It’s depressing that our boys arrive at their tween years as dark track-suited clones. And whilst clothes shouldn’t matter, we are influenced by colours, design, motifs whether we realise it or not, so it must be hard to expand your version of what it means to be a boy when everyone is operating from a literal grey box.
It is widely known and encouraged to expose children to a variety of tastes and textures in their early food years before they hit the picky phase. In theory this means they have a wider palette to filter from and an expanded history of positive taste experiences. I feel exactly the same about pretty much everything else in life – colours, characters, themes, designs, activities, toys, experiences. Being put into a box is an inevitable part of the structures we are bound by and the societal expectations of the Western world. And if like me you’re a parent trying to keep that box as big and open for as long as possible it’s not always looked upon favourably. There is still a large population of people who worry about ‘confusing’ children or who cling to (outdated and inaccurate) physiological claims about how boys and girls develop. The old nature – nurture debate rattles on. I couldn’t give a toss about any of it to be honest. I am here to play the long game.
As a mum of 3 kids growing up as part of Generation Alpha who will challenge, bend and reshape gender in ways which will likely be different to my own experiences the probability is that one, two or all of them will have some twists and turns in their journey. I don’t want that to be a surprise. I want to walk side by side with them. Most adults arrive at destination adulthood with the realisation they have been put in or led themselves into a box. And most people only unlock a tiny % of who they are and what they are capable of. Decisions are instead influenced by ‘what’s typical’, not what is authentic or truly desired. Most people do not experience the luxury of living a life where they are truly free to express themselves or get to explore all dimensions of themselves. I want that so much for our children more than anything else.
This might sound like, and really is, rather complex inner work that could be considered irrelevant to two year olds, but it’s not. Childhood is a tapestry steadily threaded with ideas, values and beliefs. Whilst it doesn’t necessarily have to define us, many people make the brave struggle to walk in opposite directions to experiences that have been traumatic or restrictive to them, but it is part of our story. I see childhood like life map-making, a process where we continually open up routes, destinations, pit stops and adventures. I want the kids to enter the world with a lively, expansive map with endless routes. One where they’re not afraid to discover new places, where they can find a new way through and one where if they get lost, they can navigate their way out of it and can always find their way home. So whilst hair length and colour of jumper may seem tiny and maybe for some just ‘liberal nonsense’, for our family at least, when we have the choice, these little details of how we colour the world around them to be diverse and free of labels represents how we are trying to create their map. And we’d prefer to take the rainbow route over the dark, sludgy path every time.