[Week 34 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
Should you say gender or sex?
The word gender is currently the hockey puck in some major political battles. It reminds me of discussions I have heard in the past about whether or not it is proper to call a woman a lady. To some it is a title of respect. To others it implies prostitution. Or is it just an innocuous synonym for woman?
Talking about gender has the same sorts of issues. Is speaking of gender synonymous with referring to a person’s biological sex? Can someone choose gender? Has gender become a meaningless term because it is being stretched so far? A little etymology can help us understand each other.
According to etymonline.com, gender comes from both Latin and Greek origins that have to do with classifying things. For instance, the word genus used in biology is from the same root. In these cases, it is used for a specific type of creature, not to distinguish between the male and female of that group.
However, it also has a history (circa 1300 AD) of simply referring to groups of people that share certain traits. As such, it can certainly be applied to biological males and females, but is not necessarily limited to that. Until as recently as the 20th century, sex was still the predominant word for differentiating between male and female humans.
At that point, the word sex came to be so strongly associated with the physical act of sex that it became less acceptable to use the word any other way. Thus, the use of gender to fill the gap (hahahaha). The trouble is that gender does not really fill the gap. It is more open to interpretation. It is like trying to substitute the word pet for dog and cat, then being confused or irritated when someone gets a llama.
I am not arguing that the broader meaning of gender is a good reason to legally impose language on people. I am also not saying that genetics can be denied. What I am suggesting is that people have always had a wide variety of behaviors, but these days there is a push to politically intimidate and punish those who challenge the validity of a behavior by using the word gender to political and social advantage.
Which gender is your child?
I used the word gender in the title because I wanted to include the variety of behavioral and identity classifications in the discussion. And because the two words, gender and sex, are unavoidably intertwined in the adult world. However, to begin, I will be so bold as to say that young children only think of themselves as male or female unless someone suggests otherwise to them. As such, they don’t have any idea of gender in terms of the modern usage.
As older children become more aware of social interactions and implications of things, they notice what is classified as feminine or masculine. It is easy for them to become insecure about whether or not they meet those expectations or want to meet them. This is why it is important for parents to be aware of two things:
- their own attitude about men and women
- how to guide their children through the maze of social assumptions and stereotypes of men and women
How important are the differences between men and women?
Biologically, the differences between men and women are plain for all to see. The differences are what make a man and a woman such a great team for having children. It is like having a discussion about which is better, the right foot or the left one. Take one away and balance is at great risk!
This doesn’t mean that all men are of one mold and all women are of another. Think of the people you know and their personalities and interests and abilities. Don’t think in terms of stereotypes, which take on a life of their own. Think of individuals.
I can think of many very talkative men that I have met over my lifetime and women who are content to listen. I know many women who love to hike and don’t mind being dirty in the outdoors, as well as many men who prefer city life. I know men who are poets and romantics, yet they are married to brusquely practical women. I know women who are good at and enjoy math, but men who hate algebra. These are not outliers. These are common variations within the norm.
Both men and women are people. As people, they need to learn to get along, appreciate each other’s strengths, and be patient with each other’s weaknesses. Neither men nor women are superior to each other.
Creating battle lines between the sexes is counterproductive to this. Such battle lines will greatly undermine not only husband and wife relationships, but the children of both sexes will suffer. They will suffer because not only because there will constantly be tension in the house, but because they will not learn how to properly get along with both sexes.
What does it mean to be feminine or masculine?
I believe ideas about what is feminine or masculine cut to the core of the what is called gender identification. To be feminine or masculine is tangled with perceived cultural expectations. These fall into both physical and behavioral categories.
How should a woman dress to be feminine? Does a certain bra size make a woman more feminine? Does wearing more make-up or a type of haircut make someone more feminine?
What about chest hair or shoulder width for men? Is a man more masculine because he has a deeper voice? Does being taller make him more masculine?
Is a man more manly if he likes to shoot guns? Is courage a sign of whether someone is masculine? Does liking children make someone feminine? Can a masculine man take up knitting or a feminine woman like to go fishing?
We need to be diligent to keep in mind that the physical characteristics are variations on genetics, all of which are distinctly male or female. The behavioral characteristics are sometimes extensions of what is easiest to do due to the genetics, but are often matters of personal preference. When they get boxed into masculine and feminine categories it is usually the result of some people trying to impose their preferences on others.
Teaching children to be confident in their choices
Basically, help your child find a balance between how they want to be as a person and what they might have to navigate due to other people’s responses. Someone will always be nitpicky or disagree or be outright mean. Use this to help your children see how their own assumptions or lack of experience might distress someone else.
Someone else’s reaction can be used in a number of other ways, too. From evaluating behavior in a given situation to learning to proceed no matter what other people think, use every frustration to learn. Make it a goal to find a blend of getting along and not being boxed in by other people’s opinions.
Teach your children that there is no need to be offended just because someone doesn’t agree with our choices. If they have confidence in their choices, it shouldn’t matter. If they don’t have confidence, it can be an opportunity to re-evaluate. Unless someone is physically harming them or taking steps to hinder them, lashing out verbally or physically is just a sign of their own personal weaknesses.
The shaky ground of puberty
Puberty is a difficult time for most people. Institutional school situations make it even more so. All the time sucked away from family and other long term relationships leaves a vacuum. This makes the budding young adults very vulnerable to social manipulation and personal confusion.
Kids need parents who are not afraid to go against the politically correct rhetoric. They need honest, but compassionate discussions about biological facts and behavioral choices. You can choose to act or dress a certain way, but your sex status is not a disease that needs to be cured.
By the time puberty hits, parents and children should have the type of communication where it is normal to talk about such personal things. Don’t confuse respecting your child’s choices with abdicating parenting. It is very possible to have the sort of relationship where you know how and when to gently coerce your child out of a funk or bring up things you think are important, whether invited or not.
All parental guidance should be in the mode of helping children to make good decisions. It is not about demanding or threatening. It is about presenting what wisdom you have and helping children to learn how to make good decisions. If children do not feel like they are fighting for their independence they will be much more likely to feel the appropriate weight responsibility. This will make them more open to advice and more likely to think of long term consequences.
Why do children have parents? Because they often don’t know what they need, don’t know how to get it, can’t get it, and or don’t want it. For a while, it is neglect if a parent does not override a child’s choices on some issues. There will be a continuum of what sorts of things at what point of maturity a parent will let a child decide.
Matters of gender and understanding sexual decisions cannot be understood at all by children up until a certain age. Then, just because they can be trusted to walk to the neighbor’s house unattended does not mean they are ready to navigate major life decisions on their own. Don’t abandon them to the whims of youthful angst or newly unleashed hormones.
Don’t leave them alone to deal with the pressures of whether or not they are masculine or feminine enough. Guide them to understand that though they have choices about how they behave, some choices are better than others. Guide them to be comfortable with the body they were born with and bring a beauty to other’s lives that only they can, because we are each unique.