Teaching Children about Gender

by Sheri_Oz

One of the first things children learn about themselves is that they are either a boy or a girl. What are the ingredients of healthy gender education?

Children learn about social expectations regarding male and female roles and behaviour in society and they either naturally fit into these roles and behaviour expectations or they have to decide whether or not to adjust to them or be nonconforming. Either decision has its positive and negative outcomes affecting the child's mental health and social standing among their peers.

Their guidance comes mainly from their parents and early teachers, as well as the general social system in which they grew up including television and the Internet. This guidance constitutes gender education.

We will start off this discussion with an unusual case study.

Parents Don't Tell Anyone Whether Baby is a Girl or a Boy

A rather unique case study in gender education

An article in yahoo news tells the story of parents who are not giving out cigars that say: It's a boy! or It's a girl! but, rather, giving them an unusual form of gender education. They believe that children should have the freedom to develop their own identities without being directed in stereotypically female-oriented or male-oriented manner. Not even the grandparents know the gender of their grandchild.

The parents claim that knowing a child's sex leads others to define the child by that gender, thereby putting the child into a predetermined box that may have nothing to do with the natural tendencies of the particular child. They want to leave their children free to discover for themselves who they are. That includes allowed their 5 YO and 2 YO boys pick their own clothes among both boys and girls racks, even wearing girls' clothes outside the home. Given his discomfort, the older boy has chosen not to attend a conventional school.

The parents are determined not to give in to what they call: "the tyranny of assigned gender roles".

Children's Books That Do Not Stereotype Boys or Girls

Want to buy a book for children that opens up possibilities rather than stereotyping them? Have a look at these:
The Paper Bag Princess (Classic Munsch)

Here the prince is captured by a dragon and the princess rescues him.

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Murmel, Murmel, Murmel (Annikins)

A little girl finds a baby and asks passersby if they will adopt him. Finally a truck-driver gives her his truck in exchange for the baby.

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Defining Terms Used in Discussions of Gender


Simple fact of whether one is male or female. This is actually not so simple and will be discussed further in another section of this article.

Gender Role

Societal and cultural expectations of men and of women. These may vary from one place to another. For example, when I travelled in Guatemala 40 years ago, men stood around in groups talking and knitting. Men in other countries would never be caught with knitting needles in their hands.

Gender Stereotypes

Closely related to the above, these are preconceived ideas of what is appropriate for men and women, essentially locking people into codes of behaviour that may not suit them as individuals. For example, women may be expected to be weak and dependent and men not to cry. If there is little flexibility in society, then even under situations in which nonstereotypical behaviour may be normal and appropriate, men and women may feel that they are not normal if they respond differently from the gender prescriptions and others may reinforce this.

Sexual Orientation

This relates to homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality. It related solely to the gender to which one is attracted and says nothing of the individual's gender identity. A male homosexual, for example, is a man who is attracted to other men rather than to women; he may also feel very much a man. Similarly, a female homosexual or lesbian, is a woman sexually attracted to other women; she may feel very much a woman.

A heterosexual is a person attracted to individuals of the opposite sex. Even though this is the norm, it does not necessarily mean that the person has a secure sense of maleness or femaleness.

A bisexual is an individual who is almost equally attracted sexually to both men and to women.

Gender Identity Disorder (G.I.D.)

Individuals who feel that their biological sex is in conflict with how they feel about themselves - for example, a man who feels he should have been born female because he feels like he is psychologically female and a woman who feels she is psychological male. If this conflict between their anatomy and their psychology causes serious enough distress, they may request sex reassignment surgery. They may also be referred to as transgendered or trans-sexual.

Cross-Dressers and Transvestites

These are generally not related to gender identity. Cross-dressers are individuals who, for some reason, prefer to dress in clothing typical of the opposite sex. Today, women commonly wear clothing once considered male; men, however, are scorned for wanting to wear women's clothing and therefore they hide this behaviour. Cross-dressing men may find that they feel more relaxed in women's attire. This does not mean that they identify any less as male or feel any less masculine than other men. It also has nothing to do with their sexual orientation.

The term, transvestite, refers to the element of sexual arousal accruing from dressing in clothing typical of the opposite sex. These are generally men who are clearly heterosexual and identify themselves as male. Transvestism is generally considered to be a fetish.

Gender Identity Education

Where It All Starts

Of course, being a boy or girls seems to start with the genitals: people recognize the child's sex by the "equipment" that is obvious on the ultrasound screen and, later at birth, as the child emerges from the womb and into the world.

But that is not the whole story. I am sure you have heard about the famous cases in some parts of the world where children were born apparently female, raised as girls and then at puberty, with the surge of hormones, suddenly what looked like female genitals grew into male sex organs. When they gave these boys the choice of whether to have an operation to bring their physical bodies into synch with their female upbringing, the boys preferred to adopt the male gender role and quickly adapted to being boys. What does that say about gender identity education?

Tragic Experiment in Gender Learning

Botched surgery turns boy into girl

In 1966, John Money persuaded parents to allow him to conduct corrective surgery on the destroyed penis that resulted from the rather rare botched circumcision of their infant son, not by penile reconstruction, but by sex reassignment surgery. He was subsequently raised as a girl and his twin brother as a boy. Money used this case to show how gender identity is learned rather than innate.

However, the boy never self-identified as female and when he found out about the surgery in adolescence, he readopted his male identity and the family refused to return to Money for continued treatment. Unfortunately, he never recovered from the trauma and confusion and committed suicide at the age of 38.

While no surgery is involved in the case of the parents who hide the gender of their children from others, can we say that these parents are experimenting with gender identity education in a way that is conducive to healthy development or are they "playing with fire"?

The story behind the botched gender experiment

This is the tragic story about the exploitation of the Reimer family for Money's own personal scientific interests. It is a disturbing indictment of unethical research and medical intervention and the falsifying of results that do not pan out as the research had hoped. It exposes the fact that some scientists care more about their theories than about the people they study to prove them. When Colapinto first exposed the disturbing news of the true mental health of the twins, it fanned the flames of the already heated debates around the issue of gender identity and the growing practice of sex reassignment surgeries on children with ambiguous genitals.

As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl

Colapinto opens a window into the devastating effects unethical research can have in extreme cases. Instead of helping a troubled family, Money's actions served to totally destroy it. This would not have passed today's ethics committee scrutiny.

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A Question of Hormones - Estrogen and Testosterone

Contrary to what many people believe, men and women both have both male and female hormones. That means that men and women both have estrogen and testosterone flowing through their bodies.

Generally, women have more estrogen than men and vice versa. Interestingly, however, some women have higher levels of testosterone than some men. This does not necessarily make them more masculine in appearance or behaviour than other women. It depends more on the relative amounts of estrogen and testosterone in their systems.

Similarly, some men have more estrogen than some women. This does not make them less masculine in appearance or behaviour than other men. Again, what is important is the relative amount of estrogen and testosterone in their systems.

Please note: Hormone levels have nothing to do with sexual orientation. In other words, we cannot differentiate homosexuals, lesbians or heterosexuals on the basis of amounts of male and female hormones in their bodies.

Impact of Television, Movies, Music Videos and the Internet

What does the research say?

An interesting, relatively recent research report discusses the impact of media exposure and media preferences on sexual attitudes and gender stereotypes of Dutch teenagers. It is agreed among researchers that television for youth portray highly stereotyped male and female behaviours and roles and are especially sexualized. Research has generally shown that greater exposure to the media is related to adolescent boys and girls endorsing stereotypical male and female expectations, something that reduces personal choice in social situations.

This new study provides a new angle: Media Exposure refers to the amount of time teenagers spend watching TV, movies, etc., whereas Media Preferences refers to how much they like certain types of TV shows, music, Internet sites, etc. Here we have some heartening news.

Teenage girls who preferred news and informative programmes on TV and Internet and classic music, rock and heavy metal maintained a lower degree of gender stereotyping than girls who preferred soap operas, romantic movies and punk music. Teenage boys who preferred erotica and sports on TV and the Internet and punk music more highly agreed with gender stereotyped attitudes.

Therefore, the important factor is not how much exposure teenagers experience to the media but, rather, what they prefer to see or follow. Here, I think family environment is important. In families that read a lot, children are more likely to read. In families that watch reality TV or soap operas, children follow suit. In families that listen to classical music and watch the History Channel, the children will have absorbed those values. That does not mean that there will not be a period of time during which adolescents want to be "like everyone else" and watch the latest shows that their peers talk about in school or hear the latest music; but it may not be what they actually prefer when they are alone.

Gender Learning square
I advocate putting our children's needs before our adult entertainment needs. Is that too much to ask?

Books on Gender Identity for Parents and Teachers

Want to read about gender identity development? Have a look at these:
Gender Dilemmas in Children's Fiction

Scholarly discussion of dilemmas concerning gender roles and equality given changes in legislation, socially expressed values in literature, etc. A thorough examination of the issues and how children's fiction maps what has changed and what has not.

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Boy V. Girl?: How Gender Shapes Who We Are, What We Want, and How We Get Along

2000 kids were surveyed to see how gender roles and expectations affect them. This is a book for teens to help them avoid stereotyping themselves and others and learn to be who they really are.

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Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Diff...

Outstanding book for parents and teachers who want to help their children see themselves beyond gender stereotypes and grow up healthy and fulfilled.

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Updated: 01/17/2015, Sheri_Oz
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Sheri_Oz on 04/02/2016

Going to look up that article now. Thanks for the heads up.

frankbeswick on 04/02/2016

The issue seems to be apt at the moment, for there was a good article in the Times today about a speech by the writer Ian McEwan critical of the current trend to think that gender can just be "picked from the shelf" as it were.

The politically correct have been getting their way with gender issues not by argument, but by mob tactics [drowning out speakers] , false accusations of hate crime and misuse of equality laws, but let's face it, they have never liked free speech.

Sheri_Oz on 04/02/2016

Very well put, @frankbeswick!

frankbeswick on 04/02/2016

The experience of transgender people is that while gender identity can be taught, acceptance cannot be forced, as a sense of gender rises up from deep within the individual.Take the case of Lady Campbell, who was wrongly identified at birth as male, but was internally fully female and was only correctly classified in her teens.She always felt female and behaved female, which caused great pain at school, where she was taunted.Similarly Aife Assumpta Hart was always aware that she had a female identity, even though she tried to adopt her biological gender as male and live up to it, before she gave up. Gender is not, therefore, a matter of social imposition, as the zealots of political correctness think.

However,sympathetic with transgender people though I am, self-identification is not enough. A male cannot be allowed to enter women's toilets and say that he self-identifies as a woman, for that provides opportunities and excuses for abuse of women by predatory males. They must transition before they can use women's toilets. Males cannot play on women's teams, as they have physical advantages that make their participation unfair to women.I can recall once when I was told to take a mixed games lesson with twelve to thirteen year old students. I was uneasy as it was clear that the boys were physically dominating, not by malice, but because they were becoming men. I was relieved when it was over.

Sheri_Oz on 04/01/2016

@BrendaReeves - I am sufficiently not PC to agree with you. With all due respect to peoples' rights to self-define, that is going too far. They should check how American Samoa handles this situation, given that they openly accept this "third" gender - there was a bio-male on their soccer team who felt female and everyone referred to him in the female gender but he played on a male team and, I suppose, showered with the guys.

BrendaReeves on 04/01/2016

Sheri, I read in a magazine about expecting parents who weren't going to tell their child if they were a boy or girl. They wanted the child to choose what he/she wanted to be. At the time, I thought people have lost their minds in this country. The big debate in the U.S. now is about letting boys, who feel they are girls, into the girls locker room to dress and shower even though their equipment doesn't match. I haven't heard anything about girls wanting to shower with the boys. Again, I think we've lost our minds in this country.

Sheri_Oz on 01/18/2015

Thanks so much for your thoughtful response to this article. You are so right and I did not think about it those exact terms - that the parents are sending the kids to do an adult's job. You are so right. And I agree that this behaviour is cruel on the parents' part. It also means the parents can't get help from anyone - because nobody can see the child naked. That is limiting the children's interactions with loving grandparents and other relatives who would be forbidden from changing diapers or taking them to the pool for a swim.

I see you have also written a couple of other books. Fascinating.

Dr. Michelle Harrison on 01/18/2015

This seems like a cruel assignment for the children. If the parents believe it doesn't matter, then they should be the ones walking around with lack of gender identity. These children will be treated as odd... in fact won't fit in anywhere. If this is to happen then the family should be genderless. Is mother male or female or both or changing? What about dad, or whomever the other parent is. Is there a grandma and grandpa? In other words, for these particular children everyone else seems to have a clear gender except themselves. It's a cruel experiment. Children with assigned genders can be exposed to environments without the imposed stereotypes and can chose behaviors over a wide spectrum. You can be feminine without being a girl... but at least you have a starting point from which to grow, a starting identity. Kids need freedom to explore but with some guidance, not left to fend for themselves. I know trans families, intersex kids, with a range of comfort zones within some gender identity.

A child dressed as a girl will not be welcomed in a boy's bathroom, or the reverse. Why send a child into that? That's the cruel part, failing to protect, to give the guidelines for making their way through society. It's sending children to do a man or woman's job... putting them on the front lines against those who assume kids come with genders.
I'm author of "The Preteen's First Book about Love, Sex, and AIDS" American Psychiatric Press, 1992.

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