"May I go introduce myself that that little boy?" my daughter asked at the playground, pointing to a child wearing a ponytail and a pink dress. I quietly whispered to her, "That's a girl," and gave her the go-ahead to make friends. She looked a bit puzzled but accepted my explanation. Just two days later, she saw a kid in bluejeans with a buzz-cut and asked me, "What's her name?"
The older and more social my daughter gets, the clearer it is that she simply doesn't have any concept of gender. She knows about biological differences between sexes-- that females have breasts and wombs, and that men have penises and a tendency to develop facial hair. But, among prepubescent children, whose gender differences are discernible only by clothing and stereotypical behavior, my daughter has only about a 50/50 chance of getting it right.
I know that I'm at least partially responsible for my child's inability to notice her peers' genders. Although my kid's happy in pink, frilly dresses, she also enjoys sporting cargo blue jeans and baggy tee shirts-- and I've never mentioned that these are "boy" clothes. I've also never mentioned that her interest in science and mechanics are inappropriate for her gender.
The elephant in the room, though, is my partner-- likely the primary reason my daughter doesn't stereotype or judge anyone on the basis of gender. My significant other is male-to-female transgender and is in the process of transitioning from male to female. My daughter knows that her other parent has a male body, but she also knows that my partner feels more like a woman. I never told her that it's odd that her male-bodied parent wears long hair, painted fingernails, and makeup, while I-- her mother-- have short hair and a tendency to dress butch.
Many of our friends also don't conform to gender stereotypes. My daughter has mistaken a few of our female friends for male, and vice versa, because they didn't match the typical construct of what a man or a woman stereotypically looks like. As a result, she no idea that some clothing styles, hair styles, or behavioral patterns are generally regarded as male or female. To my daughter, a long-haired child in a skirt could be either a boy or a girl, and she doesn't make assumptions based on these external features.
Among androgynous people, including other children, her typical policy is to wait until she has heard someone use "he" or "she" when talking about the individual, and then to select her own pronouns based on the pattern set by others. She's quickly developing the ability to determine gender based on how a person identifies him- or herself, rather than by stereotypes.
More than one person has asked me if I'm concerned about this behavior, or if it's something I'm looking to fix. A few people have made comments about how it's funny that my child has missed out on understanding something as simple as gender stereotypes. Honestly, though, I don't see what's wrong with my daughter's inability, or refusal, to judge other people based on gendered stereotypes. I would strongly prefer to have a child who judges people by who they are on the inside, and how they identify themselves, than by blanket categories of "boy" and "girl."
I'm proud of my child. I don't want her to grow up placing more emphasis on what's between the legs than between the ears. I don't want her to think that boys are people who play in mud, wrestle, and learn physics, while girls are made to look pretty, care for others, and gossip. I want my child to know that every human being is an individual, and that preferences for pink over blue, cars over dolls, or math over English aren't what defines a person's gender. My child doesn't understand stereotypical gender differences, but, to be honest, I don't see it as a problem.
Do you think it's okay for a child to have trouble telling boys apart from girls?