Is it a boy or a girl?

When my child was born the midwife and I caught the baby and wrapped it up in a blanket. I held the bundle to it's mother's breast. None of us had noticed if it was a boy or a girl. We wanted to look, but we decided to give this child a few hours of life without any gender conditioning. And give ourselves time to fall in love with this person before we knew how to picture it's future. My wife's sister was outraged when we told her over the phone that the baby was born but that we couldn't answer her question, "Well... what is it?!" Most people will not directly interact with a child until they know it's gender. If not identified with the telltale pink or blue, an admirer will ask an infant's parents if it is a boy or a girl.

The answer to this one question allows them to begin speaking to the child. Now they know what tone of voice to use and what compliments would be appropriate. Gender conditioning begins at birth. It is important for all of us to try to counter this conditioning. It is hurtful to both girls and boys to be boxed into roles that limit the full expression of their humanity. Sexism is not just men telling women to stay in their role. It is all of us telling each other how we are allowed to feel and behave, based on our gender. Children base their identity on what we tell them we observe in them. Consciously or unconsciously we all predominantly reflect boy-like qualities to boys and girl-like qualities to girls. We generally ignore behaviors that do not match the child's gender. Then we wonder why our children are already firmly identified with their gender role by age two.

Many parents try to avoid gender steriotyping their children. They let the children pick their own clothes and toys. Then, when their three year old throws his body at full speed into the back of my knees, they explain within earshot of the child, "He's such a boy!" Parents unable to explain why their own efforts have not blocked the tide of sexism from washing over their child give up the fight and stand back in awe of the power of biology. As they watch their kids line up more and more with our society's gender roles they usually feel pretty powerless to do anything about it. Its not that biology doesn't play it's part. I'm sure our children's hormones have their effect. We have no way of determining, however, how much of the gender differences we notice in children are due to Nature and how much to nurture. So let us just agree that both forces are important. If we seek to protect our children from being gender steriotyped, it is the cultural forces we must continually try to counter, even when it seems hopeless.

My daughter (it was a girl) wears only pink tights and lacy dresses. She could care less about a bat and a ball. What she has learned from her culture and peers, despite her parent's best intentions, makes me cringe in embarrasment over my inability to influence her. On the other hand, she also throws herself into my knees at full speed. (Is that because she's a girl? Maybe its something about my knees.) And the most rambunctious child at her school is a girl, not a boy.

Instead of making comments that reinforce steriotypes whenever you see children comply with them, try looking for the exceptions and commenting on them. Notice when boys are focused, compassionate or communicative. Notice when girls are physical, strong, or outspoken. Let your children know that these qualities come at no surprise to you, in either gender. Several hundred people have told Molly that she is pretty. No wonder she only wears dresses. I can't change that. But I can make sure when we wrestle everyday that someone is also feeling her biceps and exclaiming how strong she is, and how powerfully she holds herself.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

Other Father Issues, Books

*    *    *

Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

Contact Us | Disclaimer | Privacy Statement
Menstuff® Directory
Menstuff® is a registered trademark of Gordon Clay
©1996-2019, Gordon Clay