How Pushing Gender Norms Can Make Kids Less Resilient

By Kelly Huegel, author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens

Huegel_Kelly_FSP AuthorI’ve been thinking a lot about resilience and vulnerability. If you had a mild (or maybe not so mild) negative reaction to the latter word, you’re not alone. Especially with the bullying epidemic among children and teens, we’ve been increasingly interested in ideas about how to make kids more resilient. And tacked onto that in many people’s minds is probably, “Yeah, and less vulnerable.” But if you’re at all familiar with the work of research professor Brene Brown (author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead), you know the two are inextricably linked—vulnerability lies along the path we must travel to reach resilience.

Let’s put a pin in that idea for a second and turn to the topic of gender. (If that feels like a 180-degree turn, stay with me—we’ll circle back.) When I ask people what gender is, they usually say something along the lines of, “It’s whether you’re male or female.” When I ask them what that means, they usually look at me like I’m a little off and say something like, “You know—you were born a boy or a girl.” Sometimes people will tack on something about hermaphrodites (whose sex organs are not distinctly male or female). In all of these cases, what they’re thinking about is not gender, but anatomy or sex. They’re all the same, right?

girl with dolls boy with blocks wikimedia commonsIn actuality, anatomy and sex are anatomical assignments of male and female, while gender is a societal construct. We as a group have determined the roles and behaviors that are consistent with the male and female sexes. (For a more detailed discussion about gender, check out my book, GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens.)

Picture a kindergarten classroom and you’ll quickly see the division of boys and girls along gender lines—boys building, then loudly destroying block castles, and girls more quietly playing house. And children largely self-divide along these lines; without input from an adult, they typically will make choices to play in ways in which their gender expression of play matches their sex. But what about that boy who wants to play house, maybe even put on a smock? Or the girl who hates dresses and wants to storm castles?

Especially for boys, adults can quickly start to cringe when kids’ gender expressions don’t match their sex, or our societal ideas of what it means to be male and female. Some worry that their kids will grow up to be gay, or that this type of play—a boy playing with dolls, for example—could “make” them gay. Others worry more for their children’s safety: We want our kids to fit in and not be potential targets for bullies.

Frustrated_man_at_a_desk_by Jacklee wikimedia commonsThe thing is, if we start pushing traditional gender expectations on our kids, all children—regardless of eventual orientation—can suffer because of it. Let’s fast-forward to adulthood. Forty-five-year-old John, a married father of three girls, suffers from chronic depression and gastrointestinal issues. He’s unfulfilled in his professional life, worries about finances, and doesn’t feel like he can talk to his wife about any of it, because as the man, his job is to provide and be strong. The idea of vulnerability terrifies him.

John’s challenges have zero to do with sexual orientation. He’s a “normal,” heterosexual man. But they have a lot to do with the gender stereotypes that have been pushed on him since his childhood, when his dad said things to him like “Man up,” his mom taught him that boys don’t cry, and successive football coaches told him not to “act like a girl” when he got injured, but instead to push on. This kind of language and behavior not only builds emotional cages around boys, but also denigrates girls, teaching them that “strength” is the domain of boys. It sets the stage for incidents such as when little girls who are “tomboys” are teased and labeled as lesbians simply because of how they dress. Greater space around gender expression in general would be better for all kids, regardless of their eventual orientations.

What is resilience but the ability to deal with whatever circumstances present themselves? In martial arts, we call this having “soft knees”—not locking the body into a rigid position, but staying soft enough to respond to whatever threats may arise. In life, we are going to endure pain. Circumstances will change—a lot. And through it all, the ability to be vulnerable—to express ourselves, to show insecurity, to show fear, and to ask for help—will not weaken us, but will enable us to make the real human connections we need to persevere.

Certainly, being more open-minded about gender expression creates a safer and more welcoming environment for GLBTQ kids. But when we push rigid gender roles on all children, we actually limit their abilities to develop critical life skills. Every time we take a risk, we are vulnerable. And when we lose the ability to be vulnerable, we start to live from fear. As Brene Brown states, and as her copious amounts of data bear out, “Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.”

courage upCertainly, we want our kids to be resilient, to have grit. We can encourage kids to take chances without pushing outdated ideas of gender or using gender-based language. I recently heard a man say, “I gotta courage up” instead of “man up.” That sounded a whole lot healthier to me.

We need to allow space for boys and girls to be vulnerable and to be tough, and to understand the two are not opposites, but different elements of the resilience equation.

How have you encouraged open-mindedness about gender in your family or classroom? Please share your stories or comments.

GLBTQ from FSPKelly Huegel is a staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States. Previously, she worked for the Metropolitan Washington DC chapter of PFLAG, where she helped provide support and educational services for GLBTQ people and their families. The author of two books and more than fifty published articles, Kelly has a special passion for working with teens and holds a degree in secondary education. She lives in Maryland with her partner, Margaret. Kelly welcomes readers to follow her updates on GLBTQ politics and people or message her direct via Twitter at @GLBTQguide.

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