The other day my daughter was hanging out with two of her best friends in our backyard. It was her birthday, and they had surprised her with an early morning birthday breakfast. As I puttered in the kitchen, I glanced out the window and saw the three girls squeezed into my daughter’s parachute-like hammock, limb upon limb. I thought to myself, “Teenaged boys would never do that.”
As a young feminist and subscriber to the tabula rasa school of thought on human development, I used to resist the idea that gender roles had any basis in biology. Girls and boys are different, I insisted, because they learn to be. To be sure, it’s hard to separate nature from nurture in the way children develop because even as infants, children are handled differently based upon their sex.
But as the parent of both boys and girls, I’ve had to admit that there seem to be some inherent differences between the sexes. My boys have always been more active and challenged authority more than my girls. The nature of their friendships with others of the same sex is different too. My girls have always felt social slights more deeply than have my boys. And seeing a group of girls braiding each other’s hair does resemble the grooming behavior of our primate relatives, the chimpanzees.
I realize there is wide variation in the way individual children develop. Not all girls like dolls, and not all boys like sports. And the science of human development is discovering the many nuances that make gender much less of a binary phenomenon than has previously been assumed. Such discoveries are making people uncomfortable and opening up debates about gender identification on birth certificates and surgery on intersex children. I think what’s most important in these debates is the idea that we are each unique individuals, and our identities should be respected and viewed as the complexities that they actually are.
Still, it’s been interesting for me to see the way my sons and daughters have developed over the years and to admit to myself that I don’t know the half of it when it comes to gender. I remember when my oldest child tried to be a tomboy. Her best friend was rough and tumble, so my daughter eschewed more girlish clothing and activities. Ultimately, though, her identification as a “girly girl” won out. I also remember my daughter and her friends dressing my younger son up in girls’ clothes and putting barrettes in his hair. That adorable little boy has grown up to be a burly football player.
Gender identification is important. It’s a big part of who we are as human beings. I believe that if we are open and loving with our children, we will raise them to be exactly who they are meant to be: themselves.