Small Children “Performing” Gender

I haven’t forgotten that I’ve promised posts on “manly” therapy and more Bible thoughts, but this has risen to the top today. (Something was up with WordPress earlier this week and I couldn’t post anything.) If you find today’s topic interesting and you parent a small child, let me know if you’d be interested in talking to help me with my paper (contact form on my About Me page)!

Sparked by a recent comment on my August 8th post by William Lexie, who says:

HOWEVER , there is the odd thing out , which to me is troubling and that is the age group which just seems to young [ under 10 ] to make sense , so I question it .

It could be easy to confuse ‘ dressing up ‘ with BEING ‘dressed up ‘[ by someone else ] . One does have to learn how to dress , like buttoning, tying, etc , certainly toddlers/ children need help in dressing , and just how self aware are children under 10 to be doing such as dressing up as they ‘ want ‘ ? [ Is there spoiling going on as well ? ] Generally a parent picks clothing for their child / toddler . { It is possible and probable {{ that at least some }} of those parents are just simply dressing up their boys as girls for their own reasons } But being OVER 10 when one start to come into their own , well that’s more sensible .

There are a few points I want to respond to here. I won’t get to them all today, but I think they’re important as they have come up in one form or another in lots of comments over time. They’re based on some reasonable questions (how do we know whether parents are responding to kids, or kids are responding to parents) and also on some underlying cultural assumptions I’d like to unpack.

1) Children start to come into their own after 10, beginning to think for themselves and articulate their own sense of self and style. Children under 10 are not self-aware.
2) Small children who dress in clothes associated with another gender may be doing so because their parents make them for their own reasons or agendas.
3) Small children have no idea what they’re doing and no sense of self. At that age their parents dictate their tastes and activities.
4) Kids who are allowed to dress in a non-conformist way may be attention-seeking and/or “spoiled.”

This was a really timely comment, because I am working on a paper about just this very idea – that small children articulate their own sense of self and style much earlier than we think. I don’t really understand the idea that children don’t think for themselves until they’re 10 or 11, but it is a very prevalent belief, so I take it seriously. Personally, I can attest that my two children came into this world with very individual and very strong personalities. Yes, those personalities can (and sometimes should) be molded and trained by parents and communities, whether teaching an impetuous child to think things through or teaching an anxious child to try new things. But those fundamental traits are strong, and part of what makes us who we are. Some children are definitely more malleable, and/or have quieter personalities that do not spring forth so forcefully. I can see how they might be viewed as “not yet developed,” but I’d argue that they are expressing their personalities.

I notice that people often ascribe personality traits and choices to young children when they DO align with expectations — for example: He’s all boy! She just loves to dance. Look at her shake that booty! He’s always loved sports – ball was his first word. What a bruiser! Whew – she’ll be a handful at 13!

Parents have no trouble noticing that their young child has a preferred color . . . unless it’s not a color the parent is comfortable with. I actually found that fascinating – it had never occurred to me that “favorite colors” predated language. But when our son was able to articulate his preference for yellow, we realized that he had always been drawn to yellow things – his favorite flower was a daffodil; his favorite animal was a giraffe.

So it seems really evident to me that my kids are expressing themselves, not some desire I’m projecting on them. (In fact, my son would be more likely to do the opposite of whatever I wanted!) But even in the academy, the assumption exists that the performance of identity is a response to social constructs and community expectations. In other words, both conforming and rebelling are a response to external shaping forces, not an expression of some innate inner quality. That implies the same sort of tabla rasa – that we don’t know who we are until we know who we are supposed to be. (As Judith Butler famously said, “…gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original.”)

Which brings me to my paper topic. I’ll be presenting a paper on small children and gender performance this fall and I’d love to hear from parents. I’m pretty clear that most kids I know start performing their identities — including gender identities — before they know the rules. But it’s a small window – it doesn’t take long before the social expectations become clear, with varying results. If you have stories about your child’s early preferences that illuminate that window, let me know!

Here is a bit of the paper’s abstract:
In folklore we think of individuals performing within a context of community or tradition, influenced by culture, held to evaluation by audience.  Most discussion of gender performance centers on the relationship between performer and audience, community, or culture in some way. Judith Butler claims all gender identity is a per formative enactment of cultural influences, and recent folklore-related work on masculinity frames the performance of maleness in light of social constructions of gender as well — whether looking at the role of the community in constructing masculinity or examining so-called “alternative” masculinities.

Yet some parents report their young children seem driven to perform a gender identity unreflected in their surroundings — a gender identity that seems to arise neither from conforming to nor troubling social constructions of gender. These children are alternately called gender-variant, gender non-conforming, or independently gendered; they are toddler girls who cry when placed in dresses and boys drawn to all things pink and sparkly. As they grow aware of violating expectation, they engage in surprisingly complex negotiations ranging from declaring themselves to be differently gendered, to choosing a daily public masquerade with authentic performance only in their homes, to staking out a territory in between “boy” and “girl.”

This does not mean community is unimportant to gender performance; in fact, it is so central that families seek out or try to form audiences that can understand their children’s performances.


This entry was posted in Gender complexity, Parenting, Performance, Social construction, Theory and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Small Children “Performing” Gender

  1. Ralph says:

    I’m a white, heterosexual male in my 30s … who loves fashions from both genders. And nail polish (I have enough shades to do a different colour every week of the year) my favourite colour is purple. I love gaming and sports. I cry at touching moments in movies (or tv commercials for charities, etc) I love Winnie the Pooh, passionately (a quick look around my house reminds me just how much!) And it was always this way.
    I have struggled my entire life to define myself, but I can say without doubt that it began at a very young age, and was ‘all me’ – I was mostly left to my own devices, and generally encouraged to think for myself … I just wish my parents had been more supportive and less oppressive about certain aspects of my identity; I would feel a lot more comfortable with who I am. But they are what they are, just as I am what I am, so I try to look forwards and remind myself … there is still plenty of time to ‘just be me’ (although this: “choosing a daily public masquerade with authentic performance only in their homes” is somewhat reflective of where I am at.)
    I discovered the joy of pinks and pastels at maybe 5, and growing up as I did in a fairly religious (Irish Catholic) / conservative household, my parents were scared (sigh) that I was going to ‘turn out’ gay. But to me, it was just about pleasure, and being happy. I could not understand why there was such a divide between “boy’s stuff” and “girl’s stuff” – couldn’t we just share?

    It has been such a pleasure reading your blog, and seeing insightful, well thought out and rounded discussion of ‘gender fluidity’ … Thanks to people like you, the next generation of people like me may well have it easier, be better understood and ‘find their place’ with less pain and more fun.

    • pink says:

      Thank you so much – my son often says exactly the same thing: “Why do they have to make boys’ clothes and girls’ clothes? Why can’t they just make clothes and let people pick what they like?”

  2. Debby says:

    I was a child in the 1970’s in a typical, slightly more conservative than average home. I knew in second grade (about 7 years old) that I wanted to be a girl. (I am a genetic male.) Macho father, feminine mother in a stable home environment. I was never “dressed up” or encouraged to be feminine. In fact when my desire was discovered by my parents, they “encourgaged me” to be more masculine starting with a crew cut! In other words, this desire was completely internal to me. I have no idea why although I believe in theories involving the endocrine system, hormones, etc. I have no idea where this would have lead me if my parents would have been more understanding. I do know that I spent a huge part of my life carrying around a lot of baggage because of this repression and shame.

    I read these blogs about parents allowing their children to express their own innate sense of gender and I almost want to cry. Whether this is something the child drops eventually, whether the child is gay, or whether the child is transgender, this freedom to express themselves without shame is the healthiest thing I can think of. You parents have my respect!

    • pink says:

      From my commenters I learn both that people are incredibly resilient, which relieves any worry I have about my kids, and also that our support really matters, which motivates me to stay the course. Thank you.

  3. I find it very odd to think of children not being able to articulate preferences before the age of 10. Both of mine had very definite opinions, as early as two, about food and clothing. (and a two year old is well capable of shouting “NO” even if they can’t explain why.) By the time they were three, if we put them in clothes they disliked, they simply took them off. (They are still learning to put things *on* well, but off is much easier. And I don’t think kids clothes have nearly as many difficult fasteners as they used to.) The first set of clothing refusals were clearly about comfort – scratchy lace or ruffles or things hard to run in were not okay. But color and cut became important by 3, before they were in that preschool mode of strict gender separation, and the pattern on what they chose stayed consistent through when things started to get discussed in terms of girly or boyish.

    We learned to go clothes shopping with them and let them have the final “yes” or “no” on any of the things we the parents were considering, and they clearly cared about both the style and the comfort of the clothes, it wasn’t as easy as “O likes black and fuschia, D likes red and blue.” I still can’t predict with greater than 50% accuracy what they’ll like — and they are now 7 and 9, and can certainly tell you in great detail why they do or do not want to wear something.

    • pink says:

      LOL – I told my daughter by the age of three that I wouldn’t buy clothes for her anymore unless she was there, because it was too hard to figure out what she likes. But boy, does she know! At 4 she has intuitively developed an 80s aesthetic, matching tutus and striped leggings with high-top tennis shoes.

  4. One of my worries with performance theory is that it seems to presuppose a gender binary. I think that at least part of why my son has always made free to imagine himself as he pleases is that his parents hold the gender binary in deep suspicion. His early toys were all gender neutral or inclusive, his early clothes focused on brightness and comfort and cuteness rather than the sort of masculinity that consists of sporting goods, killing, and machinery. His father’s hair was long for his first two years, and we let his hair grow long for his first year and a half. Then, at around 22 months, he told me his scarf that I made for him was his “girl hair.” A year later, he began to wear a wig all of the time. At last, a few months ago, he wanted to dress as a “princess” most of the time. Now he is in dresses most of the time, in and out of the home. Most people assume he is a girl, and he gets a great deal of positive attention from strangers in his elaborate princess get-ups. He gets upset when people do not realize that he is actually pretending to be a chicken that day, or a gosling.

    My son began to talk at 6 months, to choose his clothing at 9 months, and was able to converse imaginatively (and play dress up with playsilks) by 16 months. He has always loved to play pretend, and he has parents who value the critical thinking inherent in his pretend play a great deal. He has a closet full of adorable, posh boy clothes (Janie and Jack, Hanna Andersson) that I collected for him (second hand, because we are not made of cash here) before he entered this dress-up phase. He can reach all of them, but he never chooses them over his princess outfits. We have purchased him several gowns since he started crying when he had to take off my nightgown and the two dresses he had “borrowed” from his baby sister’s closet. He wears glittering silver or gold Mary Janes, even though he has navy blue and moss green sandals and hiking shoes and pink Hello Kitty rainboots, all of which he has previously chosen.

    I am always alarmed when people assume that their discomfort with seeing a child flout the gender binary means that his parents lack good boundaries or good sense. I’m glad you are advancing the conversation.

  5. William J Lexie says:

    I had intended to follow up on my comment in your ‘NYT’s’ post which brought me here , but since you brought it up front here [ in part that is ] I shell do it here . I ll start it like his ; A B C … –1 2 3… — simple as that , children under age 10 can know more than one language , read sheet music , play a musical instrument , etc , that is they can easily LEARN those things when they are TAUGHT those things , it’s amazing actually , which is a part of my study on creativity and imagination . Children at that age very receptive and curious , they do not know what they ‘want ‘ [ who does anyway ?] by curiosity they ‘ want ‘ everything , right ?
    What bothered me the most with the times article was the idea of stating they ‘ wanted ‘ to dress up [ on their own ] at under ten but did not after ten [ I smelled a rat at that , the ole religious right wing scheme idea of explaining ‘ gay ‘ lol 😀 ] , I mean , if a 7 yo REALLY REALLY TRULY ‘ wants’ [ needs even] to play piano and is taught how to play, [ they are saying ] that when they turn 11 they magically don’t want to any more , lol . Many kids are MADE to take lessens they don’t ‘ want ‘ to ,and some of them grow up to be dj ‘s !;-D Maybe you’ll see the point , just want you to think , there is more than I have time for , done here [ but will check response ] . You can google my name William J Lexie to find my artwork [ and pin up photo’s ;-)] artwork style is in a children’s book illustration / comic book style , themes are faerie tale imagination, also write stories the same ” The Goblin Tree ” wet W J Lexie . Tomorrow I turn 52 , so I want to get into my best swing dress and dance to jazz . nite nite
    ps make sure your kids have plenty creative art and craft supplies !!!

  6. saoili says:

    “just how self aware are children under 10 to be doing such as dressing up as they ‘ want ‘ ? [ Is there spoiling going on as well ? ]”

    This boggles my mind. How can anyone who’s ever met a child under 10 have this opinion? How self aware is a 9 year old? Completely! They may not know themselves as well as a 20 year old, but I like to think I know myself better now than I did when I was 20, but I still wouldn’t say I wasn’t self aware at age 20.

    This basically amounts to ‘children under 10 don’t have opinions, and if they do and you listen to them, you’re spoiling them’. What poppycock!

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