Gender boxes limit all kids

I don’t think her mother would have to send an email out to the parents, warning them of her fashion choice.

I’ve gotten so many comments like this in reaction to my blog about the sexism intrinsic in the NYT piece “What’s So Bad About A Boy Who Wants To Wear a Dress,” that I am going to respond in a post.

No parent would send such an email because gender-pressure/ sexism against girls is more accepted. (I’ve been calling it “subtle” as well but, really, how subtle are Target’s gender-segregated aisles?) I wish we could write emails, but people would think we’re crazy, because people don’t think they’re sexist; they don’t think sexism exists and so, unfortunately, an email won’t work. Much of my whole, damn blog is dedicated to just pointing out sexism. Sexism exists, and it exists everywhere, and it’s often celebrated and not questioned by smart, progressive, educated parents. One commenter just sent me a link to this blogger praising the NYT piece with: “girls who waltz into previously male-dominated arenas are almost uniformly applauded.”

It’s just not true. God, I wish it were.

I do have some tactics to suggest for parents to deal with sexism/ gender-pressure, but before I even go into that, it’s really important not to let this issue devolve into: who has it worse, girls or boys? When we create rigid gender boxes for our kids, everyone loses out. Everyone. This is about raising healthy, happy, children, helping their brains grow so that they can reach their potential. Defending a boy for wearing a dress and a girl for wearing a Spider-Man T is the same thing, not an oppositional thing. And it’s a much deeper issue, too, because most girls today are in a place where we can’t defend them, because they won’t put on a Superhero shirt. Obviously, the same is true about boys in dresses, even if it’s only playing dress up.

Here’s the thing: Most kids like to play with dolls, but we label them “dolls” or “action figures.” Most kids enjoy pushing objects on wheels, but we sell them either trucks or babystrollers. As I wrote, most kids would have fun painting their nails if they thought it was OK to do so. Most kids, while playing outside will pick up sticks and occasionally poke each other with them. Most parents respond to that same act with “Boys will be boys” or “Sweetie, stop that! You’ll hurt yourself and rip your dress.”

There’s this one part in the NYT article that I excerpted in my first post:

Still, it was hard not to wonder what Alex meant when he said he felt like a “boy” or a “girl.” When he acted in stereotypically “girl” ways, was it because he liked “girl” things, so figured he must be a girl? Or did he feel in those moments “like a girl” (whatever that feels like) and then consolidate that identity by choosing toys, clothes and movements culturally ascribed to girls?

While the writer doesn’t go on to explore that, the point of my first post was that adults can’t even begin to decode without first recognizing the gender-Jim Crow kidculture that our children are immersed in.

It kind of reminds me of when I had an eating disorder, and I told my therapist I felt fat. She told me that fat was not a feeling. “What?” I said, shocked.  “Do you feel anxious?” she asked me. “Lonely? Frustrated?” It took me years to decode fat talk. Though I don’t say or think “I feel fat” anymore, I hear other women use those words all the time, eloquent grown-ups with large vocabularies. What are they trying to say?

Here are some ways, daily, that I decode gender talk, because though an email won’t work, saying the right thing at the right time sometimes does. Here are three main groups parents need to speak up to, even if it’s awkward, even if you feel like a bitch.


At a parent conference, my favorite teacher glowed when he told me that my daughter played soccer like a boy. “What does that mean?” I said. “She’s good,” he said. “She goes right after the ball.” We then got in a discussion about my daughter’s behavior, and how she loved kickball, but that at recess the kids were starting divide up: girls do monkey bars, boys do kickball. I asked the teacher if he would encourage the kids to mix it up. I offered my help.  When I was a parent volunteer on a field trip, the naturalist asked the kids to split in two groups, so the teacher said: “Boys on one side, girls on the other, that’s easiest.” So what if it’s “easiest” at that moment? Moves like that, in the long run, hurt kids. A teacher would never dream of saying: “White kids here, kids of color there.”  I suggested a different kind of split and luckily,  the naturalist backed me up, pairing them up herself.


When my kids go to the doctor, they’re often called princesses, told their clothing is pretty, and when they leave, they’re offered a princess sticker. I asked the workers at the office not to offer the princess stickers, though it’s still a struggle because most characters who are girls are princesses. When people tell my kids they are pretty or their clothing is pretty, I change the subject, “XX is a great artist, tell the nice woman what you drew on your way over.” Or “XX loves to read, tell her about Charlotte’s Web.” As I’ve written about quite a bit, these are adults trying to be nice, trying to break the ice with kids. Help here is often appreciated when delivered the right way. Rebecca Hains just posted about taking her son to the dentist, and here is how she tried to intervene:

“Hello!” said the dentist. “I just want to count your teeth today,” he said reassuringly. “And let’s make sure they’re all boy teeth, okay?”

As my son smiled and opened his mouth per the dentist’s request, I said, “Gee, I’m pretty sure they’re all people teeth, doctor.”

The denist began the exam but seemed to have missed my point. “Let’s see. Boy tooth… boy tooth… boy tooth…”

I didn’t like where this was going. In a gentle effort to redirect his script, I asked a playful question: “Hmm…Are you sure none of them are puppy teeth?”

“Puppy teeth? No… But, uh, oh!” In a voice of mock concern, he asked, “Is this one a girl tooth?!?!”

Smiling at my son as naturally as possible, I said in a bright, upbeat tone, “Gee, it could be!” (Meaning: and there would be nothing wrong with that!)

The dentist frowned and furrowed his brow. “No, no,” he said, “this is a boy tooth. You are a boy. You don’t have any girl teeth! Phew.”

It’s hard. It’s awkward because we can’t send an email like “GET A CLUE. BE OPEN. BE KIND.” And the fucked up thing is, people are often trying to “be kind” when they push stereotypes on kids. Except when they’re not…

Other kids

My six year old was at a party yesterday with a jumpyhouse and she told me that a girl there said to her (the little sister of the party girl, no less) “You can’t come in unless you’re a pretty princess.”

“What did you tell her?” I asked. Hoping for something like “I’m brave and strong and can jump over your three-year old butt.”

My daughter said, “I told her I was Ariel.”

Ariel, ugh. But at least my daughter thought it was weird, noticed it enough to talk with me about it after. A tiny victory, but something.

If I were there, of course, I would’ve smiled and said something like, “What about Merida? She can shoot arrows and turn her mom into a bear!” And I bet they both would’ve laughed and gone in. Little kids are the easiest to intercede on, and I do it all the time.

Balancing Jane asked this question as well: what can parents do on a daily basis?

So first I would say: Do something! Speak up.

I started a blog, that helps a lot. Now I have a whole community of people and resources to help break out of gender boxes.

I seek out books and movies that feature heroic females. This blog has many recommendations and lists. A Mighty Girl is a great resource. And remember, it’s important to read books and show your sons movies featuring strong girls. The myth out there, reinforced by parents terrified their boys will wear dresses, is that girls will see movies about boys but boys won’t see movies about girls. (Nothing to do with training, nothing to do what Hollywood offers them…) Take a leadership role in proving that untrue.

I’m writing a middle grade book about strong girls. That helps, too.

As the mom of three girls, I schedule playdates with boys and invite boys to birthday parties.

Last night, I put my three year old in Superman pajamas, called her Supergirl, and said, “You’re so strong! You can fly!” We played for a while before bed.

Little things are big things.

Emails won’t work, so we’ve all got to be creative here. Tell me your ideas. Even better, report your acts.

22 thoughts on “Gender boxes limit all kids

  1. This NYT article and blog entry really affected me recently. My kindergaten aged son is not invited to his female friend’s birthday because she is having a “girls only” party. The girl’s mom mentioned it to me while they were playing at her house and also said she was sorry she could not invite boys but she was trying to keep the numbers low and it was a fairy tale tea party anyway.

    Now, I know I am taking this too personally but I feel this is wrong on many levels. First, I guess I feel it is better to not get invited to a party based on not liking a person rather than based on body parts. Am I allowed to only invite brunettes to a birthday party?

    Second, I feel like our society is segregated enough along gender lines that I don’t think it is a good idea to add to it unless someone really does not have any friends of the opposite gender.

    Third, Is this mom saying its OK my son wasn’t invited because he would not like fairy tales or tea or tea parties? I don’t know about tea parties but my little guy loves “The little Mermaid” and “Tangled” and he occassionally likes raspberry tea.

    I just don’t want to squash his love of these things by labeling things as “girly” and “off-limits”.

    Finally, Should I not encourage friendships between my son and girls? Up until now, while he mostly has guy friends he has had a few friends who are girls. He seems not to notice gender when deciding who to play with. If he becomes good friends with a girl, will he not get invited to things because he is a boy? I think this would make him very sad.

    Not sure what to do – should I start making playdates with only boys? My mom says this is the way things are, girls and boys will not play with each other together during elementary school. I feel like my children are trapped in a gender box and I am the only who sees it …or cares.

  2. Hello Margot,

    thank you for accepting my critical entry on the page about the Original NYC article. I think I have to appologize for attacking and blaming you. After reading through your blog, I guess I maybe misunderstood some of the points of your criticism. I felt hurt and negatively valued in my identity. But maybe you also understand that it hurts to live in a society that consequently tells you that your very personal gender identity and your life values are worthless and inferior, not in only the very special context of this culture, but naturally and generally. And it’s not only straight men who try to tell me things like these. It’s an increasing amount of women, too, who think because THEY are concerned with occupying male privileges (which ist important – sure), that would automatically mean that stereotypically “female” traits were less valuable and inferior in general. That’s the first feminist generation’s attitude, and unfortunately it was quite influenceal, thus even increasing the general attitude that Padawer critisizes: a pseudo-liberal society that does not understand how a man can consider anything stereotypically “female” as positive or wishful for his own gender identity.

    My point is still that I think boys are rather being ridiculized for behaving gender-nonconforming, whereas girls are rather disliked (and maybe therefore bullied, which also hurts, of course). But I still think that in Western narcissistic cultures which are shaped by patriarchal and capitalist values such as dominance, being ridiculized might hurt even more than not being liked. And that has to do a lot with the social concepts of femininty and masculinity. These concepts are NOT equal. And BECAUSE they are not equal, people react differently to the gender-nonconforming behavior of men/boys or women/girls. They attack both – but with different means, producing different kinds of aversive emotions (guilt vs. shame). That’s not meant as categorical difference, but as a tendency. Of course, girls can also be ridiculized and boys can also be disliked for gender noncomonforming behavior, sure. But I’m talking about the prevaling tendency: ridiculizing vs. disliking. Do you really think that the girl with the star wars box was bullied because the other kids found her box as ridiculous as a boy wearing a pink princess dress? I guess not.

    That’s how I think about it. Of course that has to do with my personal life experiences as a rather gender-fluid man. I’m not objective. Gender-fluid women make different experiences than I make. I also did not want to blame feminism – that would be absurd. Of course I think it’s important for women to fight for their right to occupy the so-called “male” privileges. That’s self-explaining for me. But I also think it’s important to keep in mind that there might also be some men who regard traditionally (stereotipic) “female” personality traits as a PRIVILEGE they want to occupy. Even though that may be hard to understand in a culture that is shaped by the values of men. Men who defined the roles and gender segregation, but who ALSO got used to the things “men do” and then began to define the value of this stereotypically “male” behavior as superior. That’s do different things that patriarchy does – labeling and valuing. You have to understand both. And that’s what Ruth Padawer sais, too, in her words. And I think it’s also OK if an individual woman sees aspects of so-called “femininty” as a privilege and a positive aspect of her identity. Because I think that it’s time to come to post-patriarchic identities. Or no culturally shaped identities at all. Just individualism. Individuals are different, no matter their sex. But that also means that an indvidual choice is an indvidual choice, no matter what. Try to get to a point where sex really has NO meaning at all. Neither for pressing women or men into traditional roles, NOR for praising them to behave explicitly contrary to that role and blaming them if they seem to come too close to the traditional role (and then declaring that as feminism). Forget tradition. Just let people be what they are: Indviduals. Completely queer. Tough women and sensitive men, or the other way round, or anything in between, whatever they like. It’s all OK. That would be the attitude of a post-patriarchic society, where sex really does not matter at all, anymore. Please excuse that I HAVE to use stereotypic words such as “female” or “male” to explain not only the labeling process of patriarchy, but also the second component of valuing these labels. If I don’t use these labels and just ignore their social existence, I will lack the language to explain what patriarchy does with certain aspects of my social identity: calling them inferior. I have to explain why partiarchy does this to me. Gender-nonconforming women don’t have the same problem as I have, because they are occupying priviliges that our society considers to be superior, not inferior.

  3. Hi Margot; great blog. I wanted to add something to your response to people who suggest that it’s easier for girls to cross the gender boundary than boys: I think people think that because for the last 100 years, most of the advances in women’s rights have been about gaining access to privileges men already have. The ones that we got early – the vote, wearing pants – are so culturally embedded that it can be easy to overlook the ways we’re still pinned into those little boxes.
    But I also want to suggest that it is, in some respects though certainly not all or even most, easier for girls to ‘act like boys” than it is for boys to “act like girls” – and that this is due precisely to the fact that we see women as lesser than men. It is understandable that women would want to act like men – who wouldn’t want to be a man?! But for a man to want to be a woman – that’s to sacrifice and denounce Masculinity itself, if we understand masculinity as the position occupied by Men and not simply a series of gender performances. Understanding masculinity as a relative position explains why masculinity is so fragile – Radtransfem has some great stuff to say about that here:

  4. Very interesting blog. So we have two issues here. The first issue is the physical characteristics. It’s just easier for adult people to use the physical characteristics as a way of identifying a pre-programmed set of responses to a particular demographic. Other reasons to use physical characteristics have to do with how one thinks about “populations” such as boys on one side of the room and girls on the other. It’s a natural separation.

    The second issue has to so with psychological characteristics. Psychological characteristics aren’t as readily identifiable because they live on the inside of the being with the physical characteristics. Adult people aren’t trained to respond to what may be inside a child and how that child views themselves or their place in the world.

    So here’s a good example…”tomboys”. Girls who hate dresses, want to play sports, would rather build model airplanes instead of playing with “dolls”. The world is not kind to tomboys especially if the mother can’t understand why the girl hates to wear make-up and heels or the father wishes she was really a boy. Even a supportive father has a hard time with it. This girl gets left out of everything. She may still grow up to be a mother, like the opposite sex etc. but even as an adult she still feels out of place. Girls just don’t have good role models for this even as adults. Adults don’t know what to do with Tomboy girls. The closest I’ve seen in TV land was Xena. She often felt out of place doing “traditional” female tasks. Tomboy girls and women are mostly left in the dust. Even the female superheros are big boobed, butt showing bathing suit clad sex toys. Occasionally I see Wonder Woman actually portrayed as a warrior…but it’s very rare. Women are supposed to be gathering food, taking care of the sick, old or young, managing the village while the men are on the hunt. From a human evolutionary standpoint I’m sure women were doing much more like building tools, planting the soil, fighting off marauders, and even running the villages but it sure isn’t talked about that much.

    Boys have loads of role models. Everything from nerdy awkward men to Super hero jocks. It’s all good because it is acceptable for a boy to be that full range. The nerd masters the computer and saves the day! Men can chip rocks or hunt the deer. Both are good. Now days in America we can even see men taking care of their children and even having an emotional connection…something that men in other cultures have been doing forever.

    I think we really can blame the media. TV, movies, comic books are the most widely dispersed teaching tools. When we can change the scripts in the media we will provide new programming for everyone.

  5. Thank you so much for all of this. As you say, the “rigid boxes” end up hurting all our kids. For Halloween we used to dress up as… whatever kind of thing we could scrape together an imitation of, perhaps with the aid of a plastic mask. Nowadays the girls have princess outfits and the boys have superheroes with fake padded muscles. How ridiculous and insulting to both! How awful for kids who don’t much feel like they belong in one or the other of those boxes to begin with, and have to keep feeling out of place in the world. The examples of this gender segregation are everywhere and seem even more rigid and pervasive than they did when I was a girl in the 70s!

    • Hi Suzy,

      I am a child of the 70s too and totally agree– and it’s not like things for girls/ women were fabulous then either. Halloween is horrible for gender stereotypes, in no small part b/c costumes replicate sexist movies. Are kids going to dress up like the sexy pirate, the only female one, in “Pirates?” Halloween also turned Hermione into a “slutty schoolgirl.”


  6. I was pointed to your blog after the NY Times article came out, and I LOVE it. I have a young son who is, whether I like it or not, attracted to trucks, dinosaurs, and thunder (loud being the common link I think). He ignores dolls or stuffed animals when they are in his space.

    His choices as a toddler already make me question what is innate, what is societal, and what is based on our home. I want to be a parent who welcomes her child to explore all of the possibilities of life, but I never expected that that would manifest as welcoming so many trucks into our house.

    In talking with other progressive moms in my Mommy Group, it seems that many of the toddlers, boys and girls, like big loud things (such a contrast to their small stature). Whenever people say things like, “He’s all boy” I usually respond with “We say he’s all toddler!” and share a story about a new discovery he’s made. I don’t want to start a fight, but I do hope people question their own ideas and expectations.

  7. Great post!

    I was a kid in the nineties, and I sometimes wonder if there’s been a backslide in gender division since then. Obviously as a child I didn’t notice sexism as much, and I hardly grew up in some kind of feminist egalitarian utopia, but even though I loved Disney princesses and dresses no one seemed to have a problem with me playing with LEGO or boys. In fact, my mum tried to encourage me to wear trousers as often as dresses, probably because they were easier to run around outside in. I also recently watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time, which had its original run from 1996-2003, and, while not perfect, that programme’s much more open about gender and female empowerment than many things on TV today.

    Then I look at that LEGO advert from the eighties with a girl wearing a red (?) shirt and overalls, and you could replace her with a boy and the picture would otherwise be exactly the same, and I can’t think of a single advert for a children’s toy in the past decade for which you could say the same.

    Maybe we’ve just reached an awkward midway point where things have improved enough for women that many people don’t feel the need to push further, so people start seeing gender divisions in children as cute rather than troubling. Then you also get the religious backlash with the Christian Patriarchy movement and such, and sometimes I worry we’re going to have to go back even further before we can go forward.

    That was longer and more rambly than I’d intended, but I guess this post really highlighted to me how the 20th century saw great leaps in gender equality for children, and since the turn of the century we seem to have stagnated and even regressed.

  8. Hi Margot,
    Love your blog.
    While I thought the NYT article was important, because everyone is not on the same page with gender issues. I thought it was kind of muddled. There are at least six different issues raised.
    1. What gender does the child feel like “inside”?
    2. What gender will the child be attracted to when puberty hits?
    3. What gender will the child fall in love with?
    4. What gender stereotypical things does the child like to do?
    5. What gender stereotypical clothes does the child like to wear?
    6. What gender does the child have biologically?
    When these six aspects don’t line up to the same gender or to a particular gender stereotype at all, people get confused. Information can clarify things.
    Just being OK with having these six aspects not lining up in anyone, is a big step.

    Although people tend to have cows over clothing, it doesn’t change any of the other five. It only expresses them. I try remember that nothing about gender needs a value judgement. If a child feels like wearing something, my question is more about whether it will limit abilities to do the activity than what onlookers might say about the fashion choice.

    • Hi Vanessa,

      Great points. In response to another comment, I wrote this:

      “Kathleen Massara blogged this on HuffPo:

      “In the article, Padawer also explains transgender is “a term for those who feel they were born in the wrong body.” The Gender Equity Resource Center at Berkeley, however, defines transgender people as “those whose psychological self (“gender identity”) differs from the social expectations for the physical sex they were born with.” Why wouldn’t Padawer use this definition, rather than the “I’m trapped inside the wrong body” understanding, which is false? It seems that the author’s understanding of gender is more close-minded than she’d like to admit. ”

      the whole piece is great, here’s the link:


      Now I am also thinking this definition: “those whose psychological self (“gender identity”) differs from the social expectations for the physical sex they were born with.” includes me, my kids, and most of my friends. Maybe, sort of like Gloria Steinem suggested years ago when people were “name-calling” feminists lesbians, we should all call ourselves transgender.


  9. I work in a store and love talking to the kids that come in and have noticed a lot how girls are talked to about how pretty their clothes are. I have been trying as much as possible to talk to girls in action words. I like to ask if they have been on an adventure. I also ask if they are going to carry mum/dad/ect’s shopping with their big strong muscles.

    I start conversations with boys by telling them how cute or handsome they are and complimenting their clothes. I also talk to them about how good and helpful they are.

    I hope my one voice going against the tide helps. I also talk to the other people I work with about the words we use with boys and girls.

  10. Great tips! It is amazing how often I hear smart, well-intentioned adults make sweeping generalizations and gender stereotypical comments. My daughter’s teacher -whom I believe cares A LOT about the social and emotional development of her little ones – has the kids lining up in boys’ and girls’ lines! My stomach is in knots over it. I have been trying to think of a way to subletly suggest better ways for grouping and organizing her class without it coming across as an attack. It’s not easy, but it’s soooo important!

    • Hi Hilary,

      And if moms like you and I– who are passionate about this stuff, who write about it– have trouble speaking up, where does that put most parents? Not to mention the parents who see the teacher as an authority figure and think she must be right.

      Maybe ask for a meeting with the teacher? Compliment her on real things, then talk about the Hamley’s, the store that stopped organizing by gender, new research, Peggy Orenstein’s book, and in general, challenging kids?

      Let us know if you do it and report back!


  11. I purchased my 3 year old daughter pajamas with a knight fighting a dragon from Costco. I tried to convince her the knight was a girl. I made up some story that drew upon characters from Lord of the Rings and images of Joan of Arc. I am not sure it sunk in…but I really tried. Saying things that “no man could kill the dragon” but a woman could! My son is only 14 months I have yet to figure out how to inspire and teach him…thankfully he sees baby and only baby, no boy/girl crap yet 😉

  12. I’m the one who gets annoyed at pink Supergirl costumes at Halloween. I’m staring at them thinking: “That’s not right… Supergirl wears blue and red, just like Superman!” The costume companies pink up Batgirl too, now that I’m thinking about it.

    Very cute blog by the way. 🙂

  13. Thank you SO SO so much for this post. This is what I am saying and thinking all along. I feel like I am a crazy mom who thinks about this stuff all the time and people are just NOT getting it and don’t see how much harm it does it BOTH boy’s and girls!!

Leave a Reply