“Are you a boy or a girl?”: Helping young children think through gender
I’m a queer woman with short hair who often wears button ups and slacks. (I use the word queer to talk about myself because it provides space for the recognition that both gender and sexuality are more complex than binary identity categories suggest.) I tell you this because it often prompts fascinating conversations with children (some of whom I know and some of whom I just happen to sit next to on the subway).
The conversation often begins with the question: “Are you a boy or a girl?” This question is posed to many gender non-conforming folks in different forms (for example, gender non-conforming parents I know are sometimes asked “are you a mommy or a daddy?”).
Because I am asked this question so often and because I think it offers an important opportunity to talk about gender with young children, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to answer it. (Note: Some of my gender non-conforming friends don’t want to be obligated, because of their queerness, to help strangers’ children work through their questions about gender. This is legit and no straight person should make this educational task the responsibility of someone queer. )
On the subway there is not much time or prior rapport and so the conversations have to be much shorter. Sometimes for me they go like this:
Child: Are you a boy or a girl?
Me: What do you think? (I like to start by asking kids this to see what ideas are informing their question.)
Child: Oh, you have short hair, but you sound like a girl.
Me: I think your question is a really good one, so can I ask you a question? Do only boys have short hair?
Me: What girls do you know with short hair? (Often children’s ideas about gender stand in direct opposition to their lived experiences. This is particularly true in the way that gender is racialized and often the archetype of what a “girl” looks like involves pale skin and long, straight hair. Allowing children to access their personal experience can sometimes provide a contradiction to a particular gender dictate and help kids to challenge it.)
Child: My friend has short hair. (Sometimes their parent or caregiver will also have short hair and this can be a moment to introduce myself and bring them into the conversation.)
Me: Yeah, I’m also a girl with short hair. But you’re right that there are boys who look like me. I liked your question because people look lots of different ways and so it’s always nice to ask someone what they want to be called.
Young children are cognitively primed to categorize and the world inundates children with the message that gender is an important social category. Because of this, young children can become hyper policers of gender. This came up for me a few weeks ago when I was sitting on a stoop with one of my little cousins (a strongly girl-identified six-year old).
Cousin: You sit like a boy.
Me: How do boys sit?
Cousin: Like that (gestures to my legs which are knees spread and propped up on the step below me)
Cousin: Do all boys sit like this?
Cousin: No, but that’s how boys are supposed to sit.
Me: How are girls supposed to sit?
Cousin: crosses her legs
Me: Says who?
Cousin: stares at me, legs crossed
Me: Do you like when people tell you that you can’t do something because you’re a girl?
Me: Yeah, me neither. So sometimes (I turn to her with a conspiratorial face) I do things intentionally because people have told me that girls can’t do them. So why don’t we show up those people who think there are things we can’t do because we’re girls and sit however we want? Want to experiment? Which way do you think is the most comfortable to sit?
My six-year-old cousin and I try sitting in a lot of different ways. Much giggling ensues. A little while later as we looked around for something to do:
Me: When I was a kid, I got the sense that only boys were supposed to climb trees. So what do you think I did?
Cousin: Climbed trees?
Me: Yep. Do you want to climb a tree with me?
Unsurprisingly, the two of us ended up in a tree.
Katie Schaffer is a white cis queer woman dedicated to collectively envisioning and implementing liberatory educational practices. For the past three years, Katie has worked at the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute (PDI) where she writes and facilitates workshops on gender and sexuality in early childhood. She offers workshops for both educators and family members of young children. If you’re interested in learning more about these workshops or how to bring them to your school or program, contact Katie at Katherine.Schaffer@cuny.edu or visit the series website here.
In addition to her work at PDI, Katie also engages in gender organizing through her role as a board member for the Third Wave Fund, an organization which resources and supports youth-led gender justice activism to advance the political power, well-being, and self determination of communities of color and low-income communities in the United States. If you want to learn more about Third Wave, click here.