Girl, boy, girl, boy… boy?

27 Oct
  • Boys on one side and girls on the other.
  • Please line up: boy, girl, boy, girl…
  • For class representatives, we’ll elect one boy and one girl per grade.

It’s a go-to method of dividing the students into groups. It’s a no-brainer, right?

Not so fast.

While the majority of children seem to identify “girl” or “boy” with as little hesitation as we identify them, is it really so black and white? Consider what research on child identity development tells us:

  • Around 18 months, children develop their core sense of gender identity: what we call masculinity or femininity (Blumenfeld, 1998).
  • Around 2 years, children are often actively noticing and asking questions about people’s differences (Bisson et al.) and differentiating between women and men (Huston, 1987).
  • Around 2-3 years, children express their core gender identity (Ghosh, 2009), which may not match social gender expectations for them.
  • Around 3 years, transgender children may already feel something is “wrong” between their minds and bodies (Act for Youth, 2008).
  • At 3-4 years, children tend to believe sex is changeable: ex. “If I cut my hair, I can be a boy” (Kohlberg, 1966; Wright, 1998).
  • Around 4-7 years, children usually achieve “gender constancy”*: a recognition that they’re either a boy or a girl for good (Wright; Kohlberg).

* While the research uses the terminology “gender constancy,” I believe it actually refers to sex constancy (the permanence of being a boy, as opposed to the permanence of being a tomboy).

So back to “Please line up, boys on the left and girls on the right.”

It turns out that for some of our children, this can prove to be quite a dilemma. And I don’t just mean transgender kids: sex fluidity is a normative part of identity development. Even children who feel quite consonant in mind and body have the capacity–and occasional desire–to see themselves in a different body. Furthermore, children may have an inclination to identify as both (unisex) or neither.

When we ask, then, for children to identify as either a girl or a boy, we may be contributing to one child’s sense of “wrongness” in their body, pressuring another child to grasp sex constancy before they’re ready and forcing yet another child to choose between identities that both resonate for her/him, all while justifying dichotomous categorization as a valid way of thinking about people for another generation. 

We can, of course, easily enough abolish this system of grouping (line up by first initial: A-L on this side and M-Z on the other), but what was “boy-girl” all about in the first place?

Developmentally, race and sex are the first aspects of identity and diversity that we notice (Bisson et al.) By “first” I mean that at about 6 months of age we’re noticing these particular aspects of phenotype. It seems logical, given the importance of survival of the species, that we are wired to discern sex (and race I would attach to the importance of recognizing and being recognized by “our” people). Focusing on sex identity here, children continue to notice and make meaning of sex differences, attaching and confusing it with gender identity, as they learn from the social norms and expectations expressed around them.

Parents and educators can verify this: boyness and girlness are matters of huge importance to kids in early childhood and beyond. And so it makes sense that we have integrated this aspect of identity and diversity into the structures of their education. Yet, if we do so with a forced choice of girl or boy, we may not be as supportive of their development as we may be enabling them to remain where they are.

As for requiring equality of the sexes in class elections and other student leadership opportunities, it again makes developmental sense. Starting in toddlerhood, children normatively acquire an awareness of sex stereotypes, biases and inequalities (ex. girls are better students than boys, but girls can’t do math) that, if unchallenged, tend to persist and influence their confidence, performance and choices (ex. girls may choose not to pursue high level math and science even though they’re capable of the work, and boys may give up trying to be a good student). 

But is enforced equal representation the cure-all for equality between the sexes? 

I wonder about the possibilities when a student senate is dominated by one group: it seems a relevant and practical opportunity to discuss fair representation and the need to diversify voices (why does diversity matter? how does it imact the senate and the whole student body to be goverened by an affinity group? how would greater diversity impact the process and outcomes of the senate? are affirmative action or quotas the best way to ensure diversity? are there other means to inclusion and equity?) While mandating equal numbers of boys and girls (and remember how this excludes the kids who identify as both or neither) is intended to engineer equity and inclusion, does that just encourage the students to assume all is well and good (based on appearances)? Do they learn how to practice and cultivate equity and inclusion, whatever the numbers or inequality of voice?

Ultimately, the ways we approach sex identity and equality say a lot about the assumptions we bring to this aspect of identity (we assume that it’s simple and obvious to us and to everyone else). Our handling of sex also poses questions about other aspects of identity: what about our assumption–actually, our reflex, which kicks in before we even notice we’re doing it–that we can read someone’s race? what about equal representation of diverse social classes in our student governments? how do we include minority sexualities, religious beliefs and political orientations (do we have to out students and compel them to represent?) and can we create practices, habits and protocols to ensure that our student reps, no matter how undiverse they are, do their best job to include and represent all of their peers?

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