"My son wants to wear nail polish."
"My daughter wants her hair cut very short."
These are real-life situations that parents of young children I know have faced. And while many parents would seek to tamp down such expression out of fear for their child's safety -- or even outrage at his or her defiance of how boys and girls "ought to be" -- I have a very different response. I argue that parents should encourage their children to express themselves as they want.
I am the head of Gender Spectrum, a San Francisco-based organization for families of boys and girls who don't conform to conventional gender stereotypes. I know that not every little girl wants to be a princess, nor does every boy want to be a cowboy or superhero. Yet for far too long, society's response to these children has been either silence or mockery. It is time for this to change.
While society has changed a great deal over the last few decades, the notion of rigid gender roles continues to thrive in ways that play no small part in our children's upbringing. As parents, we instruct gender, but so too do the media, schools, and religious institutions. Gender roles and expectations become intricately woven into the fabric of our beings without our even realizing it.
Through my work over the past two decades with parents, I have found that it can consequently be incredibly hard for parents to simply allow their children to express themselves. But this is only even an issue because many of the things children naturally want to do, and the ways children naturally want to express themselves have had a stamp of gender added to them. Hairstyles, toys, and clothing preferences have no innate gender, yet few of us hesitate to attach a gender to them.
I argue that our basic values as parents should not change simply because we are thinking about our sons rather than our daughters, or vice versa. The important question isn't whether this style of dress, toy, or nail polish is appropriate for a son or daughter; it's whether it's appropriate for a child.
These things are not expressions of gender -- they are natural expressions of self. If we simply love and support our children equally, without judging their expression based on their gender, we are then free to focus on instilling the values that are really important to us.
We tell our kids to be who they are and unashamed of their differences. Yet when it comes to gender expression, we still struggle. We think: Should I allow my child to cross this line? Where is the line, anyway? What will the neighbors, teachers, and grandparents think? Won't I be setting him up for teasing? Won't I be encouraging him to be gay?
We want our children to be appreciated and accepted, but we parents also want to be approved of and accepted. This creates a sad double standard.
It is normal to feel that social change takes away our sense of security. Each generation has these struggles with their children. But it is a natural part of social growth. It is time to let go. When a child spends his or her time regulating the mannerisms he or she adopts, or what he or she wears or plays, it detracts from the same energy that children can put towards learning and creative or athletic expression.
How do we allow our children to throw off sexist notions of self-expression, while still keeping them safe? My answer is clear: Colors are colors, toys are toys, clothes are clothes, and hair is hair. Each person is entitled to express his or individuality and personal preferences to the extent that it does not hurt anyone else. We do not disrespect others, we honor everyone's choice to express themselves, and we self-correct if we lapse into judgment ourselves. It is up to us, to each family, to instill these values for the future.
Equally important is that the same values are reinforced at school. At Gender Spectrum, we have worked with countless children in their classrooms, and can vouch that children are ready for these changes. Education merely requires age-appropriate discussion of matters such as how some girls prefer short hair and some boys want to play with dolls. There is no agenda other than understanding and acceptance. Kids of all ages are receptive to and ready for these conversations. From there, our guidelines are simple: If we honor and respect one another, we can all get along.
More and more parents are living these guidelines every day. At the end of July, Gender Spectrum will hold its annual Family Conference, which will bring hundreds of gender-nonconforming children and teenagers, their families, and allies together. For a few days, they will have the opportunity to see that they are not alone, to learn from each other, and to attend a wide range of programming on the different facets of the gender-nonconforming experience.
But of course, it all begins at home. Should you allow your son to wear nail polish out of the house? If he likes it, why not? Wearing nail polish will not make him gay; it will not make him transgender. It just may make him happy.