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Victoria Z. Wilson, J.D., Ph.D. Headshot

Kids and Gender Stereotypes: Can't We Let Boys Be Girls and Girls Be Boys?

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Boys are made of snakes and snails and puppy dog tails while girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice, right?

In this post-female-emancipation era of gender equality, we as parents still firmly hold on to the outdated gender stereotypes of sweet, pink-tutu-clad girls and tough, dinosaur- and gun-loving boys. Research shows that schoolteachers continue to reward kids in gender-stereotypical way -- girls for being sweet and compliant, and boys for being outspoken and assertive. No wonder gossip magazines are having such a field day with the tomboy Shiloh, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's adorable daughter, who insists on wearing her brothers' clothes. The same media that vilifies Shiloh's gender-bending ways extols Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise's ultra-feminine daughter Suri, who took her first steps wearing toddler high-heels and toting designer baby purses that cost more than most mothers' monthly salaries.

I must admit that it took some willpower for me to stop buying dresses for my athletic older daughter after she denounced them as uncomfortable. Come to think of it, they are! Pants and flats are far more comfortable than dresses and heels, yet, as mothers, we still prefer our daughters in gender-stereotypical garb. But while most mothers merely frown at their daughter's dislike of dresses, they seem to be far less tolerant of any less-than-masculine manifestations in their sons. Research shows that given a choice, parents prefer their sons to grow up to be bullies rather than wussies, linebackers rather than Billy Elliotts. I remember how difficult it was for my tomboy sister, a black belt in martial arts and a fitness devotee, to watch as her chubby son refused to fight back in karate classes or display any interest in team sports. She eventually resigned herself to his wimpy ways and artistic inclinations, limiting her intervention to helping him lose weight by cutting out junk food and installing a treadmill in his bedroom. Unfortunately, many parents take the gender-role enforcement much further than multiple attempts to push their sons into male athletics.

Take the case of Kirk Murphy, who received government-funded experimental psychological treatment as a child in the 1970s, to nip his "errant," effeminate ways in the bud. Kirk's mother was concerned because he liked playing with dolls and petting their hair, so she took him to a doctoral psychology student, George A. Rekers, whom she saw advertise his gender-affirming therapy on television. In the lab the experimenters told to ignore her son when he played with feminine toys and compliment him when he played with masculine toys, and the mother complied, despite her son's tantrums and desperate bids for her attention. To continue the experiment at home, the mother was told to give out blue chips for masculine behavior, which would bring rewards, such as candy. The red chips, given for effeminate behavior, resulted in "physical punishment by spanking from the father," which turned out to be so severe that his mother had to hide under the pillow to escape the sound of her son screaming. Kirk's formal clinical treatment lasted 10 months, but the family said that some of the treatment techniques and practices lasted longer at home. His older brother remembers Kirk's disposition changing from a happy one to withdrawn and taciturn as a result of the treatment.

The study about Kirk's treatment, later published in an academic journal in which experimenters referred to him as "Kraig," concludes that this therapy was successful in eliminating Kirk's feminine behavior and that he became "indistinguishable from any other boy." Kirk went on to have a successful eight-year career in the Air Force and a high-profile position with an American finance company in India, but at the age of 38, he suddenly committed suicide by hanging himself. The family now blames Kirk's suicide on Rekers, who for three decades was a leading national expert in trying to prevent children from becoming gay (until an embarrassing scandal with a male escort ended his anti-gay championship).

I won't expound on the blatant lack of ethics inherent in this treatment, which encourages corporal punishment of a child. The history of psychology has been built on unethical and inhumane experiments. Remember John B. Watson, the luminary of behaviorism, who scared the daylights out of someone's infant with loud noises in his famous white rat experiment? This research was immortalized in psychology textbooks as the "Little Albert" experiment. As psychology students, we were never told that Watson never bothered obtaining written permission from the infant's mother, who was an unmarried wet nurse at the hospital, nor did he care to explore the long-term effect of this experiment on the child's well-being. Watson was eventually dismissed from John Hopkins University, not for his reckless experiment on someone's baby but for having an affair with his student, which led to a scandalous divorce.

When CNN contacted Kirk's experimenters, who went on to publish 17 papers and book chapters about "Kraig," they claimed that Kirk was perfectly well-adjusted following their treatment and that they did not see "any red flags." There were no empathic condolences or apologies offered to the family by the researchers, whose research was discredited as homophobic. But what is even more troubling than the callousness of these psychologists is Kirk's mother's complacent disregard of her own maternal instincts to protect and cherish her child as she delegated her parental prerogative to coldhearted experimenters, who were more concerned with their careers than this child's well-being. Kirk's tragic story is one of many proofs that failing to validate our children's burgeoning identity and pressuring them to adopt societal stereotypes results in long-term self-loathing and maladjustment and, possibly, self-annihilation.

With all the pep talk of encouraging our children's self-determinism and self-acceptance, why are we still hellbent on enforcing our children's conformity to gender stereotypes? Is it because we view our children as our little extensions, projecting our own unfulfilled dreams and desires upon them? They become litmus tests of our parental success, their gender conformity serving as a tribute to our normality, whereas their deviation would reveal our fears of our own psychological maladjustment. In fact, recent research shows that we have a much smaller impact on how our children turn out; upbringing accounts for less than 30 percent, with the rest of the outcome being influenced by genetics, intrauterine events, societal and peer influences and other variables. Kudos to Brangelina for letting Shiloh be the little tomboy that she is, nonchalantly brushing off criticisms of her boyish haircut and suggestions that she will follow in the footsteps of Cher's daughter Chastity, who became Chaz after gender reassignment surgery. And kudos to Cher for loving and accepting her overweight daughter, even after she became her son, even while admitting that such acceptance was not easy for her.

As hard as it may be, we must make it a goal as a humanistic society to accept the biological randomness of gender identity presentations and to offer every individual, regardless of their appearance, validation and support instead of criticism and scorn. And it is our penultimate parental task to realize that variations of human phenotype are independent of our influence as parents and to give up the pathological need to make our children fit into the mold of our stereotypes. Effeminate boys and masculine girls may challenge our own cultural biases as parents, but in such challenges lie opportunities for deeper existential experience and growth of our parental love. As a therapist, I often present the parents I counsel with the following wisdom of Kahlil Gibran:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.

...

You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

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