Khamis, 5 Disember 2013

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Parenting

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Parenting

Conforming to gender coding


The trappings we put onto gender identity – the colours, the clothes, the assumed preferences – are all cultural, not natural.

A FEW weeks back, I went to my first baby shower. My friends have only recently started getting married and having babies – although not necessarily in that order – and I was psyched to pick out a set of adorable baby clothes for the twins to whom my friend had only weeks earlier given birth.

I popped into a cutesy baby shop and said I was looking for a baby shower gift for new twins. Her first question: "Girls or boys?" One of each, I said. She pointed me to the section of girls' clothes, all pink, and boys' clothes, all blue.

I said: "It's a little weird how all the clothes are pink for girls and blue for boys, isn't it?"

She agreed, and said they had one yellow outfit, but then said that nearly everyone who comes in demands the gender colour-coding. I ended up buying burp cloths and bibs printed with zigzags – one yellow and one grey.

Gendering kids starts immediately after birth, when we wrap a baby in a pink blanket or a blue one. Babies have no idea what they're even wearing and just need to be kept warm. It's parents who buy into the binary, and the rest of us who are thoroughly uncomfortable when they don't.

There's the yellow aisle of gender-neutral toys and apparel, but show up to a baby shower with a pink onesie for a male baby and see what kind of looks you get (believe me, I was tempted, but given that there was a baby of each gender it wouldn't have been quite as effective).

The boy/girl divide gets even more pronounced as kids get older, but there's more of a stigma for boys who cross it than for girls. Most progressive parents these days will buy their daughters building blocks or sign her up for a sports team, but they're a lot less likely to get their son a baby doll or sign him up for ballet.

Kids, though, are natural gender-transgressors. Of course they soak up our cultural gender norms and respond accordingly, and even the most feminist parent can attest that it's impossible to keep a daughter totally protected from Disney Princess mania or a son entirely away from war and gun play.

But as influenced as kids may be by the culture outside their front doors, they're still newbies to the whole gender role thing, which means they break the rules more often than adults. And that freaks out some parents, especially when the rule-breaker is their son. Katie may be a tomboy because she likes to climb trees, but if Kevin likes to wear dresses? He's a sissy, he's not acting like a boy, and he might be gay.

Not boxed in: Girls and boys should be allowed to play any games they like, and not what is gender-prescribed. - File Pic

Girls and boys should be allowed to play the games they like and not what is gender-prescribed. — Filepic

That parental anxiety was highlighted this week in an advice column, where a mum wrote in concerned about her husband's over-reaction to their son's penchant for playing dress-up in mum's shoes.

Dad makes the kid remove the shoes, then punishes the kid when he gets hysterical – all over donning a pair of ballet flats. The dad in question isn't an unusual tyrant; parents across the United States punish their sons for playing dress-up, painting their nails, wanting to grow their hair long or engaging in other activities that the parent deems "feminine".

Parenting manuals instruct parents to quash any sort of play that involves identifying as a gender other than the one the child was assigned at birth.

When I was a kid, I had a male friend who loved to dress up in women's clothes – in particular, his sister's gold lame skirt. After he refused to take the skirt off one day, his dad cut it off of him and burned it in the backyard.

The result of harsh gender policing isn't upstanding masculine sons and submissive feminine daughters. It's kids who are hurt, confused and alienated from their parents.

It should go without saying that the majority of kids who play dress-up in gender non-conforming ways don't grow up to be gay or transgender. But some do, and many of the kids who grow up to be gay or trans will point to cross-gender play as an early indicator, for them, of their sexuality and identity. Others still are confused about their sexuality.

The best ally any kid can have as their identity takes shape is an involved, accepting and loving parent. No amount of parental intervention will make a gay kid straight or change the identity of a trans kid. But positive parental actions that affirm your child's individuality and identity can mean that your kid comes to you with questions. She'll know you'll be her biggest advocate in a world that is notoriously cruel to anyone who's different – whether that means gay, transgender, gender non-conforming or simply a boy who wants to wear nail polish or a girl who wants to play football.

Parental intervention in normal explorative play that shames a kid for gender non-conformity sends a very clear message that certain behaviours and identities aren't OK. At best you end up with a kid who's also a homophobe and a bully; at worst your child believes he's unlovable because of who he is, and lives with the attendant psychological and emotional scars. Gay kids have suicide, depression and victimisation rates that are significantly higher than their straight counterparts. Of course, that's often not the parent's fault, but parents contribute more often than many would like to admit – to both the victims and the bullies.

What is it, exactly, that's going to break down if a little boy puts on a dress or if a girl wants to cut her hair short? A few years back a Toronto couple refused to publicly disclose the sex of their child - not a big deal, one would think, given that what's between the child's legs isn't really a matter of pressing public interest.

Cultural definitions: We are taught what is appropriate for boys and girls from young.

We are taught what is appropriate for boys and girls from young.

Nonetheless, the public went ballistic, accusing the couple of child abuse because the child wasn't clearly identified to outsiders as male or female (the family knew the child's sex, they just didn't want anyone else knowing). Talking heads said the couple was raising a "freak" and denying the child his/her identity.

It's worth pausing here to note that "male" and "female" are not as clearly-defined categories as we would like them to be. Physically, we're much more the same than we are different, and there's great variation even within each group. And there's a vast middle of intersex people, and people who may have ambiguous genitalia, non-standard genitalia, chromosomes that don't match their external sex organs or hormones that deviate from the normal. Nature, unlike many parents, isn't quite so intent on keeping males and females clearly differentiated.

So, why are we so deeply concerned with making sure boys are identified as boys and girls as girls – especially with things that have nothing to do with genitalia, hormones, chromosomes or, most importantly, how the child sees themselves? There's nothing about having a penis that correlates with the colour blue; there's nothing about having a vagina that correlates with the ability to cook.

While gender identity is a real thing, the trappings we put onto gender – the colours, the clothes, the assumed preferences - are all cultural, not natural. There are certainly behavioural patterns that are influenced by hormones and body chemistry, but we don't know exactly what, or to what extent. We can take educated guesses, but we've never lived in a world without cultural constructs around gender, so pinpointing "X personality characteristic is male" becomes impossible.

How a child is treated physically, emotionally and intellectually impacts their neural pathways, brain development and even musculature.

So, why apply gender roles so strictly to the youngest among us, and punish transgressors so harshly?

We'd be much better off if we let kids be kids, and didn't project our own gender anxieties onto their preferences or playtimes. And we should start recognising that terrorising a kid for cross-gender play isn't "tough love", it's abuse. — Guardian News & Media

Values and sense


Raise money-savvy kids with these simple stategies.

I RECENTLY implemented a new programme with my kids: He or she who yells, pushes or screams has to put US$1 (RM3.20) into a jar on the shelf.

At the end of the week, whoever hasn't broken the rules gets all the cash. By this afternoon, I had already deposited US$5 (RM16), my son had put in US$2 (RM6.40) and my daughter dropped in US$1 (RM3.20).

At this rate, none of us will ever collect the money. But all of us will stop yelling so much, my kids will learn more about money and I will have saved US$7,000 (RM22,600) by the end of the year.

I am determined to teach my kids about the value of a buck.

Here are a few other ways to keep them engaged and learning at the same time:

1. Online savings

Just like everyone else, I was compelled to do the allowance thing for my kids. It seemed simple enough to bribe them with money if they completed X number of chores.

What I discovered is that as soon as I handed them the cash, they'd lose it, which was frustrating and sort of ruined the point of showing them that their work equates to money and that money leads to purchasing power.

So, I moved the allowance online. With automatic transfers to each kid's account, they can see their savings grow every week. They don't lose the money, they don't feel a need to spend it and yet when they're acting up, I show them their accounts and they shape right up.

2. Review receipts

While driving home one day from the grocery store, my eight-year-old daughter exclaimed, "Receipts are amazing!" She recounted how her classmates had found a receipt on the playground one day and were able to play detective. They knew how much the person spent, where they spent it, the name of the store manager, the name of the cashier, what the person bought and how much money they gave and got in return. Now that's fun math.

Make it a habit to let your kids read the receipts and figure out the most expensive item on the list, the least expensive, the coupons used and how much was saved.

3. The hard sell

Talk to your kids about advertising and how the goal of every ad is to get you to buy whatever it is they're selling.

Make it a family game to talk about ads and uncover the facts about the product: Is this something you want or need; can it be found elsewhere for a different price (higher or lower); what music, colors or words does the ad use to make you feel like you want the product?

With a few simple steps, we can all raise money-savvy kids. Starting an online allowance showcases how time and savings really add up.

Using daily experiences to talk about money lets kids get a better understanding of how one trip to the store impacts your wallet.

And educating kids about how advertising works is a great way to highlight wants versus needs. – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services


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