What you need to know about sex, gender and sexuality to raise a happy child

For your child’s happiness

Lots of people wonder what the deal is with all those letters in the LGTBQIA+ acronym. Isn’t it a bit exaggerated? Do we really need all those letters? Do we need to box everyone in? Do I need to know what they mean? Why can’t boys just be boys and girls be girls? Great questions. I’ll start by saying the one thing that I am sure will keep you reading. Knowing more about sex, gender and sexuality in all it’s forms will change your approach towards your child (and everyone in society for that matter) which in turn will make your child grow up happier.

Curious now? Good. Let’s get to it.


Sex

Let’s start with sex. Simple, right? You are either a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. Well, the reality is more complicated than that. Sex assignment happens at birth. It’s the famous “it’s a boy! it’s a girl” moment every expecting parent has been waiting for. Yet, about 1 to 2 percent of the babies being born are intersex. The term intersex refers to variations in the development of sex characteristics that do not fit the typical norms of male or female. There may be a variation in the chromosomes (for example an XXY instead of the usual XX or XY), gonads (testes or ovaries) or genitals of the individual. This can result in an appearance that is neither typically male nor female. Is this a problem? It doesn’t need to be. But because our culture is so focused on differentiating between male and female, doctors are – to this day – performing (and advising parents to let them perform) unnecessary and harmful surgery to their genitalia and gonads, resulting in physical and emotional suffering. Human rights advocates are fighting for the rights of intersex people to have their bodies remain whole and their identity recognized. 

Why do you need to know this? You could have an intersex child, there could be an intersex child in your (child’s) class or care. It’s important to know it’s not an illness but simply part of human variation. There is a lot to learn about it, but that is the bottom line. It is just like some people have brown hair and others red. Some intersex people prefer to be addressed with the pronoun ‘them’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’. The best way to find out is to ask them which pronoun they use.

Speaking respectfully about all bodies can help any child be more comfortable in their own skin and be more accepting and loving towards those who look different from them.

It is helpful for all children to know that there is a huge variety in what our bodies (or with older kids you can even specifically speak of the genitalia) look like. Staying away from the word ‘normal’ when describing bodies is very helpful. We tend to think in opposites: Healthy versus sick, normal versus deformed. Reality is more complex than that. Nobody has the ‘average’ body. All our bodies have ‘defects’, we all get sick from time to time. So we may as well consider all bodies whole and practice gratefulness for all the wonderful things our bodies do for us. If we speak of all bodies with respect, this can help any child be more comfortable in their own skin and be more accepting and loving towards children who look different from them. 

Then let’s move to gender.

 

Gender, gender identity and gender expression

Gender refers to the cultural meaning attached to the sexes. You can think of ideas such as “pink for girls and blue for boys”, “boys don’t cry” and “women are homemakers, men provide an income”. Gender roles are culturally specific. That means that what is considered masculine in one culture, could be considered feminine in another. It also means it is not true that all boys are “born that way”. Culture is a construction that is passed on from generation to generation through traditions and everyday interaction. Someone’s favorite color is not determined by their genitals, neither is how easily they cry.

“Yet, how come many boys like to play it rough and many girls play with dolls?” someone may wonder. Boys and girls receive the same role models. They both usually have access to male and female adults in their lives (parents,  grandparents, teachers). When they copy them, however, some behavior gets the approval of adults and others is ignored or even discouraged. This is how children know at a very young age what is expected of them.

When children copy male or female rolemodels, some behavior is approved and some ignored or even discouraged. This is how children know at a very young age what gender role is expected of them.

What is wrong with this? Well, it is very limiting. Little boys and girls dream about themselves in the future. If we limit what they could be, we put a cap on their ambitions from a very young age. There is no need for this, so why would we do that? People are happiest if they behave in a way that is closest to their nature. Imagining if ‘soul searching’ and ‘finding yourself’ wouldn’t have to be such a painful and complex process, because we would never loose sight of the person we want to be in the first place… Wouldn’t that save un incredible amount of time, effort and heartache? Wouldn’t that promote happiness?

When talking about gender we distinguish gender identity from gender expression. With gender expression we refer to how we present ourselves to the outside world. I could be someone who dresses exactly as is expected of me. Let’s say I am a biological female and I dress and behave myself in a way that is considered feminin. But perhaps I do this because I am afraid to be considered strange, not to have friends, not to be accepted. What if on the inside I feel much more at home with everything that is considered masculine? I would be unhappy, I would feel like I am hiding. Gender identity is the gender role you feel most comfortable in, how you prefer to identify yourself. It is possible that your gender identity and your gender expression are not the same and this can feel very restrictive. People whose sex and gender identity and expression match society’s expectations are called cisgender. Being cisgender is the norm in our society. 

The physical differences between boys and girls before puberty are very small. Companies want you to buy gender-specific clothes, toys and even prams so that if you happened to have a son and a daughter, you would have to buy everything twice. This commerce-driven trend was less the norm when I grew up in the Netherlands in the ’90. This means that these man-made gender norms are not only culturally specific per geographic area, they also change over time.

By passing on traditional gender roles, sexism is transmitted too.

By passing on traditional gender roles, sexism is transmitted too. Girls start to think their appearance is all that matters about them. Boys stop crying and start expressing all their frustrations in anger. Sexism and its restrictions limit both men and women in being fully human. By passing on strict gender roles, the next generation of women is raised afraid to walk down the street alone at night, having great difficulty in saying “no”, whose voices are silenced at work, who don’t share the workload of caring for the children equally with their partners, etc. It is how the next generation of men is raised who can’t express in words how they feel, how to connect with small children, that consider buying a woman a drink consent to sex, that consider woman ‘from venus’ and impossible to understand, consider their own worth only in terms of their achievements and attribute the success they have achieved in the world entirely to their own talents, oblivious to their privilege. I can go on and on, but for the purpose of this blog, it is enough to understand that by perpetuating traditional gender roles, we perpetuate sexism too and bring the emancipation of society to a halt.

So if gender roles are quite arbitrary, are limiting our freedom to identify and express ourselves (especially for children who have yet to experience the world and discover their favorite activities) and perpetuate sexism, why do we still give such great importance to gender?

If gender roles are quite arbitrary, are limiting our freedom to identify and express ourselves and perpetuate sexism, why do we still give such great importance to gender

My best guess is that in an unpredictable world, many people look at tradition and culture for guidance on how to behave. The predictability of “if a person looks like this, I can approach them like that” could perhaps make it easier to strike up a conversation with someone new. What you miss out on though with this approach, is a real meeting. If everyone hides behind expectations and protocols, how do you meet the person behind that mask? What seems a handy way to start a conversation, quickly leads to a barrier between people that prohibits us from really getting to know each other. So perhaps we could, just like we can’t guess someones name, just stay curious and slowly discover what someone is like instead of assume? 

In my ideal world we would speak of our qualities and preferences, but we wouldn’t attach them to a gender role. That way we give each person the maximum amount of freedom to develop into the best version of themselves.

Sexuality

Now, let’s talk about sexuality. Sexuality is someone’s sexual orientation. Some people are sexually attracted to men, some to women, some to both. There are many varieties possible. People sexuality oriented towards the opposite sex are heterosexual. Our Western society is heteronormative, which means that it is the norm to be heterosexual. Anyone who is not, needs to explain themselves and come ‘out of the closet’. This is not ideal for this minority, since it poses a risk. From the perspective of the people who are not hetero and cis-gender it would be better if no-ones sex, gender or sexual orientation was assumed. That way we would all be free to discover and express ourselves. 

To join forces against the patriarchy, the sexist heteronormative society, the acronym LGTBQIA+ aims to give visibility to all those who don’t fit the norm. Women attracted to women are lesbian, the first letter of the LGTBQIA+ alphabet. G stands for gay, men who are attracted to men. T stands for Transexual, which confusing enough is not a sexual orientation. Transmen were assigned the female sex at birth, but they identify as men. Transwomen were assigned the male sex at birth, but they identify as women. It is important to understand it is an expression of a gender identity. A person doesn’t have to undergo surgery to be trans. Some transpeople undergo surgery to fit their appearance to their identity, some don’t. B stand for bisexual, those wo can be attracted to both men and women. Q stands for queer, which is a non-specific word to describe someone who is not heterosexual and/or cis-gender. A stands for asexuality, not being attracted to either sex. Asexuals can have sex and romantic relationships, they simply don’t feel any sexual attraction towards any person. The + stands for two spirited people. This is a term adopted to describe the traditional third gender in Native American cultures that performs important ceremonials roles. Interesting about this is that many ancient cultures had more than two gender roles. This again confirms the artificiality of our binary system that devides the world into males and females.

We need all the letters in the LGTBQIA+ acronym to show the great variety that exists and has always existed outside of the current gender binary and heterosexual norm.

Why do we need all these letters and categories? We need them to show the great variety that exists and has always existed outside of the current gender binary heterosexual norm. The words serve to help young people understand themselves and their feelings, to help people of the same sexual orientation find each other and support each other and to create visibility together to be able to shift the norm in society to become more open towards ways of being that aren’t hetersexual, cisgender and sexist.

Anyone is welcome to help make this shift happen. Heterosexual cis-gender people who fight against the perpetuation of the heteronormative patriarchical society call themselves ally’s.


To conclude

When a child is born, we don’t know the child and the child doesn’t know itself. As the child grows and becomes more aware of the world around it and itself, it will discover it’s nature. All we can do is discover this with them, when they do. Imposing gender roles upon our children limits their freedom to discover their own preferences, which in turn limits their happiness. It further perpetuates the patriarchical society that doesn’t allow both men and women to be fully human and puts women and anyone from the LGTBQIA+ community at risk for violence and discrimination.

What you can do? Don’t constantly emphasise a child’s sex, don’t name any qualities masculine or feminin and don’t assume someones sexuality. Given the negative long-term consequences it can have for the child and society, it is not a harmless habit to keep imposing gender stereotypes upon young children. Please do encourage exploration with all kinds of toys and activities and copying behavior from both male and female rolemodels. Stay curious about your child. It is not a mini version of yourself or your partner, it is a whole new being and it grows up in a society that is vastly different from the one you grew up in. You will find out what your child is like in the process of loving it and watching it grow. Isn’t that exciting? 


How about you?

 

How did you grow up? Did you find the gender roles imposed on you limiting? How did you discover your sexual orientation? Has this blog changed your mind in the way you approach the children in your life? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment under this blog or email me at info@we-nurture.com. And if you’ve found it interesting, sharing is appreciated.

Written by Esther Maagdenberg

Owner of We Nurture, teacher, child coach in training, child yoga teacher, and anthropologist. She is Dutch and lives and works in Italy.
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discrimination | diversity | gender | inclusion | sex | sexual education | sexuality

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