How Children Address Gender Assumptions and Try On Identities

Book review by David Ricardo, HFP parent                                                                                                                        

Wearing dresses makes Jacob really happy, but it sure seems to upset some people around him.  Christopher, a classmate, directly tells Jacob that boys don’t wear dresses. Jacob’s teacher doesn’t quite say that, but tries to nudge him toward the dress-up options that boys in our culture are encouraged to choose from: firefighter, police officer, etc.

Most painfully for Jacob, even his mother doesn’t seem to support his wish to wear whatever he likes. Jacob has a witch dress he likes to wear at home, but his mom isn’t comfortable with Jacob wearing a dress to school. She tries to dodge the issue, but Jacob persists: “I don’t think so,” she said. “That’s for dress-up at home. It would get dirty at school.”  “Then can I get a regular dress? A dress I can wear to school?”  Mom was quiet.

When Jacob invents a dress from a towel, his mom finally gives in and lets him go to school in his homemade wrap. However, she refers to it as a “dress-thing” rather than a dress. Finally, Jacob asks directly:  “Mom?” whispered Jacob. “Can you help me make a real dress?”  Mom didn’t answer. The longer she didn’t answer, the less Jacob could breathe.

We might empathize with Jacob’s mom. She’s worried about how he will be treated. Will the social ridicule persist? Will he be physically assaulted? And she may be concerned about what other parents will think of her for “allowing” Jacob to dress against assigned gender. Ultimately, she decides that Jacob might be hurt more by her lack of support than by the disapproval of others.  They break out the sewing machine and make a dress together!

David Reading 02-15

Jacob is proud, and tells his class so at circle time. But Christopher still can’t reconcile Jacob’s clothing choice with his own view of the world: “I asked my dad, and he says boys don’t wear dresses.” Christopher asks the teacher “Why does Jacob wear dresses?” She answers him plainly and empathetically: “I think Jacob wears what he’s comfortable in. Just like you do. Not very long ago little girls couldn’t wear pants. Can you imagine that?”

It would be hard for any of our kids now to imagine a world in which some of their classmates were ostracized for wearing pants. I look forward to a time when the same holds true for dresses. Why is a boy wearing a dress noteworthy, anyway?  It’s because boys’ parents don’t often put them in dresses, or even suggest dresses as an option. Why’s that? There’s pretty strong taboo in our culture about males wearing clothing “assigned” exclusively to females because women are still an oppressed group and considered to be inferior to men.

“Don’t be a sissy.” “Man up.” “Grow some balls.” “You throw like a girl.” We adults have all heard (or at least heard about) this kind of talk which so clearly highlights how gender constructs have been used to enforce male-dominated power structures. One seemingly small but powerful way to transform this deep cultural pattern is to stop explicitly or implicitly shaming our boys when they want to dress like their female role models. Or dress-wearing male role models, as the case may be. 🙂

The characters in Jacob’s New Dress have real feelings: Jacob’s mother’s apprehension, Jacob’s sense of isolation and implicit shame, even Christopher’s anger at the order of his world being upset. Here’s hoping this book softens some hearts, helps caregivers overcome their fears, and helps kids feel a bit more comfortable and confident about making atypical choices.

Excerpts from interview with Jacob’s New Dress authors Sarah and Ian Hoffman:  

“We hope the book will help teach kids that it’s ok to be different in any way. That message is aimed both at the kids who are different and the kids who aren’t different. We’ve learned through our own experience that kids are pretty tolerant of difference if they’re taught to be tolerant. Education makes a huge difference in terms what kids will or won’t accept. We’ve seen it in our children’s schools: when kids are educated about gender diversity, they accept Sam. When they are not, they reject him. Education is powerful, and it works.”

“When you’re the parent of a kid who’s different, it’s easy to overthink everything you do, tempting to try to interpret the significance of everything your kid does, and appealing to try to predict the future. Our job is really quite simple: to accept our kids for exactly who they are, and to protect them from harm. We can’t know who or what our children will evolve into as they grow up.”

Read the full interview:

Suggested resource for learning more about gender:

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