Gender Policing is Harmful to Children
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My good friend recently confessed that she wished her eight-year-old daughter were more interested in 'fashionable' shoes, lamenting that little Maria always insists on wearing sneakers- even with skirts. "Some day soon," my friend comforted herself, "Maria will want to be more like a girl -- she'll want to wear make-up, and shoes that compliment her outfits. I guess she's still just a little young for all that."
In light of that remark, I should have known when I agreed to babysit that Maria would show-up wearing shoes that limited her mobility. Had I been thinking of that conversation with her mother while arranging our day together, I could have saved the kid some pain. Instead, I thought of my own sneakered childhood, and planned to tour the neighborhood playgrounds, gardens, libraries, and ice-cream parlors with her -- on foot. Since I don't usually think of eight-year-olds wearing high-heels (although it seems to be a growing phenomenon), I didn't even notice Maria's 'fashionable' shoes until the poor kid started complaining of blisters and aching feet. Her mom had bought her the 'pretty grown-up shoes' the day before, and told her that big girls don't wear tennis shoes with skirts.
Little Maria's feet had fallen victim to gender-policing, the imposing of perceived 'typical' gender behaviors on another person.
As it turns out, gender policing is far from rare, and any kid who escapes adolescence with just a few blisters as a result can count herself lucky. According to research published in the journal Sex Roles , kids who's parents over-correct " ... gender atypical behavior (GAB) i.e. behavior traditionally considered more typical for children of the opposite sex" are at greater risk of developing adverse adult psychiatric symptoms:
Negative parenting style was associated with psychiatric symptoms. Structural equation modeling showed that parenting style significantly moderated the association between childhood GAB and adult psychiatric symptoms with positive parenting reducing the association and negative parenting sustaining it.
To put it a bit more succinctly, it isn't being different that put kids at risk, it's being punished for being different.