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: