With Women’s Equality Day on Saturday, it’s important to recognize there is still much inequality along gender lines in this country. This inequality starts at a young age in the values that we teach our children, and what we consider acceptable behavior for boys and girls. This rigidity can be especially harmful to nonbinary children who don’t fit into a distinct box.
Traditionally, girls have been raised to be quiet, ask few questions, and take up less space. What is considered confidence and assertiveness in boys is considered vanity and aggression in girls. Many of us careen through life without second guessing the phrase, “boys will be boys.” (When a young boy is aggressive to his fellow classmates during recess, we shrug it off as “boys will be boys.”) This phrase is often used when boys exhibit rowdy, combative, or apathetic behavior that is unacceptable in girls. Girls are raised to be caring and empathetic, to be the peacekeepers in the world.
Girls are taught to be pretty and pleasing to others. Emphasizing girls’ appearances over their intelligence, confidence and skills can be detrimental throughout the rest of their lives. When girls learn to just smile and look pretty, it reinforces the idea of not rocking the boat and to make others happy at their own expense. Our culture indirectly condones abusive relationships and sexual assault by labeling women as “crazy” and “emotional” for asserting themselves and creating healthy boundaries. When a teenage boy pressures his girlfriend to be intimate with him, it’s “boys will be boys,” but a teenager courting his love interest with respect and consent is not.
Girls are raised to be the caregivers of society, and women are expected to be the sole nurturers of children. They are expected to take care of aging parents, sick family members and the emotional needs of spouses. They often don’t get reciprocal support for their own emotional needs. This emotional labor goes unrecognized and unvalued by society. Most wouldn’t dream of saying “boys will be boys” when a young man cries over his grandparents’ death or expresses his emotions.
Whether it’s what to wear or how to act, our society has a distinct gender binary. Though some of these gendered rules and roles have relaxed over time (for example, women wearing pants, men taking on stronger parenting role), the gender binary is still visible. Not everyone fits in this binary, however, and their experiences are far from new. Nonbinary people, meaning they identify with a gender outside of the male/female binary, have existed not just across time, but across cultures as well.
How our society teaches values to our children is especially harmful to nonbinary children because it perpetuates gender stereotypes. This perpetuates the structure that all boys act one way, all girls act another way, leaving nonbinary children with few options and feeling they need to fall in line with one or the other or be left out altogether.
Fortunately, great progress has been made in recent years in spreading understanding of nonbinary people. As strict gender roles become more lax, some parents allow their child’s curiosity rather than stifling it. They see that playing with dolls will not make a child a girl, and playing with racecars will not make a child a boy. Accepting their nonbinary child is key to instilling confidence and self-love.
Expressing emotions and nurturing others demonstrates strength of character, not weakness. It is part of the human condition and not relegated to a specific gender. By holding all children to the same basic tenets of respect, kindness and integrity, society can promote a more inclusive understanding that children of all genders are capable of exhibiting a wide range of human traits that need not be assumed for girls or boys. When we look beyond the binary and encourage our children to be the best people they can be, we celebrate individuality in the context of equality and equity for all.
This Woman’s Equality Day we invite our community to join us in promoting freedom of expression in all children so they will be empowered to run for office, raise a family or seek a cure for cancer, regardless of their gender identity or expression.
Aislinn Canarr, Amanda Gavin, and Hannah Ruhlin are volunteer members of Mabel Wadsworth Center’s advocacy committee. Mabel Wadsworth offers clinical care, education and advocacy for people of all gender identities and expressions.