Well… you see… it’s like… the thing is…


One man. Two boys. Twelve kids.

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38 Responses

  1. Rose Woodhouse says:

    I always find it interesting that kids who are 4 and under almost universally call my 5yo with I/DD “baby.”

    Anyhow, fwiw, I always took the don’t-bother-correcting-your-kid-most-of-the-time approach on the theory that they will figure it all out eventually. My PhD advisor had done a bunch of work on how language is acquired, and I was convinced that correcting kids doesn’t speed language learning. I will correct them if they say something inappropriate, but I guess I figure mistaken gender attributions, while important, are ok coming from a small child. Worked very well with the oldest. My 3yo is hilarious on gender. He keeps checking with me to ask if I ever was a boy, or if I will eventually “grow down” (as opposed to “grow up”) to be a boy. He insists he wants to be the first man who is a queen (NOT a king, thank you).

    Although my kid with I/DD, who signs “mama” for many women he sees, might have to be an exception to the figuring it out approach.Report

    • Christopher Carr in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

      My youngest daughter – just turned three – continued calling any other toddler “baby” until this year, and she calls all adult males “boy”, including sometimes her grandfather.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Christopher Carr says:

        Re; my kid with I/DD – he’s quite tall, and he is called baby far more often than my 3yo. I think it’s really interesting, because it suggests the “baby” concept is more reliant on behavior than size.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

          I’ve noticed this as well and it makes me think about how to describe to Mayo why we treat him and Little Marcus Allen differently.Report

        • Christopher Carr in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

          Interesting point. There’s this one guy at my apartment building who is a very, very large, muscular, and hairy man, who is always swimming in the pool that my daughter insists on calling “boy”. I wonder if the fact that he’s swimming has anything to do with it?Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

      Thanks, @rose-woodhouse .

      But the problem I see with this approach is that we assume the kids learn it organically. And that relies on society at large teaching them it properly. And society doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to this stuff.

      If a four-year-old picks up a circle and says, “Square,” you’d probably correct him. I doubt you’d admonish or shame him for it. But you’d probably say something like, “You’re right that that’s a shape but we actually call it a circle. Squares have four straight sides. This one is all round.”

      I mean, how many people still think that gender is defined by hair or dress? Or roles? How many people see Hillary Clinton as somehow less of a woman because somewhere along the way they internalized a mindset of what a “woman” was that was restrictive in nature? Hell, how many people still hold steadfastly to the idea that gender is about what is between your legs?

      Yes, for probably something like 95% of people in 95% of situations, this won’t ever really be an issue. But what of those 5% of people who are constantly having a key aspect of their identity questioned or mocked or denied to them because they don’t conform to the understanding developed and minimally evolved upon by a child’s brain?

      I know this is a weird mix of navel-gazing and pearl clutching but it does feel like it matters.

      It is sort of like the mostly-harmless-but-not-entirely-so comment about how Mayo will have his pick of the litter on the maternity unit because he was the only boy born that day. Sure, it is a tiny drop in the heteronormative bucket, but oceans are comprised of billions of tiny drops and GODDAMNIT WORLD STOP MAKING ME HAVE TO WORK THROUGH REALLY COMPLICATED SHIT I NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT BEFORE I BECAME A FATHER!

      (Hmmm… that last part would have probably made for a better post…)Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        Also, it seems quasi relevant to note that Mayo has a diagnosed speech delay and, as such, may not follow typical patterns of development with regards to language acquisition. I’ve been told that more direct language instruction (without it becoming burdensome) will be helpful. Since I’ve been home with him and able to do more of this, I have seen some encouraging results.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Kazzy says:

        I hear you. I’ve had talks with my now 7yo about it (starting when he was maybe 5) when he was able to process bigger picture – e.g., in general, not a good idea to describe people aloud in their presence, not everyone conforms neatly to one gender or another.Report

      • Maribou in reply to Kazzy says:

        @kazzy What I’ve been trying to wrap my head around (and feeling irritated that I have to keep reminding myself about it, instead of just getting it, despite being rather ambiguously gendered myself) is that if you look at a picture of 3 kids in the doctor’s office…. you don’t actually know what their gender is. You can make an infinitely more accurate guess than Mayo based on their gender presentation, etc., but You. Don’t. Actually. Know. So how are you supposed to explain THAT to Mayo?

        I suspect I would be one of those obnoxiously correct parents that taught their kids to use gender-neutral pronouns until they had more information (“It isn’t polite to assume someone is a boy or a girl, you have to let them tell you about that stuff.”), and in doing so caused the kids no end of troubles.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Maribou says:


          In general, I agree. In this case, I knew the doc’s family. I thought I said that in the OP but maybe only thought that.

          Part of this post ponders the “never knowing” (with strangers at least) thing with the fact that we gender so much of our society and language.Report

          • Maribou in reply to Kazzy says:

            @kazzy Oh, sorry, I missed that line.

            I’ve never been bothered by kids who say “are you a boy or a girl?” and I usually (honestly enough) say “mostly a girl” – with older kids if it’s a safe space I’ve even blurted out “yes” because kids somehow trigger my blunt honestly buttons – but man do I get tired of people politely assuming I’m one or the other gender, then deciding they were wrong, and then tripping all over themselves to apologize, just increasing the awkwardness factor by about 100 percent. (This has happened in both directions, incidentally.)

            So I was probably projecting what I wish would happen onto the situation.

            But I’ve also just been thinking a lot about gender norms for kids and how much stress they sometimes have caused kids I know.Report

            • Maribou in reply to Maribou says:

              @kazzy Also I apologize if it seemed like I was arguing. I was actually agreeing and rambling on. When I am very sleepy I STILL don’t use words quite how I mean them to be. (Maybe I should’ve been corrected more as a child 😉 ).Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Maribou says:

                Heh… no worries whatsoever. But your points are exactly what I was trying to get at.

                Mayo thinks that tall (that is to say, taller than a kid) people with long hair and boobs and clean shaven faces are “Mommys”. For him, it really isn’t a sex/gender thing because he doesn’t have a conception of that. He has a conception of a “Mommy” that more or less fits that definition. So he might look at you and think “Mommy” or he might look at you and think “Daddy” or he might look at you and think “Boy”… all depending on your height and hair and physical makeup (I don’t know what you look like so I can’t even make a reasonable prediction). But let’s suppose he looks at you and says, “Mommy.” Now, I don’t know if you are a mommy so I might step in (as I have) and say, “I don’t know if she is a mommy. But she is a lady/woman*.” But… that doesn’t feel right. Because maybe you don’t identify as a lady or woman or anything female at all. So I could instead say, “I don’t know if that person is a mommy. But that person is a grown up.” That feels a little clumsy. Especially if the conversation continues. “Yes. That grown up does have a car. Oh, yes, and I see that grown up is walking a dog.” The lack of pronouns just feels awkward.

                And you and those children you mention are exactly who I’m thinking of what I can’t accept the, “Dude… just get over it… he’s 2,” response. It is easy for me to get over it because I present as male and identify as male and have always done both.

                So, yea, the intense degree to which our society is gendered (and strictly along the binary with fairly rigid definitions) is troubling and something I am seeing in a new light through experiences such as these with the little guy.

                * I use them more or less alternating.Report

              • Maribou in reply to Kazzy says:

                @kazzy I would guess that in your situation I would just start using “they” as a singular pronoun. But given that one is also trying to teach the kid singulars and plurals and what nots… oy.

                As imaginarily-parental me is free to be as annoying as she wants, I feel comfortable claiming I would just teach the kid some alternate gender-neutral pronoun set right outta the gate (I’ve always been partial to ze/zir..) But I doubt I’d keep it up nearly as well as I think I would…Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Maribou says:


                It really is scary when you start to pull back the layers. I think about my students who are generally just on the cusp of gender differences. Until this point, they can usually discriminate between boys/girls and men/women based on the “traditional tell tale signs”, but they’ll still mix up pronoun usage or titles (e.g., many still call me Mrs. Kazzy because they don’t understand that to be a gendered term). But as they start to get a sense of gender — particularly the social viewpoints of gender — there is a shift from them defining for themselves to them having it defined for them. You start to see kids say things like, “I used to like pink but I don’t anymore because I’m a boy,” or, “I have to play house because I’m a girl.” It breaks my heart to hear that. I mean, if you are a boy who hates pink for your own reasons or a girl who loves house for your own reasons, by all means. But the moment you deny yourself an experience — or feel restricted from an opportunity — because of your gender… it feels like we royally fucked up at that point.

                I make a real effort to challenge these norms… and with deeds, not just words. When they talk about hair length, I show them pics of me with shoulder length locks. I play in dramatic play AND blocks. I color with red and blue and pink and green and brown and every color. I cook. I shoot hoops. Recognizing that I might literally be the only regular adult male in their life besides their father (assuming they have a father or one who is active in their life) means I have a pretty foundational role in their perception of men, maleness, and masculinity. And my hope is that they walk away thinking, “Dude, boys can do anything!” Obviously, I also want them to think girls can do anything to, but I have to take a different tack there as I can’t actually live that out. Then again, they are going to (typically) see a wide swath of adult females in their early schooling and assuming there is some variety and diversity amongst them, they’re more likely to see that organically. So they can have the very warm and nurturing and motherly K teacher and then motherly but more brisk 1st grade teacher and the sporty 2nd grade teacher and the adventure seeking 3rd grade teacher and hopefully get that same idea: Girls can do anything!

                But for adult males? Sometimes, I’m all they got. EEP!Report

  2. Michael Cain says:

    My almost-two granddaughter is picking up vocabulary at a frightening rate, with some oddities showing up now and then. For a couple of weeks any sort of very small trash on the floor was “debris”; I was working on a ceiling fan and she pounced on a bit of insulation I had stripped from a wire and dropped, holding it up to me and exclaiming “Debris!” At present my wife and I are both “grandma”, which causes a certain amount of confusion.Report

    • Maribou in reply to Michael Cain says:

      @michael-cain Jay and I have gone through a phase with several of the kids in our lives where we were, both together OR in either individual case, some variant on “jayanmarann”. I think my favorite was the kid who called us “mistermarannandmissusjay” all the time for a few months. Either of us. 😀 (Jay, gentlereaders, is not a particularly feminine-presenting individual. What with the giant beard and all.)

      We never corrected and they always figured it out :D.Report

  3. Emile says:

    We went through a period thinking about these issues when our kids were little too, and basically came up with a handful of approaches that worked pretty well for us.

    First, we took care to gently point out that it is thoughtful and polite to call people what they would like to be called. That ran the gamut from terms of address (my dad likes to be called “grandpa,” my wife and I prefer our first names, etc etc.) to pronouns for people.

    Second, rather than try to work it out in real time on a case by case basis while out in the world, we made a conscious effort to mix up gendered (and agender) pronouns while reading books. When very young, that had the nice benefit of expanding the range of character genders in our library, and once they were old enough to start sometimes saying “hey, why did you say ‘he,’ that’s a girl?” it provided an easy path to discussing what visual cues the author/illustrator was using to indicate gender, and how those were not always reliable. Sometimes they would have strong ideas about what pronouns they wanted us to use for the character, and we would go with the flow.

    They still occasionally comment on weird gendering cues of anthropomorphized inanimate objects (long eyelashes on an M&M, for example.)Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Emile says:

      Love this, @emile I have one book I read at school with a notably unexpected gender pronoun (“The mummy is a she???) but I’ll have to look for other ways to challenge assumptions and norma.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Kazzy says:

        I wish I could find a picture online, but the last page of this book shows the baby owl with its mommy and daddy.

        What’s strange is that there’s no particularly gendered colors used on the parents, no clothing/accessory cues (they are cartoon owls!), and no real size dimorphism or other physical difference (like long eyelashes on one, say) between them – and yet, everyone I have shown the picture to, can clearly identify which owl is supposed to be the male/daddy, and which one is the female/mommy.

        But damned if anyone can articulate *why*. They just *know*. They all pick the same answers, with no hesitation or deliberation.

        So there’s definitely some really foundational cues and assumptions we tend to work off of, beyond anything really blatantly obvious.Report

          • Emile in reply to Glyph says:

            That’s a fascinating one. I take it most people say the owl on the right is the dad?

            Given that the book asserts that they *are* mother and father (so you’re primed to decide which is which) I read it as:
            * Left owl has more saturated body color (brighter palette is gendered female)
            * Plaid vs polka dots on the wings, again brighter more visual interest codes female.

            I find it particularly fascinating that the body color saturation is actual ordered kid > owl on left > owl on right.Report

            • Glyph in reply to Emile says:

              It actually just says “family”, but yeah, everyone picks the one on the right as “male”, with no hesitation. Looking at it again, it’s possible that the fractionally-taller horns and the slightly-larger wing are *just* enough to suggest size dimorphism, but I still thought it was weird that everyone I’ve shown the picture to has picked the same answers immediately.Report

              • Maribou in reply to Glyph says:

                @glyph fwiw, size dimorphism in owls even tends to run the other way, with females being larger, which I *KNOW* because, owls. And yet when I saw the picture and said “guess which one is male” i also picked the one on the right, mostly due to the patterns of cloth, I think.

                I really like Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender which posits, in a reasonably well-argued way with a hugely wide-ranging and thorough (and snarky) lit review, that we aren’t hard-wired mentally for any SPECIFIC gender differences, but that we do seem hard-wired to categorize the world, and to enthusiastically accept sorting people by whatever gender categories and associated traits we are offered when still very young.

                It’s interesting how everyone in this thread is quite sure they’re right even though we don’t all agree.Report

            • Kazzy in reply to Emile says:

              I initially thought mom was on right but now I’m not sure.

              Edit: No… Def mom on right!Report

              • Michael Cain in reply to Kazzy says:

                So did I. Decorated “hair” and separated eyes to make them seem larger is what jumped out at me.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Kazzy says:

                What’s weird is that there IS one thing on the right that would tend to code “female” for a lot of Americans, and that’s the dark rings around the eyes (which might suggest eyeshadow). But that right hand owl still looks like “Dad” to me, and the left one (with no “eyeshadow”) looks like “Mom”.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Glyph says:

                For me, it is something in the eyes. The funny thing is that if you just presented me the owl on the left — all on its own — and asked me to guess the gender, I would peg that one as female. It is just that the one on the right seems even more female, because of something to do with the eyes I think.

                Regardless, it is an interesting exercise.Report

              • Alan Scott in reply to Kazzy says:

                There is a curve to the top of the left owl’s forehead/temple area that I think would push me in the direction of identifying the owl on the left as female–especially since the owl on the right has blank spaces where the temple area should be–allowing the viewer to imagine straight (masculine) lines there.

                That said, I actually identified the owl on the left as the father at first–because my own gendered socialization causes me to assume the protagonist is a boy, so I then identified the owl that looks most like the (assumed male) protagonist as the male parent.Report

          • dragonfrog in reply to Glyph says:

            If I were to guess, I’d also guess the owl on the right is intended to be the father. I think the cues I used were
            – the owl on the right looks like it has heavier eyebrows
            – the owl on the left has a somewhat more ‘feminine’ print for its wing.Report

        • dragonfrog in reply to Glyph says:

          One of kiddo’s books (it may have silently left the house in a purge of books dad hates reading) has a cat going around a farm yard shopping for presents for his mother. Every single animal in it except the mother cat is gendered male for no particular reason.

          Particularly ridiculous, the goat offers the cat some milk. Milk. Where is a billly goat getting milk from?Report

  4. Chris says:

    The language delay definitely adds a wrinkle. My initial thought was, “Just tell him the names of things when appropriate, and otherwise let him learn by observing,” but if there’s a delay, and it’s thought that correction will help, it becomes tricky in some cases. Maybe “boy” and “girl,” and “mommy” and “daddy” are not the best place to work with him, though, except maybe just working a lot with him on the alternative words (“man,” “woman,” or just “grownup” or whatever, with the equivalents for kids) and the actively telling him when to apply them. “Look, a grownup! Do you see the grownup?”

    My son’s big one was dogs and cows: everything with 4 legs was either a dog or a cow, to the point that some dogs were cows (though no cows were dogs). I have no idea how he decided which was which. For example: horses were dogs, while lions were cows. How does that make sense?! I would just tell him the name of the animal (“That’s a lion.”) and hope it stuck. With some, he eventually learned the name, while with others he’d use compound names: “Look Daddy, a horsedog.”Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

      Our collective adult hangups on race, gender, and other topics really show when it comes to what and how we teach young children. We wouldn’t let your son get to age 8 or 9 (or beyond!) without being corrected about “horsedog”. And yet we let kids grow up (sometimes through adulthood!) with all sorts of fucked up conceptions of race, gender, and other topics because we aren’t able or willing to address them. And because these topics are far more abstract, we can’t just rely on experience to guide them. As your son’s ability to discern between different species of animals developed, the obvious differences between horses and dogs and cows and lions became apparent. But that doesn’t really work for people. Primary sexual characteristics, almost entirely unseen, are of little help. Secondary sexual characteristics can be helpful but are far from perfect. So we often rely on gender norms which, for that system to work, we all have to agree to a fairly rigid set of them.

      At the risk of making a mountain out of a mole hill, how many people look at trans issues today they way they do because of what they learned about gender when they were a kid?

      I mean, for fuck’s sake, I’m still not sure if Spock is from Star Wars or Star Trek because I didn’t watch any of that growing up and that is enough to give some people fainting spells.Report

      • Chris in reply to Kazzy says:

        Oh definitely. Language tends to make us essentialists about even the most mutable of categories, and it’s definitely difficult for kids to navigate their way through complex issues like gender without a great deal of guidance, guidance that may very well do as much harm as good.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

          I wonder if I’m helping or hurting by insisting boy is a gendered term, ergo he must sort by gender (as opposed to age, which is his primary variable it seems… Largely because it is how he differentiates from Little Marcus Allen…).Report

  5. Vikram Bath says:

    I haven’t been hesitant at all to offer corrections plainly: “No, that’s not a dog; it’s a squirrel.” I rarely offer an explanation as to why.

    For the “Mommy” thing, if the person she said it to was right in front of us, I would probably say, “Oh, you only call your own mommy ‘Mommy’. This is a person.”

    To my knowledge, neither of us have given her any explanation as to how to tell which people are male and which are female, but she makes such distinctions seemingly effortlessly. Presumably she picked that up at the orphanage.Report