By: Colleen K. Vesely, Ph.D.
It was picture day at my 2.5-year-old daughter’s preschool. Like most mothers, I picked out what I thought was cute – a pink and purple flowered shirt. I sneaked pig tails into her hair. Yes, sneaked because I liked them and she didn’t. I had figured out that if I could distract her enough while doing her hair, with stories or jokes, she generally didn’t think about what I was doing with her hair. Pigtails and flowers were my choices, and to be honest I still love pigtails on kiddos—I think they are absolutely adorable! But these were things that I thought were cute. My daughter, Katja, did not.
I had my own terrible memories of my mother making me wear a navy blue and brown corduroy Snoopy outfit for kindergarten pictures when I was 4 years old. On that picture day with Katja, I did the same thing with my 2.5-year-old as I had experienced so many decades earlier. Katja did not want to wear a flowered shirt and she did not like the pigtails. A few weeks later when the photos arrived, my daughter’s face showed exactly how she felt about the pink, purple, and pigtails—not happy!
Now, almost 6 years later, every time I look at this photo I of course see the cuteness of my child—like eat-you-up-with-a-spoon adorable. But I also cringe because of my parenting in that moment. It seems I cared more about how she looked and that she followed the old rules of gender…rather than letting my sweet child authentically express who she is.
What really makes me cringe is that I knew better—I knew about the new rules of gender. I have a doctorate in family science and have studied human development as well as gender identity, development, and expression more than the average person. I teach about these ideas in my courses as a professor working with aspiring professionals. I am committed to parents, teachers, and caregivers affirming and supporting children’s gender identities and expression. But, like all of us, I am human and imperfect. I keep this photo hanging on our fridge, not only because Katja is eat-you-up-with-a-spoon adorable—even with her “Mona Lisa” expression in this photo, but also as a reminder of what happens to our children’s spirits if we don’t let them express their gender in the way they choose. The old rules of gender dictate how girls and boys ought to identify and express in very narrow feminine and masculine ways. The new rules of gender allow for thinking about gender in many ways and for expressions of gender to cut across femininity and masculinity in all kinds of important unique ways. Had Katja picked her own clothes that day she likely would have worn her brother’s swim shirt and swim shorts. And maybe even his sunglasses!
As I think back, from the time she could talk Katja’s gender expression or the way she shows gender to the outside world in terms of her appearance, the way she moves and uses her body, as well as the activities she enjoys were always quite gender fluid. Despite my mishap with Katja’s two-year-old class picture, I work to follow her lead regarding her expression of gender. Her brother’s bathing suit was the first thing I really recall Katja wanting to wear quite regularly. As we would receive hand-me-downs from older female cousins, Katja would never want any of the clothes with a lot of pink or frills in her drawer. In her sweet way, she would set these aside for a younger female neighbor who she knew loved pink and dresses. She continued to select clothing for herself that most would see as gender neutral or as “boy clothes.” When she was three, Katja had a male preschool teacher, Mr. Matt, who she thought was absolutely amazing. Katja would often emulate him by wearing a baseball cap backwards and donning her brother’s hand-me-downs, specifically his longer shorts. This is all gender expression. At the same time, Katja still called herself as a girl, which was an indication of her gender identity. Of course, when kids are this young their identity can often appear fluid as they are understanding society’s social constructions of gender—as a binary—no matter how flawed and harmful to many these binary constructions are.
Just before Katja turned five she asked to get her hair cut like her older brother’s hair. I said “yes” enthusiastically and out loud immediately—but, I also delayed the visit to the hairdresser for about a month, as I needed time to get my head around knowing short hair would mean no possibility of sneaking pigtails! Living the new rules of gender can sometimes be really challenging. We are hardwired in the old rules. We have such a desire to categorize humans based on ideas that already exist in our brains. Katja was so excited the day she got her hair cut, and her only regret was that the hairdresser didn’t cut it shorter. I missed her curls, but I wouldn’t trade the joy and confidence on her face as she strode out of the hairdresser for all of the pigtails in the world! As a side note, we just made a trip to the hairdresser yesterday and Katja chose to get the sides cut much shorter, keeping a mohawk on top.
This memory of picture day, the day I did not support Katja to live in her body as she chooses (an important rule in our house) and when I ignored the new rules of gender, is quite literally in my face every day (the preschool pic of Katja in pigtails on our fridge.) It reminds me that even when we know better, we don’t always do better…especially in the face of such strong social conditioning. But whenI glance at her first-grade school picture also on the fridge, I notice my smiling child sporting the most fabulous red mohawk, and I realize that in every parenting moment that we get wrong, there is always a chance to get it right. I live for these second chances—these “do-overs.”
Colleen K. Vesely, Ph.D. is an associate professor of early childhood education and human development and family science in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. She considers motherhood to be the most humbling experience of her life as she raises three amazing humans, Luka (age 11), Katja (age 8), and Isak (age 4).