Why Gender Does Matter
In light of the recent decision by Target, a retail store, to remove gender labels from their toy and bedding departments, I feel compelled to make the case for gender (and the positive impact of gender roles) in today’s society.
Gender is a more colloquial term for sex, meaning whether someone is a male or a female. Being able to identify with (and accept) your gender is an important psychological step for all humans.
Have you ever talked with a young toddler about classification?
Kids love to share their intelligence by correctly classifying things. Pointing out the difference between a cat and a dog, or a horse and a cow, is a game to kids. Learning to correctly label a girl or a boy is also very important for that classification game. I’ve lost count of the number of times my kids have confirmed, “You’re a girl, right Mommy? And Daddy is a boy?” Once potty training began, our young son wanted to know why Mommy looked different than Daddy. He wanted to correctly classify us.
Recently our kids have made it a game at dinnertime to tell Daddy about the labels they are figuring out: brother, sister, father, grandma, uncle, aunt, etc. They want to know how our family is pieced together. They have learned that boys are uncles, fathers, brothers, and sons. And girls are sisters, mothers, aunts, and daughters. (Kids learn so much so quickly. Our daughter is only two!)
Back to the importance of gender: knowing how you fit into your family and society is necessary for your psychosocial development. Psychologist Erik Erikson’s early stages of psychosocial development pivot on answering these questions: “Who am I? What can I do? Who can I be? Can I make it in the world of people and things?”
From age two until puberty, children navigate the world by learning what is appropriate or otherwise. They must learn how to fit into their gender role. Erikson’s psychosocial stage at puberty is defined as “Identity vs. Role Confusion.” If a child has not come to terms with his or her gender, then all sorts of crisis erupts. A disruption in their development heightens their chance of needing professional counseling to repair the damage. A side note: the transgender population in North America is rare (0.2% of the population), despite attempts by the media to make it seem commonplace.
So, if feeling comfortable in your assigned sex at birth is important for successfully navigating the world, I would make the argument that gender is important! Recognizing the beauty in being a boy or a girl calms questions of confusion. Gender is something to be celebrated and enjoyed, not fought against. Humankind cannot be an androgynous society, because there is beauty in the inherent qualities of male and female.
Keep reading, and I’ll continue explaining.
Gender roles acknowledge that males and females are different. Not only biological differences in our sexual organs, but there are differences in our hormones, the wiring of our brains, personalities, and aptitudes. Take for instance the hormones oxytocin and prolactin, both of which surge during pregnancy and breastfeeding. These hormones help a mother tolerate routine and monotony, possibly as a “natural opiate.” Doesn’t it seem like women can handle stress at home better than their husbands? Many husbands are fabulous fathers who also contribute with housework, but mothers seem to operate with a different style and grace. It’s in their hormones.
It is not restrictive to acknowledge that males and females are different.
There are gifts and talents that come naturally to most women: empathy, multitasking, social maneuvering, childcare, and more. There are gifts and talents that come more naturally to most men: ambition, risk taking, spatial awareness, physical strength, and more.
A celebration of gender nurtures those differences instead of replacing biological inclinations for a stripped down, forced sameness. For example, nature has predisposed women to be more social, talkative, charismatic, and in-tune with emotions. Doesn’t that explain why women excel at marketing, nursing, teaching, and therapeutic occupations? Men, by nature, seem more driven to be independent, object-oriented, impulsive, and skilled with hand-eye coordination. Doesn’t that explain why men are drawn towards construction, engineering, athletics, and military service?
Obviously both males and females can enjoy hobbies and careers in a variety of fields, but our biological differences are apparent. Why is it considered taboo to excel in an area of biological strength?
Why is it demeaning for a woman to choose nursing rather than engineering?
Why has our society started pushing women to ignore their divinely given roles of nurturer?
Unfortunately, one feminist wrote on Patheos about gender this way: “Girls are given dolls and tea sets. Boys are given sling shots and books about explorers. What if you did the opposite? If we stopped socializing children into distinct gender roles, I’m convinced that gender roles would disappear. Gender roles, you see, are not natural. They’re socially constructed,” writes Libby Anne.
However, her opinion is not backed up by science.
Consider this remarkable study regarding toy preference in monkeys:
Jake Wallis Simons wrote in The Telegraph: “A groundbreaking study carried out in 2002 presented groups of vervet monkeys with a set of “masculine” toys like trucks and balls, and a set of “feminine” toys like dolls and toy cooking pots. The results were conclusive: the boy monkeys were interested in the “male” toys, and the girl monkeys in the “female” ones. The two sexes did not differ in their preference for “neutral” toys like books and stuffed dogs.
Quite why there is such a strong relationship between males and vehicles – even among primates – is a mystery. But to ignore these natural impulses within children is to hold ideology above biology, and indeed above reality.” That study was later replicated, with similar results.
Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist, wrote on Psychology Today,
“It is becoming less and less likely that ‘gender socialization’ is the reason why boys and girls prefer different toys, and more and more likely that there are some genetic, hormonal, and other biological reasons for the observed sex differences in toy preference.”
Now, to return to the topic of removing gender labels at retail stores.
In my experience, young children tend to play with every toy, regardless of color or gender expectations. Boys and girls copy whatever their siblings or parents are doing. Both play with trucks, dolls, tools, jewelry, etc.
This is normal!
As children age, however, they want to fit into their cultural gender role. They want to do “boy things” or “girl things.” The toys, books, and clothing they start migrating towards fuel their internalized gender expectations.
This is also normal.
Reflect again on Erikson’s psychosocial stages. Resolving the crisis at each stage involves developing a sense of identity in society and helping the next generation prepare for the future. Parents have a responsibility to help their children manage these transitions. For example, teach your son how be a prince, not a princess.
Men and women have complementary roles in preparing future generations.
When little girls walk down an aisle of pink at a retail store, they see all the toys that (hopefully) nurture their biological disposition towards one-on-one relationships, emotional sensitivity, cooperative role playing, and building affirming friendships. Those pink aisles are filled with dolls, friendship bracelets kits, cooking sets, art expression, and plush toys. LEGOs were onto something when they called their female line “Friends.” These toys and activities are not demeaning women, nor do they devalue a woman’s intelligence. They are toys that allow her to enjoy her feminine inheritance. She can still grow up to be a welder who also crafts friendship bracelets on Etsy.
Walking through the blue aisle you will see K’Nex builders, army figurines, cars, and Nerf guns – all toys that nurture boys’ inclinations towards competition, independence, objects, and protection. We’ve all heard our young sons say, “I’ll protect you Mommy!” Another example: when my son was three years old, he beat me in a tower building contest. At age 3!
Suggesting that gender should be eliminated is a short-sided opinion that ignores thousands of years of biology and culture. Celebrating the intricacies and complementary-ness of gender roles is necessary for future generations. When retail stores, like Target, announce that suggesting products by gender is “unnecessary” in departments like toys, home, and entertainment, they are promoting a dangerous fad.
Women and men have the opportunity to choose their hobbies and careers. Every career is open to every person! I worry that the more society pushes to invalidate natural gender tendencies, the more confusion and stress our kids will feel. Denying their gender preferences and forcing neutral, androgynous surroundings invalidates our biology.
Many years ago, a study was done where children raised in gender neutral homes were welcomed into a scientific gender neutral playroom. The parents interviewed by the researchers were proud to point out that their homes were gender neutral: no guns, no knives, no dolls, no dress-up clothes. These parents were then shocked to see how their children acted in a room with other children. The boys turned blocks into guns, and the girls cradled blocks like babies.
Gender is programmed into our biology, our hormones, and our preferences.
To deny gender is to be mad at everything, everyone, and our entire past as a human race. It pits boys against girls. It assumes an outrage that is unnecessary and divisive.
Instead, teach your children to accept and enjoy their gender. Celebrate with them!
Then encourage them that the sky is the limit for their potential.
Pink and blue shelves are not the enemy.