March 31, 2011

Toddlers' Obsession with Sex

Free to Be You & Me
Free to Be You & Me
This isn't about the toddler's interest in exploring her genitals that I've posted about here; this is about the toddler's obsession with identifying and categorizing everyone around her according to their sex. As I'm eager to nurture a new generation of little women and men breaking out of conservative and confining gender roles, I often pause to think about how best to respond to y toddler daughter's repetitive "she's a girl and he's a boy and mama's a woman and papa's a man." 

When I brought this up in a conversation with some mama friends of mine, one said her mother, who ran a daycare for a number of years, had said that the boy-girl topic was the most prominent of all among the children she'd cared for over the years.

Sex educator Debra W. Haffner, author of From Diapers to Dating, seconds the significance of this topic. By as early as six months of age, babies can pick out male and female voices, and children learn to divide the world into "male" and "female" before they reach the age of two. Depending on the behaviors they see in their homes and preschools, they will identify certain behaviors as male or female.

Haffner encourages parents to stimulate non-traditional gender roles by positive gender equal role modeling. But as she also points out, even children in less traditional homes will still divide the world by gender based on the models they see. Raising her children in the spirit of Free to Be You and Me, Haffner nonetheless remembers how her two-year-old son told her one that that he wished he could be a doctor, but he knew he couldn't. When Haffner asked him why, he, "thinking of his own woman pediatrician, said, 'Mom, only ladies can be doctors!'"

While I find my toddler's need to organize the world in gendered terms incessant at times, I also respect her need to sort things out for herself. I want to show her recognition for her observations. And so I nod, yes, Anna's a girl, Mary's a woman. Sometimes things get a little more interesting when she tries out some sexual role play; "Lilly' a boy. Snoopy's a girl. No, Lilly's silly. Lilly's a girl. Snoopy's a girl too!"

Perhaps even more problematic to me, is how I've been finding myself adding on to my daughter's gender fixation by stressing the difference between "she" and "he." In her vocabulary everyone's a "he." In Norwegian, that is, as in han. Whenever we're playing with her dolls and stuffed animals, she never fails to refer to all of them as han (he). Maybe it's the feminist in me, but I can't help but feel a bit peeved by this, so I insist that when it's a girl or a woman, it's a hun (she).

I actually suspect the answer to this language hiccup is not a gender complicated one at all; it finally dawned on me the other day that it might instead have something to do with the fact that hun (she) sounds just the same as hund (dog) and clearly her baby doll Belle is not a dog (duh). After my countless "can you say hun" one day, my daughter looked at me as confused as I was exasperated, "but where is the hun (or hund?).

Norwegian parents out there, any thoughts on this?

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