Disrupting the Norm: Parenting a Gender Creative Child in a Gender-Conforming World

By: Stephanie Clark

From the second we learn that we are welcoming a child into our lives, we become obsessed with their gender and body parts. We plan gender reveal parties, buy boys’ clothes if our babies have penises or girls’ clothes if they have vaginas, and prepare their bedrooms in shades of pink, blue, or some other colour that is a signifier of their assigned sex at birth. And while there are certainly folks among us that are progressive, the insidious social constructs and expectations of gender roles and stereotypes still manage to seep into our parenting styles and perspectives. Check out any moms’ Facebook Group and you’re guaranteed to find archetypal commentaries about “mean girls”, or that we should “pray for moms of boys during quarantine because they don’t play with dolls or have quiet tea parties”.  The irony is that these modern women who want equality for themselves, and also for their daughters, continue to perpetuate harmful gender-specific narratives.

They are not alone in this task.

Humans – men, women, people of all genders, you, me, and parents and non-parents alike – are the sole creators and consumers of meaning-making content; and we can choose to be contributors or disruptors of these stereotypes.

My journey towards disrupting the conversation was a gift bestowed to me by my middle child. When I held them for the first time in 2009, I had already learned from my oldest child to expect the unexpected. What I never imagined was having to navigate conversations with them about gender identity, ignoring conformity culture, and dismantling normative gender roles – all before their 8th birthday. In the spring of 2017, after almost 6 months of difficult behaviours and social-emotional challenges, they came to us to share that they did not feel like, or identify with, their assigned sex at birth. At 7.5 years old, they knew that the world was not as welcoming of a place as it seemed for those in the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

They would be shamed for sharing with the world who they were and would face barriers for wanting to be themselves. Our hearts were crushed by fear and knowledge of the statistics1 on 2SLGBTQ+ youth:

  • They face higher rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm;
  • Are 14 times more at risk of suicide and substance abuse than their straight cis-gender peers;
  • And 74% trans and 55% non-heterosexual youth report facing harassment about their gender identity, compared to 26% of their non-2SLGBTQ+ peers

And so much more.

My husband, Ian, cried and I stayed on the course of rational and logical thinking – both of us defying the expected reactions and roles of our gender. As an educator Ian is aware of what 2SLGBTQ+ kids face in the system, so his fear was about well-being, the responses from peers, and whether school staff had the tools to support a gender-diverse classroom.  As safe as schools intend to make themselves, 2SLGBTQ+ kids face concerns with safely using bathrooms and change rooms, hearing discriminatory remarks like “that’s so gay”, and unintended microaggressions when teachers refer to their students as “boys and girls”.

Meanwhile, I took to my trusted source (Google) and started researching community programs to support families like ours. There were a handful of positive resources available, but most were geared for transgender teens and young adults – not necessarily a gender-creative 7-year-old. The challenge with this is that the information out there tells us, children: understand and recognize gender labels and stereotypes by 24 months; have a sense of their own gender by age 4; and that, although the average age of realization is 8-years-old, the average age of disclosure is between 15 and 16 years of age.2

Imagine living your childhood and most of your teenage years suppressing who you are, afraid of not being loved and accepted, and because the dominant social and cultural attitudes that dictate gender norms and expectations, do not make the world a safe place for you. These gender-defining messages are deeply embedded in every aspect of our lives – from media messages to our workplaces, to political and social institutions.

We gasp when dolls and easy bake ovens are marketed towards girls, while cars and ‘action figures’ are marketed towards boys; and then make it okay when we buy into the culture and stay silent. We contradict ourselves when we accept that kilts worn by the Scottish or kurtas worn by South Asian men are acceptable, and then post jokes on Facebook related to men and nightshirts that are genderizing and transphobic. We deny trans people access to public bathrooms because we fear for our own safety; and yet, it is trans people at greatest risk for assault and harassment in these spaces (and also highly ironic that we don’t assign gender to the bathrooms in our homes).

Most people would not remember what they were doing on June 1, 2017, but Ian and I do (also thanks to Facebook Memories for reminding me each year). Ian took the day off work to join me and our three kids on the walk to school. It was the day of ‘coming out’ for my gender creative child as they styled their hair differently, and wore clothes that finally affirmed their identity. After years of seeing the same faces on our way to school, including neighbours, crossing guards, and teachers, my child was finally showing the world who they were.

My heart pounded so hard in my chest I could hear it in my ears, and I held tightly to my child’s small hand in my sweaty palm. The 8-minute walk to school felt like a million years, as I fake smiled, waved to the friends who supported us and was ready to pounce on anyone staring the wrong way. And in that very last moment, just before reaching the school, it happened: an adult stranger asked why my child was wearing gender non-conforming clothes. Despite usually being vocal and loud (and sometimes obnoxious), I held my breath and froze. And then I saw the big smile on my brave 7-year-old’s face, and heard their sweet voice say: “Because I’m being me!”

And then I exhaled.

1Sources: Egale and Canadian Mental Health Association

2 Source: Canadian Paediatric Society

Always vocal, sometimes loud, and occasionally obnoxious, Stephanie Clark believes in disrupting the status quo, creating brave spaces, and challenging others to dig deep. Although she works in the education field, Stephanie is not an educator and is constantly un-learning. She balances her love for serious topics with a sarcastic sense of humour, and is known for embarrassing her kids in public by shouting at the top of her lungs: “Be you, be true!” Stephanie is a mom to three humans and one fur baby, married to her BFF, and lives in Oakville, Ontario. When school is out, she spends the summer with her family, camping, hiking, and lounging on the deck with a glass of wine.

3 thoughts

  1. Amazing story. I had a grade 1 student in my first year of teaching 1998, who came out as a ‘boy who loved Sailor Moon’. I worried about him so much and found that he became them who became them/she/her in adulthood. I think about them often because they taught me so much. I realized very early that they were exactly the same as every other student but needed more support and intentional acceptance. Thank you for sharing your story in a really accessible manner.

  2. Thank you for sharing this! My son is obsessed with dresses and pink right now and we are going with the flow. I do worry what others will say… but my love is unconditional.

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