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The Difficult Question of Gender Identity

In celebration of National Parenting Gifted Children Week, Great Potential Press is pleased to present a series of guest blog posts covering some of the biggest topics in childhood development and gifted education today. GPP author and blogger Suki Wessling takes a closer look at how parents can support their gifted children – in this post, when it comes to gender identity.

This is Part 4 of her guest series. Return to Part 1 for links to all the posts.

Have your own experience or perspective to share? Join the conversation on Facebook or tweet us @GiftedBooks or #NPGCW12, and you may see your comments featured in a future post!

When my daughter was still a preschooler, pretty in pink with long, curly blond hair and a charming smile, I started to watch the way older girls acted and dressed as they approached puberty. I wondered how I was going to help my daughter through the difficulty of being a girl in our society. And that was even before I knew what kind of girl she’d be.

At about the age of six, my daughter decided to do away with girlishness. She insisted I cut off her gorgeous locks. She moved to the boys’ section of the clothing store. She developed an abiding interest in weapons and potty language. Her favorite book was Captain Underpants. Except for her undying love of baby dolls, she declared all things girlish “stupid.

Despite my being a woman who appreciates the finer parts of girlishness, I supported her decision not to follow gender norms she didn’t like. I agreed to cut her hair, though I warned her that she would be taken for a boy. She decided this was a consequence she could accept. I tried to squelch the potty talk in public, but there was no stopping it at home. My husband and I successfully moved her from Captain Underpants to King Arthur, which at least had literary value.

But the fact is, my daughter suffers the consequences of being an unusual girl on a daily basis. Despite telling some people repeatedly that she’s a girl, she is often referred to with masculine pronouns as if the speaker is unwilling to accept a girl in boys’ clothing. Teachers expect her to “act like a girl” and often come down on her harder than they might a rambunctious boy. Other kids make open, hurtful comments about her.

All this, and she doesn’t even go to school.

School is a minefield for all kids with gender differences. Gifted kids, according to research, are less likely to adhere to gender roles than other kids (see Webb et al., Misdiagnosis). When you add giftedness and gender differences together, you get a lot of fodder for bullies.

My daughter is homeschooled, and most of the above experiences happened in the context of homeschooling. You’d think I might think twice about homeschooling, but the fact is, these experiences have been few and far between. Homeschooled kids, in general, are so much more accepting of differences because they haven’t been socialized to enforce conformity. I know that things would have been much worse in school.

Not long ago a homeschool group we belong to took part in a science workshop. Included in the group were my daughter, a boy with long hair who wears girls’ clothing, and a boy with long hair who wears boys’ clothing. After the workshop, our group received a letter from one of the teachers. She said that as a transgendered person, it was heartening to work with kids who accepted each other’s differences with respect, unlike most of the kids she works with.

It was lovely to hear that, but it also made me think of all the gifted kids in school who suffer because of their gender identity. Although many schools are making the right moves toward creating a more supportive atmosphere, the enforcing of conformity is still alive and well, and often has tragic results.

I have no idea what kind of woman my daughter will be. A friend tells me that her daughter dressed like a boy until puberty, when she suddenly changed without comment. Sometimes my daughter muses about growing her hair out, and since her softball team was forced to wear pink uniforms, she has decided that wearing pink isn’t the worst wardrobe nightmare by far.

But no matter what kind of woman she grows up to be, I want her to feel comfortable in her own skin. I want her to know that whoever she wants to be is fine with me, with her father—with everyone who loves her. And those people who feel threatened by someone who doesn’t follow their expectations of gender roles? I’ll just remind her of her attitude when she was six:

Those people are just “stupid”!

Continue to Part 5.

Posted in Culture, Education, Homeschooling, Psychology.

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