Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think. (Martin Luther King, Jr.) And thus my prayer: “God have mercy; may it not be said of me. Yet, too, help me season ‘hard, solid thinking’ with love and humility. Amen.”
Even commonly used terms and terminology ought to be defined, perhaps especially in addressing serious subjects, something this writer failed to do in an earlier article on the subject of gender-identity questions in early childhood development. Thankfully, there is almost always opportunity to correct such mistakes, as I shall endeavor to do now. And in so doing, we might begin with the whole idea of what it means to actually be male/female, man/woman, masculine or feminine, and for this a brief quote from the World Health Organization proves helpful:
Sometimes it is hard to understand exactly what is meant by the term “gender”, and how it differs from the closely related term “sex”.
“Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.
“Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.
To put it another way:
“Male” and “female” are sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories.
Aspects of sex will not vary substantially between different human societies, while aspects of gender may vary greatly.
To recapitulate, then, “sex” is biological, physiological characteristics, while “gender” refers to socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes largely defined in community, by society. And so, too, when we say “male” and “female” we are referring to anatomy, whereas “masculine” and “feminine” are words used of gender traits, i.e. those largely socially-defined “roles, behaviors, activities and attributes” mentioned above. Alright … so far, so good.
(Except, perhaps, that we need to also mention what might otherwise seem so obvious. That is, that “anatomical” derives from the word “anatomy” and means “of or relating to bodily structure, physical anatomy.” There seemed to be some confusion on this point in at least one article I read … or, at least, an obvious misuse of the term. However, having stated the obvious, one wonders if it might not be preferable to refer to “anatomical sex,” although that might seem somewhat redundant, rather than “anatomical gender,” which is actually more common.)
Consequently, my son was born an anatomical male; my daughter, thirteen months prior, an anatomical female. However, they each displayed various gender traits in varying degrees, at least as we are using the definition of “gender” and “gender traits” as mentioned above. Moreover, these traits were (and continue to be) varied and somewhat fluid, an observable fact that never particularly bothered me. They shared toys and games, liked various colors at different times, even shared some clothing items (depending on where they were in their growth spurts!).
And harping back to an even earlier blog, what if my daughter had displayed “masculine” characteristics such as confidence, courage, determination, integrity, fortitude and compassion? Well, she did and that was wonderful! Of course, all these are virtues admirable in anyone and not particularly masculine or feminine anyway, as I contended in that earlier blog article, and my then-wife and I actively worked to instill these virtues in both of our children.
And if my son had displayed characteristics such as gentleness, empathy and sensitivity? Again, wonderful and, in fact, he did and still does. Again, very desirable, virtuous qualities that are not particularly masculine or feminine, a truth upheld in the sacred writings and traditions of most religions, even though they are commonly associated with femininity (or seemingly so), at least in Western culture(s). But now for the tougher question, and more to the point:
How would we have felt and reacted had our son approached us with the declaration that he was “really a girl,” or “felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body?” Before attempting an answer to this thorny question, we need to look at two more terms, more complex than the ones we have already defined, which have been fairly “simple,” (where simple simply means “not overly-involved, complex, or elaborate;” as in, “short, simple and to-the-point.”) We need to introduce the concepts of “individuation” and “socialization,” and briefly consider what they mean.
Individuation, according to Jungian psychology, is a process of psychological integration, having for its goal the development of the individual personality. “In general, it is the process by which individual beings are formed and differentiated (from other human beings); in particular, it is the development of the psychological individual as a being distinct from the general, collective psychology.” (So said Jung.)
Socialization, is an ongoing process whereby an individual acquires personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and social skills appropriate to his or her social position, status and/or identity-in-community.
The idea of socialization should be held in tandem with individuation. Distinct concepts, they are nevertheless complimentary, even interdependent, though contradiction and conflict invariably arise in the process of both, as might reasonably be expected, of course. Point in fact, individuation does not occur in isolation or, put another way, on one’s own. “No man is an island unto himself” may be a cliché but true nonetheless, and no one “self-identifies” completely apart from the “other,” the larger surrounding community.
Perhaps Oscar Wilde overstated the case when he opined, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” But he was not far off from author Chuck Palahniuk, who veritably howls, “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” Or the writer David Sedaris, who wittingly submits that “all of us take pride and pleasure in the fact that we are unique, but I’m afraid that when all is said and done the police are right: it all comes down to fingerprints.”
Ah, yes, and whose “fingerprints?” The “fingerprints” of many would be the vague and general answer, but most especially and specifically that of parents and family. And these “fingerprints” are left in virtually every facet of life, including physiological cognitive development. As noted by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child:
We have long known that interactions with parents, caregivers, and other adults are important in a child’s life, but new evidence shows that these relationships actually shape brain circuits and lay the foundation for later developmental outcomes, from academic performance to mental health and interpersonal skills.
There are, of course, other important contributing factors in early childhood development, specifically with regards to a maturing sense of personal identity, such as: economics and environment, religion and education, media and entertainment, art, literature, music, etc. To a great extent, then, perhaps the 19th, early 20th century Russian author, Lev S. Vygotsky, was right in his assertion that it is only “through others [that] we become ourselves.” Well, maybe not completely, but to an important extent this would seem to be true.
Realizing all of this is, it seems to me, imperative in answering the tough challenge, “How would you have felt and reacted had your son approached you saying he was ‘really a girl,’ or ‘felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body?’” Almost certainly some questions would have immediately come to mind, such as: “Why is he saying this and what exactly does he mean?” and, importantly, “How has he come about believing this, or feeling this way? What has he seen? What has he heard? Where is this coming from?”
As parents, we would have almost instinctively, commonsensically known that this is not anything a three or four-year-old boy would believe or conclude on his own, completely divorced from those important contributing factors earlier mentioned. Now, beyond explaining anatomical reality in language he could understand, what we would have done specifically and proactively is admittedly difficult; however, I can say what we would not have done. We would not have loved him any less, nor would we have shamed, embarrassed, disgraced or dishonored him as an invaluable person, finely and divinely formed by God.
Difficult issue with which to grapple? Yes, very likely so, but something else we would not have done, I can posit with a fair amount of certainty: Precisely because we so passionately love and deeply care for our children, we would not have put him in dress, jewelry and make-up, and sent him off to kindergarten with the attendant expectation that the school and surrounding community would capitulate and conform to his “self-identity” as “a girl trapped inside a boy’s body.” And herein healthy socialization overlaps and interlocks with the ongoing process of individuation, both of which necessarily entail fundamental parental responsibility.
Young children depend upon parents for more than basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. They rely upon us, too, in cognitive learning, emotional stability, moral guidance and direction, and in their formation of healthy self-identity, which is inextricably linked, as already indicated, with their identity-within-community. They go hand-in-hand (some would say unfortunately) along with all of the cultural norms of society. And where some of those norms may not be good; nevertheless, parents completely ignore such to the detriment of the child.
Consequently, part of my responsibility as their father – and the responsibility of their mother as well, of course – is not only the love, nurture, and affirmation of my children, but their spiritual, mental, physical health and welfare, too, which necessarily includes reasonable, social adaptation and integration; always bearing in mind that as protective, loving and nurturing parents, we have been and will continue to be fundamentally important in their continuing growth and maturation
Yes, and so we do this humbly and circumspectly, to the very best of our ability, as intended and ordained by God, who lovingly created them in his divine image and likeness; trusting the timeless promise that if we “set our children upon the right course, then when they are of age they will continue along that path,” the path described in an ancient Zuni prayer as “reaching on into the Dawn,” where there is everlasting fulfillment. May it be so. Amen.