Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Girl Next Door

The little girl who lives next door is the 6 year old daughter of our landlords - they own that house and this one and they're very great - we're going over there for a BBQ tonight for some of their friends who are going back to Hong Kong. I must make my special potato salad.

But the kid is amazing - she's the smartest, most articulate little girl I've ever met - it's actually kind of scary. She's like talking to a little adult. Both of her parents are 50, so they are definitely older parents, but I'm not sure if that's it. The first thing she said to me when she met me was, "so, I hear you're from Oklahoma. That's my very favorite musical. You can hold my dog if you want to." She also loves the furballs (who run at the sound of every new organism) - I took her into my office one day to let her pet Furball #1 (who just cowers rather than hisses from under the bed, like Furball #2) and she said to him, "I will be very quiet and not scare you if you will let me pet you." She's 6!

The coolest thing about her is that she has "boy days" and "girl days" - when she went to Jeffrey St. John's birthday party, for example, she wanted to be called "Harry" and she was in the coolest little seersucker suit, tie, and a little blue cap. When she and her mom came over yesterday, she was in a pink sundress, red dress shoes, and had two curly, long, blonde hairpieces clipped to each side of her very short hair with pink barrettes. She won't ride her bike, though, because it's purple with flowers on it. Harry wouldn't ride that bike.

The best thing is, that she's completely unself-conscious about this. The only thing is that she wanted her mom at the party to act like she'd made her wear the seersucker suit. But that wasn't the fiction of a little girl being forced to dress as a boy, but a little boy who was forced to wear a suit by his mother. That's what she was that day, so her mother said to her periodically (in the presence of other moms and kids), "but you look so nice in that suit!"

I've been thinking about that little kid a lot since we moved in. I also particularly admire how both her parents just let her do whatever she wants to do with her wardrobe and her identity that day. There's no, "you're a little girl and little girls don't dress like boys", etc. There's no embarrassment from any of them. Her mom just smiles and says "she's having a boy day".

My question is, is this a phase or a period of growth and self-exploration that all kids go through? This is not an issue of sexuality, I believe, because she's only 6 and that's not her point. I just find it amazing how totally innocently she's exposing how constructed gender is - we all know it's constructed and how insipid and terrifying gender coding for children is in toy stores, etc. I cringe every time I see another display of "be like mommy" toys for little girls that always consists of vacuum cleaners, baby strollers or carseats, shopping carts filled with plastic groceries, and little wedding dresses. I noticed once as well that the play dishwasher set (that had plastic plates, cups, etc. and a plastic dishwashing machine) had a white little girl and a Latino little boy on it. He was the only boy depicted on any of the overly "girlish" toys (vanity sets, kitchen sets, etc.) and he was Latino!

But the little girl next door's whole girl day and boy day thing doesn't involve either picking up a baby doll or picking up a plastic Uzi - it's about dressing (ironically, in the very arbitrary ways that clothes can be used to construct gender - a dress, a necktie) and being a boy or a girl on that day. She talks the same, her mannerisms are the same, etc. on either day - but she somehow conceives of her identity as something different on that day and dresses (in her mind) accordingly. I should say that for the most part, she dresses in a comparatively gender-neutral way (and I use that term with all its caveats in tow) - shorts, a t-shirt (usually with a panda bear on it), and tennis shoes - after all, it's summer and she's an active little kid! But when she has one of her particular boy days or girl days, she dresses to the nines either way.

I think she's amazing and will continue to observe her - but I was wondering if any other parents out there had kids that did the same thing? I don't ever remember wanting to be a boy - I didn't want to be the prom queen either! But I did want to be a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader...I'm so embarrassed to admit that.



At 3:34 PM, Blogger Hilaire said...

Hello, I just found your blog - always happy to read blogging Canadians - and that is a GREAT story...what a fantastic kid. The parents sound wonderful. Dealing empathetically with cross-dressing kids has always struck me as a huge parenting challenge (not that I'm a parent, I just hear of such kids sometimes). Parents get so worried about how their kids will be perceived, whether that will be painful, and even whether it will reflect on them.

I agree with you that it's not about sexuality, it's about gender expression. I do think it will be very interesting to watch how those two aspects inform each other as she gets older. Choices around sexuality are so often affected/constrained by the gendered choices that seem to be available to us, or not, as the case may be.

A great post!

At 4:57 PM, Blogger Pilgrim/Heretic said...

This is So. Very. Cool. Many cheers to the parents for giving her the freedom to play with these constructions. I don't know if this is a normal stage (that usually gets beaten out of kids) or not, but my nephew at about the same age went through a phase of pretending to be various characters, including Cinderella.


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