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The Formation of Gender Identity in Child Development

Kids playing
On May 06, 2015

It is hard to understate the influence of childhood experience.

In a very real sense, the past makes us who we are. Some of the most vivid recollections human beings have are from childhood. Psychologists, counselors, and other social researchers tell us that the first phases of a person’s life—whether from birth to toddler or birth to puberty—are the most formative. Few would disagree. While the brain remains somewhat elastic throughout life, the basic biological structures, neural and otherwise, are carved, shaped, and erected until a tipping point of around 18-25 years of age, where the brain begins to stop developing and the body physically begins processes of long-term decay, finally terminating at the last phase of life.

Interestingly enough, I have not met a person that does not have and remember childhood experiences that impacted their view of gender and sexuality. Whether it was simple things like making food with mom, fishing with dad, or the more direct, painful experiences of critical comments, abuse, or molestation, the memories don’t go away.  

Consider the following phrases the fly around public school playgrounds thousands of times a day, and think about how these situations impact children’s minds and their long-term perception about gender:

“Stop playing like a girl.”

“Stop crying, you’re a boy.”

“You can’t do that, you’re a girl.”

“Boys are stupid.”

“Girls are stupid.”

“Boys aren’t supposed to wear pink.”

“What’s wrong? Why don’t you like to play with Barbies?”

Teachers get inundated with these kinds of situations each day (along with endless personal tidbits about life at home, often through unintentional slips and mental meanderings). So, no matter how disturbing gender-related comments might be, they become easy to ignore.

But frequency does not necessarily diminish significance—especially for kids. In fact, the more frequent such activity occurs, the more powerful they—and the narratives they shape—become.

I witnessed one of these potentially semi-traumatic experiences a few years ago as a substitute teacher. And while there were dozens of situations like these during those three years at public schools, for some reason I will never forget the time I subbed first-grade Physical Education. I came upon a group of sobbing girls in the back of the line after class…

“Hey, what’s going on here?” I asked.

“Jimmy says that the boys always win because they’re better than the girls!” More sobbing ensued.

Instinctively, I wanted to react in response to this apparent injustice, but it wasn’t easy as I considered the situation. In what sense were the boys “better than the girls,” if they were? Was it a coincidence of winning (“chance”)? Was it because the boys vs. girls format of the game utilized certain biological advantages attributable to one sex (“nature”)? Was it because the girls had been taught since young age that they were weak, so they didn’t even bother trying to win (“nurture”), so they would always lose? Or was it because of the sensitive conscience of the girls who refused to cheat as much as the boys that led to an unfair score? Or was it something else?

I stumbled in my mind for a moment and realized I only had a few seconds before they’d be sent down the hall. I couldn’t leave them in this kind of depressed state! So I suppressed my inner professor and invoked my inner parent to leave them with at least something true and firm. So I said something to the effect that boys aren’t better than girls, and the girls shouldn’t feel bad because they’re girls; at least that was the impression I tried to give. I doubt this was satisfying for the more curious of the group, but it would have to be sufficient for the few seconds I had.

I can’t help but wonder if this was one of those situations that some will remember the rest of life. Will some of these girls find themselves depressed and anxious about their gender ten years later, and re-traumatize themselves by revisiting this incident in their memories? Will that affect their marriages? Their work pursuits? Will some of the boys carry guilt for the terrible things they’ve said? Will they turn to the cross to find forgiveness, or to the bottle, or to domineering relationships or something else to cope with their own pain?

This stuff happens all the time. In fact, I remember saying critical things as a first-grader to a fellow student that were so mean and nasty that I find myself still today re-praying for forgiveness because of how guilty I felt – and still feel. At its base, it’s a conflict of identity: today I would never say such terrible things, but back then, I did, and that was still me. Who am I? What’s wrong with me?

The effects of gender identity in youth development is multiplied tenfold when it takes place in the context of organized religion, because now God is behind it all, and you can’t argue with the Creator of the universe. If God made women subordinate, there’s no debate; the pill has to be swallowed and, you still have to worship God with joy, no questions asked. Evangelical Christians are taught to be happy that women are made to fulfill subordinate roles and can only have a relationship with God through a man (whether via priest, pastor, husband, or otherwise). The effects of this environment are incredibly devastating.

A friend of mine’s faith derailed during adolescent Sunday school when her teacher taught that God loves boys and girls, but there were some things that God didn’t let girls do (like be pastors). Why? Just because they were girls. For her whole young life, she was taught a God that loved her unconditionally, genuinely, and never took gender into consideration—like Aslan and Lucy—but now, from just a small subtle comment, there arose a kink in the relationship and a reason to be suspicious of God’s general motives—and it grew, and festered, and suspicion gave way to anger and resentment, finally embodying in self-harm and deep depression over a decade later. (Today, she refers to reverberations of this battle with God and their paralyzing, painful effects as “the gender bear” coming out of the forest).

Postscript: An Invitation to Continue to the Conversation

Do you have stories like this? Or do you know someone else who does—how faulty views of gender in the church have caused suffering in the lives of individual Christians or families?

If so, I want to invite you to participate in a project that I’m putting together entitled Tracking the Gender Bear: Stories of Gender Formation in the Lives of Christians. No need to be an expert or public figure, just a decent writer with a compassionate heart and a personal story to tell about your journey from uncertainty, pain, bondage, or war to a place of conviction, comfort, peace, or freedom. (Entries should be 3,000-5,000 words long and sent with a short bio to hillspublishinggroup@protonmail.ch). Please also feel free to post a comment below about your experiences.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Ragesoss.

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