Growing up, I knew that I was different from other girls. I wasn’t really interested in dolls or playing dress up. The games that I liked to play as a young child were very physical; chasing, jumping, wrestling. If I played pretend, I was never a princess, but a knight fighting “evil”. As I grew up, I drew further from that play style and delved into the world of video games, roleplaying, the computer; and when it came to spending time with friends I didn’t gossip or feed off of drama, I found more comfort among the boys, laughing and joking and general goof-off-ery. I remember many happy times when I would attend Renaissance Fairs with my dad, and when I showed interest in the archery tournaments they held he bought me my very own longbow and took me to an archery range to practice.
Of course, these were feelings and experiences I couldn’t share with my peers. I remember going through middle school without ever really opening up to my friends. High school was a disaster for me. I didn’t fit in anywhere. The girls would mock and ridicule me if I ever shared my interests, and the boys would at first be shocked, and then I would get a very condescending confrontation. What games did I play? If I couldn’t name a certain number, then I wasn’t really into them. If I met this first test, then it was a matter of not being as good as them, because I was a girl.
I was often teased by the girls, called hateful things such as “dyke”, “whore”, “seducer”, “siren”. To them, it was as if I was simply pretending to be something I wasn’t to “get with” guys. There was a group of girls in particular, from my high school days, who when passing me in the hall would purposefully slam into me, push me into a nearby guy, and attempt to trip me up in the throng of angsty teens. The boys also assumed that I was easy. When I did not return their attempts at flirtation, they made fun of my outward appearance, calling me various synonyms of “fat”, “beaver”, “slut”. One boy actually got my number when I was giving it to a friend and called me several times, leaving very hateful and crude voicemails on my phone.
Life was… frustrating.
It is even more frustrating, being out of that cesspool of nonacceptance for more than half a decade, seeing the same struggles that I went through socially repeating time and time again. To this day, with the rampant overtaking of the internet influencing the way society runs and the way that information is shared, parents, teachers, peers, and the media is still pressuring the young and impressionable into conforming to their “roles” based solely on their gender. Growing up, I often thought that I had to be the only one, an anomaly on a grander scale of stereotypes. This was one of the things that fueled my addiction with MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games). There in that world of fantasy, I was able to find like-minded people and I didn’t have the social pressure to act “like a girl”. It was all text-based for a while, and I could have been anyone.
Today, I work in retail. I am constantly witnessing aggressive enforcement of these gender roles; “Put that movie back it’s for girls!”, “Why do you want that Captain America toy? Wouldn’t you rather have this My Little Pony one?” When parents pressure their children into conforming to such silly standards, set only on them by their parents and their culture, you are doing far more harm than good.
Let’s consider what happens when a child’s interests and imagination are stunted. That child will begin to feel, as I once did, alone in what they enjoy. What relationships can they really have if they cannot open up to their parents or their friends? You might push your child into a deep depression during their transitional years as an adolescent. Faking what you are not is far more strenuous on a personality than simply being yourself. Trust me.
I became addicted to video games to cope with the social anxieties that I faced every day, but your child might take a more severe turn. So many teenagers that turn to drugs and alcohol do so to impress the people they are hanging out with, and—for just a moment—be able to relax in their own skins. Every year, approximately 200,000 children under the age of 21 visit the emergency room caused by alcohol related injuries, and of these 5000 will die each year from car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning, falls, burns, and drowning all caused by excessive drinking.
But, this is the extreme case.
The most important thing you can do with your children is be curious. Why do you like this? Do they really like it because they like it, or are they simply trying something out and will disregard that interest in time? Be active in their life and support their choices, whatever they may be. Above everything else, remember this: Interests are solely interests. They do not change world perspectives, they do not turn your child into a murderer, they do not change orientations. If your child is gay, letting them participate in activities more commonly enjoyed by the opposite gender will not change anything, they will always be that way. If your son likes to put on a dress, it does not mean he necessarily wants to be a girl. Be curious, and ask your child what they are thinking and why they are thinking that way.
I often wonder now as an adult how many of my classmates bullied me simply out of a sense of normalizing what had been inflicted on them. When you put your child in a box and tell them they cannot reach outside of it, any other child they see who is exploring outside of their box will suddenly be a target of resentment and bitterness, at no fault of that child. They become a threat to the narrative that was set by their parents and peers. They cannot possible fathom why someone else can be allowed to roam and be free when they are prisoners within their social compliance.
If your children are kept from exploring their own minds, it will translate into their adulthood. They are more likely to live mediocre lives, jump from relationship to relationship because they just don’t know who they are and what they want, make decisions based on emotion or popularity or be easily persuaded by their peers even if it means going against what they feel is the right choice.
Every child is different. Every child will have natural tendencies to explore the world around them and create their own unique array of interests and personality traits. When you allow a child to be curious, to choose for themselves, it opens up so many doors for their future. Suddenly they are able to break through that glass ceiling, and maybe they will continue to find barriers to cross and boundaries to break, or maybe they will find a comfortable place in their own lives to be happy. You’ll never know, unless you give them that choice. You don’t have to force your child to be androgynous, but for the sake of your children—and the children they will grow up with—let your child be curious and ask questions about the many choices they can make in life.