Not just for tomboys (and their parents): Kids and gender roles

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Jessica DuLong

Published August 11, 2020

Beginning in preschool, Lisa Selin Davis’ daughter expressed her preference for what are considered more masculine clothing, haircuts and play styles. In first grade she announced she was a “tomboy.”

Davis did her best to support her daughter, letting her cross gender barriers despite occasionally feeling uncomfortable.

Learning how to talk to her child about gender issues and how to leave room for a variety of identities to develop led Davis to write “Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different,” which not only explores how tomboys fit into our evolving understandings of gender identity and expression but also “how and why we’ve ordered the world by gender, and who benefits,” Davis said.

Incremental shifts in American culture — including greater use and acceptance of they/them pronouns, more widespread support for transgender people and the recent Supreme Court ruling that protects LGBTQ people against workplace discrimination — reflect society’s expanding acceptance of a wider spectrum of gender identities and expressions.

But we must reckon with the realities of society’s present-day expectations for children, even as we push to create spaces that are more open to all. Until then, social pressures that force people into what Davis called “ridiculously narrow boxes” will continue to damage everybody.