In her book Delusions of Gender, psychologist Cordelia Fine notes how early this all begins. In preschool, she says, children become “gender detectives,” because they are organized by gender and referred to by gender constantly. “Everything around the child,” Fine writes, “indicates that whether one is male or female is a matter of great importance.”

Does that mean there’s nothing we can do? Most parents, it seems, are engaged in a constant negotiation between encouraging their children to transcend gender and acceding to the cultural pressures that accompany it. In her book The Gender Trap, sociologist Emily W. Kane points out that many of the parents in her research study “creatively tweak and even revise” the gendered structures that society pushes on children, but she notes that this parental willingness to push back against gender norms is much stronger with daughters than with sons.

I see this every day. Girls are encouraged by parents and by organized initiatives to explore areas once considered the domain of boys: science and math, sports, leadership, business. But the converse isn’t always true; it’s much more unlikely that a boy will be encouraged to explore traits that are girlish: clothing and fashion, domestic work, nurturing and caregiving. Mothers worry about their daughters’ pink princess phase, while no one seems too concerned about their son’s toy chest full of cars and trucks.

Why is this? There is, of course, the entrenched cultural trope of a strong, heterosexual man taking care of a family and the discomfort that gender fluidity can raise in even the most loving parent of a boy. It’s no accident, writes Fine, that “unlike the term ‘tomboy’ there is nothing positive implied by its male counterpart, the ‘sissy.’ ” Danna’e, mom to Elijah and Zion, acknowledged that her religious beliefs and background as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants made her particularly nervous about her boys demonstrating “feminine” traits. “I don’t really feel homosexuality is any more of a sin than anything else,” she said with feeling. “But how do I have that conversation with my boys?”

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