Boy versus girl may not matter to Bobby, but finding someone to hold his hand in a crowded environment does. So he differentiates people based on their behavior and his sense of their personality.
My son Bobby’s teacher recently told me that he can’t identify people by whether they are a boy or girl. I was surprised. Given his Down syndrome diagnosis I know that he does not do some of the things other 8 year olds take for granted, but boy versus girl seemed so fundamental to me. My first impulse was to deluge Bobby with pictures of football playing boys and pink princess girls until he could make the distinction. However, after eight years with him, I know how much I can learn if I approach these situations with curiosity rather than assuming his lack of understanding is a deficit on his part.
Bobby lives in a lesbian-headed family and so is exposed to fewer examples of gender-specific roles than other kids. My partner and I are jeans and t-shirt wearing people, so he doesn’t see dresses and high heels on a daily basis.
That said, we have never made any attempt to raise Bobby in a gender neutral way. We buy his clothes in the boys section of the department store. We chose a male dog for him in order to introduce some masculine energy into our otherwise female household. Our race car-loving, ball-kicking, short-haired son conforms to nearly all social norms for boys. We would support him if he ever desired to do differently, but in a world where he already has trouble fitting in, we aren’t going to use him to make our own political statement about gender roles.
Moreover, Bobby interacts with his peers as if he makes gender-based assumptions about people. When he needs help or comfort, he seeks out girls. When he wants to wrestle, he looks for another boy.
I don’t believe his inability to categorize by gender is a product of his cognitive delays. He can sort by colors. He knows the difference between a dog and a cat, a tiger and an elephant.
Rather, I believe he doesn’t make gender distinctions because he is what I call a pragmatic learner. He primarily absorbs knowledge that is fun or useful to him and remains unmoved by information he deems as irrelevant. He doesn’t do much of anything just to conform to other people’s expectations.
Colors are useful. Green means go. Red means stop. He feels happy enough when he looks at purple that he has decided it’s his favorite. He can lay on our dog, but our cat needs gentle touches. When he pretends to be a tiger he puts on his orange and black striped ears and growls ferociously. Becoming an elephant requires him to use his arm as a trunk. For Bobby, these are very important pieces of information.
But concluding that there is some fundamental difference between a person in a pink dress and one in a blue suit and tie? What is fun or useful about that? The distinction has left him unmoved.
My theory is that what appears to be him seeking out a girl for comfort may just be him seeking out a person who is comforting. Because we teach girls to nurture, it’s not a surprise that most of his sources of comfort are female. Likewise, we encourage boys to act rough and be physical and they then become my son’s wrestling partners. Boy versus girl may not matter to Bobby, but finding someone to hold his hand in a crowded environment does. So he differentiates people based on their behavior and his sense of their personality.
I am sure that if I showed Bobby anatomically complete pictures of girls and boys, he would quickly learn the difference between people with penises and those with vaginas. When the time comes to talk about sex, we will have such a conversation.
In the meantime? I am not rushing to teach Bobby to separate people by how they dress or wear their hair. I may change my mind in the future because even if I don’t agree with all social norms, teaching my son to understand them may make his life more comfortable. The dilemma is one of my greatest challenges to raising a boy with cognitive differences—what I see as a kind of wisdom on his part is often interpreted by others as a deficit.
Why is it so scary to accept that my son’s indifference to labeling people by gender might actually be a smart conclusion? Why can’t all children just be people instead of being immediately rubber stamped as a “nurturer” or a “wrestler”? The world needs to approach its own standards with a lot more humility. We don’t know it all.
Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about parenting, disability, and family life from her perspective as a lesbian mama. She has been published in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamamia, and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives in California with her partner and son.