Famous mother paints 5 year old son's toenails bright pink! Uses photo of pink play to sell clothes. Is it a gender crime? You might think so from the over the top reaction of psychiatrist Keith Ablow writing on (where else?) FoxNews.com: Ablow writes: "This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity -- homogenizing males and females when the outcome of such ‘psychological sterilization'... is not known." All I see when I look at the J. Crew advert is a mother and son looking joyful, and gazing lovingly into one another's eyes. While decrying a boy with pink toenails seems to me to be seizing on something fundamentally unimportant, I can't deny that this story has touched a nerve with a lot of parents.
So, let's take a deep breath. We actually know a fair amount about the steps kids take as they develop a sense of their own gender. And it seems highly unlikely that doing a photo shoot with a five year old boy whose mother has painted his toenails pink, will in anyway derail him from whatever gender identity path he is already on. A lot has happened by the time a kid reaches the age of five. Here is a rough time line.
First infants learn simple recognition: by six months they can differentiate between male and female voices, by 9 months they can tell male from female faces and shortly thereafter can associate female voices with female faces and then male voices and faces. We have less evidence of when they incorporate knowledge of other gender-related items, but we do know that even three month olds remember objects in their environment. At 12 months both boys and girls look longer at pictures of dolls than cars. Then, in the intervening 6 months, boys' interest in dolls declines (on average) quite a lot while girls' interest in dolls declines only slightly. By 18 months an interest difference has appeared that usually correlates with natal sex. At 21 months, although the sex-related (average) interest difference in cars and dolls remains strong, it does not extend to other toys, not tea sets or telephones or blocks or brush sets.
By 18 months kids have learned a lot about gender. They can make categories for male and female based on hair length and voice pitch. Girls (but not boys) are aware of associations linking dolls with girls and cars with boys. Two year olds can pair suits, ties, shaving and fixing cars with males, and dresses, putting on lipstick, cooking and vacuuming with females. At the same time that they have assimilated such knowledge, they start to learn gender labels such as girl, boy, man, woman AND start to apply the labels to themselves. Aaaaaah. Now gender identity begins
to become visible. And--interestingly-- the better a child is at gender labeling of self and others, the more gender-typed his or her play becomes. Remember we are talking two year olds here.
There's more. Gender stability comes next, usually between ages three and four. A child who grasps this concept understands that (usually) boys grow up to be men and girls to be women. But that still doesn't mean that they understand that they, themselves have a gender that (usually) does not change. Psychologists call that concept gender constancy. My favorite illustration of gender (in)stability came from a little girl I know well. When she was about three, or possibly four, she was very enamored of the color pink and very attuned to fashion and jewelry. One day I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Without hesitation, she answered "A pony!". I have heard similar stories from mothers of children in this age range. They certainly have a gendered attitude in the world; they know that they are little girls. But they do not have a concept for gender constancy, the idea that being a boy or a girl is a biological characteristic that can't be changed merely by growing out one's hair or painting one's toenails pink. (Gender constancy usually develops by the age of 7).
BTW, the future pony, despite her love of pink and couture, also gravitated to slugs, worms, insects, frogs and any other little creature she could pick up and examine. Like most kids of this age she did not conform consistently, to a cardboard cutout stereotype of gender roles. This is, I think, a good thing. Kids explore, sample, test and learn. They should have the freedom to do this and the strength to grow into interesting human beings.
So what's the take home? First, gender identity forms gradually and early. It is not a thing, but a dynamic system in which a sense of identity emerges from and is maintained by the back and forth between healthy infant-adult attachment, exposure to a variety of play objects, observations of adult dress, behavior and preferences, language development, peer interaction and immersion in the culture as presented through everything from gender representations in books, clothing and kiddie TV. It probably continues to change shape throughout our lifetime. So our pink-toe-nailed five- year-old most likely is already well on the road to a stable and well-integrated identity. A little nail polish is not going to get in his way. Gold glitter anyone?