The other day I was sitting at a food stand waiting for my lunch, when a little boy came up to show me his superhero outfit. It was quite nice and so I appreciated it, watched him run up and down a ramp superhero fast. He let me know right away however that he was not a superhero, he was just a boy. Followed by, “I am a boy, not a girl”. His mom seemed a bit embarrassed about this and she said, almost apologetically, that she wasn’t sure why but he had been stating this lately – that he is a boy and not a girl.
As someone who has studied developmental psychology, I knew right away why he has been saying this lately and it is not necessarily that he had been getting any external pressure or flack about gender roles. He was probably about 4 or 5, exactly the age when our minds are rapidly figuring out how to be safe and competent in the world around us. One of the first ways it does this is to categorize. Our minds ability to put things into categories quickly is a critical survival mechanism, and one we share with animals although our categories go much wider. We need to remember quickly how to assess edible/not edible, friend/foe, safe/dangerous. As this little guy showed, we also assess for other categories, adult/child, superhero/regular human, girl/boy. So a focus on binary categories at pre-school age is very common. It is not a sign of future discrimination or rigid thinking. It is a way this little human is trying to protect himself, where do I fit in? What is expected of me? What can and can’t I do?
What is not normal or necessary is to expect ourselves to stay in this categorizing mindset. As we grow and develop we are able to expand containers of categories, add new and more complex options, and even to see and think outside these boxes all together. Even at 5 years old, children are able to grasp diversity within people and things. They can understand that the categories don’t always fit neatly, just as they can understand and are actively learning that the rules are different in different settings. They get exposed to people and things that contradict what they learned before and their definitions and options expand. The human mind is able to contain vast diversity, almost unlimited options – just as humanity does. So why are we so often relying on old containers that we could have outgrown in elementary school? Why are we still talking about people as though there are only two options for gender? Why is our language for the way we represent who we are still limited to “I am a boy, I am not a girl”? Why don’t we use the full limits of our minds more often?
So I appreciate the developmental place this little boy (self identified) was in. I see how we need to think this way for a period of time as we grow. But I also look forward to the time when he is able and encouraged to think outside those boxes. When he realizes he can define himself in any number of ways - maybe he needs to make up a new word to fully represent a gender or other aspects of who he is. I look forward to the time we all can do this. Who knows, maybe he will also figure out soon the ways in which he can be a superhero while also just a boy.