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Out of the mouths of babes

Amy Leibowitz gender identity

I recently (as in, three weeks ago) took a new per diem job substituting in our local school district. Aside from the perfect schedule and the fun of every day being different, the kids are truly the best part of the job. (Anyone who knows me knows I love kids; I spent most of my work life around kids before having my own.)

Last week, I subbed for a teacher aide in a self-contained special education room. It was an odd situation—I was the first person since October to accept the job. I suppose the combination of the type of class and the fact that it’s not listed as a long-term job contributed. Anyway, I took the first job that pinged me for the day, and I’m glad I did.

Leaving out most of the details, all I will say is that these kids have it rough. Their home lives aren’t great, combined with the fact that they are all dealing with social and behavioral challenges. Being the day before a vacation, the teachers chose to keep things low-key. That meant a lot of free time.

During their lunch/party, the two girls in the class got the brilliant idea to shove balloons up their shirts and say they were pregnant. This led to two of the three boys following suit. Mercifully, the teachers just went along with this. They thought it was fab, going so far as to print “birth certificates” for the balloon babies and cutting diapers and pacifiers out of paper for them. One of the girls made a mask for hers, saying she didn’t want her baby to get COVID.

At some point, the one boy not playing along got a bit frustrated because “boys can’t have babies!” and “but you’re a boy!” and “your baby can’t have two dads!"

The one boy, we’ll call him Jake, looked him in the eye and said, “It’s none of your business."

What I found brilliant about this scenario were two things: First, not one adult had a problem with any of this. No one told the boys they couldn’t play the game. No adult said “boys can’t have babies.”

Second, the kids’ reactions were perfect. One of the girls told Jake he could be a girl if he wanted to or that his baby could have another dad. Most of the kids said there’s no such thing as stuff only girls or only boys can play, and the teacher supported this.

When I was that age, such a thing would never have happened. Sure, we might have some crossover when it came to toys. After all, we’d graduated from the 1970s, when there was a push for play to be gender-expansive. However, the way these kids were playing, with the open-minded attitude of the adults and correcting each other on what’s allowed, wouldn’t have been a thing.

I’m glad to be working in a school in an era when kids don’t question the idea of a pregnant man or a person presumed to be a boy but who might really be a girl. I’m happy to see adults supporting these kids and encouraging their creativity.

We need to normalize gender exploration for everyone. Even if a person concludes they’re cisgender, that’s okay! It’s still good to understand how we experience our gender and what feels right to us, regardless of whether that matches what was assigned to us at birth.

May more kids get to experience creative play that flips ideas of gender on their heads.

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