Boy teeth, girl teeth, and the gendering of ungendered things

My three-year-old son had a check-up with his pediatric dentist yesterday. The dentist is a friendly fellow who is good with kids, and we like his practice a lot.

Shortly after a dental hygienist cleaned my son’s teeth, the dentist approached us and warmly greeted my son. My son was in great spirits because moments earlier, we had played a game of thumb war, and he won. (Okay, okay… I admit I threw the game. I would be a bad Olympian.)

“Hello!” said the dentist. “I just want to count your teeth today,” he said reassuringly. “And let’s make sure they’re all boy teeth, okay?”

As my son smiled and opened his mouth per the dentist’s request, I said, “Gee, I’m pretty sure they’re all people teeth, doctor.”

The denist began the exam but seemed to have missed my point. “Let’s see. Boy tooth… boy tooth… boy tooth…”

I didn’t like where this was going. In a gentle effort to redirect his script, I asked a playful question: “Hmm…Are you sure none of them are puppy teeth?”

“Puppy teeth? No… But, uh, oh!” In a voice of mock concern, he asked, “Is this one a girl tooth?!?!”

Smiling at my son as naturally as possible, I said in a bright, upbeat tone, “Gee, it could be!” (Meaning: and there would be nothing wrong with that!)

The dentist frowned and furrowed his brow. “No, no,” he said, “this is a boy tooth. You are a boy. You don’t have any girl teeth! Phew.”

Boy teeth. Girl teeth. Let’s unpack this: What’s going on here?

Dental exams are considered unpleasant by most people, and they can be downright scary for small children. The dentist was obviously trying to make my son’s exam as playful and entertaining as possible. I’m a fan of playful parenting strategies myself, so I appreciate his intentions.

But I can’t help but wonder why everything has to come down to gender.

My son is only three. Gender isn’t an issue for him yet; he isn’t worried about what things are supposedly for boys or girls. (In fact, at the end of his exam, he was allowed to choose a toothbrush and a toy prize. He chose a blue toothbrush and a pink toy lizard. Yes, a pink lizard–imagine!)

My son’s indifference to matters of gender is normal. Studies show that it is only at about age five that children internalize gender rules. When they do, though, they really do: Kindergarteners often perform the role of gender police zealously, monitoring themselves and their peers for the slightest signs of gender deviance and attempting to squelch any hint of it.

This behavior has to do with an uncertainty about what makes boys boys and girls girls, as well as an uncertainty that gender is fixed. Researchers report that children of kindergarten age fear that if they do things associated with the opposite sex, they might suddenly become the opposite sex–finding themselves a boy instead of a girl, or vice versa. As children of this age are usually happy with their gender identities, their gender policing can be read as an effort to do everything possible to protect and cement those identities.

In grade school, children’s attention to gender is often channeled into what developmental psychologists call an ingroup/outgroup bias. This means that children often have positive feelings about their own sex, favoring it over the opposite sex. This doesn’t necessarily mean they feel hostility towards the opposite sex–just that they have preferential biases for their own (as in the “girls rule” mentality of girl power).

When media texts dichotomize boys and girls–presenting them as entirely separate and distinct from one another–it both plays into these developmental stages and exacerbates them. That’s why many media scholars, including myself, would argue that it’s important for television shows, movies, toy packaging, and so on to present boys and girls interacting together at least some of the time. Although gender is an organizing concept in our culture, boys and girls have more in common than not, sharing things such as feelings, family structures, racial identities, educational experiences, and so on.

Unfortunately, our culture often trivializes interests categorized as “girlish,” and boys therefore often eschew them, because our society regards girls and women as second-class citizens. (Examples of this abound, but consider the recent New York Times article that quoted a psychologist as saying that girls are the “lesser gender” without even pausing to problematize that quote. The reporter actually presented it as fact. Great, huh?) Therefore, directing at least a bit of attention to childhood’s common ground is an important task for parents, educators, and media producers alike. Boys and girls really aren’t opposites, and it’s healthy for children to know this.

Teeth are one of the many things in life that have neither sex or gender. They look the same and serve the same function, no matter whose body they are in.

Unfortunately, when a well-meaning authority figure such as a dentist feigns alarm at the horror of an imaginary opposite-sex tooth in a child’s mouth, it reinforces the message that boys and girls are very, very different, from head to toe, and that children must guard against contamination from the opposite sex at all costs.

Just imagine “girl teeth” and “boy teeth” as a diagnosable medical condition! I suppose “girl teeth” would be regarded by boys as embarrassing and shameful. It would certainly not be something a kindergarten boy would want his peers to hear about. (I can just hear the sing-songy playground taunts now: “Timmy has girl teeth! Timmy has girl teeth! Na-na-na-na-na!”)

But even though I’m not a dentist, I’m confident that feminam dentes exists in imagination only. So I’ve asked the dentist’s staff to please put a note in my son’s chart: no “boy teeth/girl teeth” talk, please. The dentist is a smart fellow; I’m sure he can come up with another script.


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11 Comments on “Boy teeth, girl teeth, and the gendering of ungendered things

  1. Oh. My. God. Let’s MAKE UP a new gender issue? Don’t we have enough already?

  2. Wow. I’d have been super pissed. I think the studies are wrong, btw. My son is 3.5 and he is always saying “boys don’t do that, right?” “not pink, I don’t like pink. Right?” “that’s a boy color, right?” which is annoying as all get out but is entirely because he has been to preschool. So I think the age in the study is probably because that’s when most kids are starting school..if your kid starts school of some kind, or goes to daycare with mixed ages sooner than out. After one week of school, in a class with mixed 3 and 4 year olds, he started saying “that’s a girl color” “that’s a boy color” to which I calmly replied, “Don’t be silly, colors are for everyone.” I do what I can to make these statements he makes seem silly. Afterall, he’s a kid who picks out unicorn movies at the library and asks to watch those Tinker Bell movies. He wears Disney Princess heels at the local playroom but calls them his “tap shoes”. And presently he’s sleeping on hot pink sheets.

  3. I think you may have misinterpreted the quote in the New York Times article. The psychologist wasn’t calling girls “the lesser gender”, but rather pointing out that our culture considers them to be. The full quote, from a paragraph about how this society is much more accepting of girls who flout gender stereotypes than boys who do, is below:

    “There’s a lot more privilege to being a man in our society,” says Diane Ehrensaft, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who supports allowing children to be what she calls gender creative. “When a boy wants to act like a girl, it subconsciously shakes our foundation, because why would someone want to be the lesser gender?”

  4. I don’t know if I’d go back but then I bounced around dentists a fair bit when my kids were young till I finally found one that was sane, gentle, fast, listened & genuinely paid attn to me AND the kids. That’s what I would find hard to ignore in your situation: you gave him several clues to drop it, and he didn’t pick up on them.

    And while I think the scripted stupid conversations seem to be part of training for many (learn superhero names, ask children about their favourite tv show… they were stumped when my kids said they didn’t watch tv) there’s a possibility that this wasn’t a taught script but rather a self generated one.

    you were very polite. I think I might have started pointing at stuff around the office & asking if that was ‘male’ stuff?

  5. Wow, this sounds like such a commonplace yet entirely objectionable scenario. I would actually say something to the dentist in private so that he can be more aware of his use of this kind of language. I’d think a professional would appreciate such a learning opportunity. Also, as a developmental psychologist myself, I know the gender development literature. But as a parent, I agree with Audrey that children’s focus on gender seems to be much earlier than described in the literature. I wonder whether the ages/stages described in the literature are really accurate given the extreme focus on gender *differences* in many cultures. Replication studies?

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  7. Ugh! Sorry to hear this happened, but glad for your commentary here. This reminds me of the opening to Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter when her daughter is in the dentist’s chair and the (female) dentist makes a remark about her being a princess. I believe Orenstein retorts (sarcastically) by asking if she uses a “princess drill” herself. Something to beware of as my own boy approaches his first appointment! Thanks for this piece.

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