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.