“He,” regardless of sex.

Rin wrote…

At a family get-together, I heard my cousin reminding her four-year-old son about “appropriate” pronouns. Apparently he calls everyone “he,” regardless of sex. I was torn — it’s so cool that he does that, but it breaks my heart a little that he’s being taught not to.

What’s your experience?

And what are you thinking about gender right now?

Posted by on January 20th, 2010 at 08:00 am

Category: your voice 15 comments »

15 Responses to ““He,” regardless of sex.”

  1. Aran

    “it’s so cool that he does that, but it breaks my heart a little that he’s being taught not to.”

    Children’s minds are so fluid when it comes to gender. I always feel sad when I see them being moulded into this strange binary system.


  2. Anonymous

    I think it’s also important to recognize that the pronoun, “he”, isn’t equal to a neutral pronoun. Calling everybody “he” regardless of their sex doesn’t mean that the child is thinking “outside” of the binary gender system, as “he” still exists within it. It’s equally as dangerous to assume masculinity as the neutral, positive jumping off point of gender.

    I totally agree, however, that watching children grapple with the meanings of gender is really amazing, and I think we could learn a lot from their non-judgemental openness.


  3. K

    a little cousin of mine used to do the same thing. He gradually paid more attention to how his parents used pronouns and copied them.


  4. Julian

    @Anonymous : Excellent point!


  5. Cat

    Kids are blind to all these petty difference we adults see.

    Kids don’t care about race. Kids don’t care about religion. Kids don’t care about gender.

    The fact that he uses one pronoun for everyone means that he doesn’t really perceive why it’s a big deal what gender someone is.

    And he’s being taught to think it’s such a big deal that he should assume the gender of everyone he meets.

    *sigh* I get it. That’s the world we live in, and that’s how English is. But it’s still frustrating, the way we beat all of these meaningless divisions into people.


  6. Cat


    Anonymous – But he may not necessarily grasp that “he” applies to a certain gender. All he knows is that it is a third person pronoun. He doesn’t assign a gender meaning to it, which is why he uses it for everyone.

    *We* assign a gender meaning to it, and to *us* it is not outside the gender binary. But he most likely chose to use “he” simply because that is the pronoun he heard applied to himself, so he figured it must apply to everyone.

    That’s the thing – kids don’t start out with any of these gender preconceptions! To him, “he” is just a pronoun. It implies nothing about who you are and what your gender identity is.


  7. Rin

    @ Cat- you said exactly what I was going to say, but you phrased it better. ^_^


  8. Anonymous

    @cat – I was more referring to how *we* perceive the use of a masculine pronoun as a neutral one. I agree that the child probably has no concept of “he” as a particularly masculine pronoun and all the gender baggage that is carried with the word. I was thinking more that the danger lies in us viewing “he” as akin to neutrality.


  9. J

    One of those moments where it’s the child with the greater wisdom.


  10. Anonymous

    I think that if a person used ‘he’ for everyone it would no longer be a binary-bound misogynistic word. If I call every animal I see a ‘he’, unless it is a dull bird or a hornless deer, then yes, it applies.

    Remember, he IS genderless. It’s just a word.


  11. Anonymous

    I use ‘he’ as a genderless pronoun. it sure as hell is better than using ‘she,’ like everyone else seems to want to.

    I am not a ‘she,’ and ‘he’ is just missing the ‘s.’ I think before people should get so upset about what a kid prefers to use… they should think about why it upsets them that he uses it. Pointing fingers makes no sense.


  12. Anonymous

    I would be very upset if someone used ‘he’ as a genderless pronoun for me. Only when I am doing some gender bending do I enjoy that language, and then only in a very specific context with a very specific community. But in the broader world I would be offended.

    Partly this is because I am involved in work in queering the church, making the anglican church more friendly to LGBT. We work on gender-inclusive language and on imaging God as male and female and as non-gendered forces (trees, rocks, water etc.) I remember being told as a child that it didn’t matter that God was called He because He actually means everybody. That women are actually included in “he.” Ummm excuse me? That is really just an excuse for leaving out the experiences of a good number of the human population from our imaginings about what god is. Not to mention excluding women from the priesthood etc. Language is a social convention. People don’t just make it up on their own. We live in a world where he refers to one side of a gender duality. I feel very excluded when people throw around ‘he’ as if it is a neutral word. ‘He’ is not a neutral word. I’m with number 2 and 8 on this. Not a problem for the kid, but it would be a problem if the kid grew into adulthood without ever taking account of the social considerations that emerge from gendered language. And without ever taking consideration of the fact that the words you use to describe yourself are not necessarily the words you use to describe others.

    Now how cool it would be if the parents told the kid “oh if you want to use the same gender pronoun for everyone, that would be ve or ze or (convention of choice)” Or if they retooled their own language and started using gender-neutral vocabulary to help the kid learn how to communicate what he’s trying to say. Just give the kid the information that the kid is so obviously seeking.


  13. Anonymous

    Well, yes “he” as neuter is patriarchical, it oppresses and does violence, but it is also accepted English style for the gender-neutral singular pronoun. I do use abominations like “s/he”, “ze”, and “hir”, but really none of them are very good. Anybody got a better suggestion? Ideally it shouldn’t sound like either of the gendered personal pronouns.

    And yes, kids *are* great. But I should also point out that pre-teen girls are probably the most conservative force in the universe :)


  14. Anonymous

    I have a friend with a five-year-old son who does the same thing. She doesn’t correct, just quietly apologizes and explains briefly to anyone who’s offended.


  15. (a different) Cat

    I just think it’s problematic in that it misgenders a lot of people and denies the femininity, part-time or full-time, of MTFs, femmes and genderfluid folk. I’m all for addressing everyone by one pronoun, but ze/hir are fine, as is good old “they,” even though the latter might be problematic as those who deserve “they” the most are multiple-personality folk and therefore might seem like appropriation. I don’t have a drop of traditional masculinity in me—androgyny and a desire to be a drag king, but no machismo—so I’d be insulted to be called “he” unless I were presenting in a male-oriented fashion. It really does still make me grind my teeth to see fusty old English professors using “he” as the default, and it would greatly sadden me to see the masculine default spring up in the genderqueer community as well.


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