A Discussion on Gender Neutral Parenting
Little boys like super heroes, monster trucks, and G.I. Joe, and little girls like tea parties, dolls, and stuffed animals. Ok, maybe that’s a bit of a broad brush to paint with, but there’s no denying that society has, for generations, made a “boy stuff” category, and a “girl stuff” category.
The problems arise when our children break free of societal norms and cross the boundaries into the other gender’s domain. If you’ve ever witnessed an upset father finding his son playing with Barbie dolls, or listened as a mother chastised her dirty daughter, labeling her a “Tom-boy”, then you know that there is a subversive reinforcement to these gender-identities from an early age.
Have I been guilty of it from time to time? Of course; it can be extremely difficult to break the societal patterns for our own children that we were indoctrinated into. It seems that everywhere you turn these days there’s some form of discussion on gender identities and gender roles; maybe one day we’ll all be able to look back and consider ourselves veterans of the bathroom gender wars. Conversations about which bathroom or locker room to use can not only affect our own parenting styles, that type of conversation can spill over to our own children, creating confusion or conflicting feelings that they lack the cognitive skills to properly cope with.
What does gender neutrality refer to?
So, what exactly is “gender neutrality”, and why is it popping up more and more in contemporary parenting conversations? The idea of gender neutrality is a pretty simple one to understand, much simpler at least than deciding and implementing it into your family’s parenting style anyway. We could probably trace the genesis of gender neutrality to the creation of modern man. Whatever your personal creation-theory beliefs are, there’s little point in denying that eons ago it was normal in most cases for the males of the tribal unit to hunt for game and defend the tribe against aggressors.
The women of these nomadic and then agrarian cultures were responsible for child rearing, planting, gathering or harvesting, and preparing food. This is the foundational corner stone of gender identity that as a modern society has shaped the way we view gender roles. This being the case, it may come as a surprise for some people to learn that there is a plethora of ancient anthropological instances where women participated in battles and contributed to hunting.
Why Do We do it Anyway?
So why do we constantly associate women with the gathering and home-making, and men with the hunting and war-making? For starters, these types of gender identity norms served a purpose, it was difficult for women to go on long hunting parties lasting days or weeks when they had to feed and nurture a child in a way that biology only allows women to do, (read: breastfeeding), and since they were behind it made more sense for them to do the tasks around the village that needed done. Let’s jump ahead to modern day. With the many advances of modern-day technology, and the ability to “provide” owing more to cognitive ability rather than just physical ability in many cases, this age old “need” becomes more dogmatic than necessary or even practical.
The goals of parenting are almost unanimous aside from some extreme exceptions; to raise healthy, happy, children that grow into balanced and functional adults that contribute to society. This being the over-arching objective, it’s no surprise that as a culture we explore the mental development of our youth more and more. While the conversation of raising children in a gender-neutral environment can be a hot-button topic, the added benefit on your son or daughters psyche may make it worthwhile to plow through the discomfort of the topic and open it up as a necessary one to have.
Gender-neutral upbringing simply means that you avoid imposing gender stereotypes on your child as they grow. This can be done from a parenting standpoint to several different degrees. Contrary to widespread belief in some circles, it does not mean forcing the opposite gender on your child, but rather simply allowing them to experience things as they feel naturally to.
As your child grows and learns to explore new things like toys and colors, they aren’t going to see the world with an intrinsic divide between boy and girl. That principal serves as the genesis for how you choose to go forward.
The Operation of a Child’s Psyche
Since we’re talking about the psyche of the child, just how does gender-neutral parenting affect them? Well that depends on your family’s lifestyle. While there are families out there that are pretty shut off from society, let’s assume for the sake of conversation that your child still does the common things like go to school or child care, play on sports, teams, play with other kids, or simply just has exposure to non-homogenous groups.
An overly strict type of gender-neutrality can have a confusing affect on your child, agrees many psychologists who have studied the topic. Parent’s that force opposing gender principals on their child may find that when he or she interacts with other children they develop feelings of a lost, missing, or abstract image of their own identity. The need to understand our place in the world serves as the starting point for the development of our personalities.
That doesn’t mean that gender-neutral parenting is a bust however, only that there is a right way to do it, and a way that may cause more damage than benefit.
Whenever the topic of gender-neutral parenting comes up there is a chance that the conversation from the opposition side is going to swing into off based topics like homosexuality. The (irrational) fear is that by allowing your child to express themselves however they see fit, it will encourage a like of participating in the opposite genders lifestyle, this leading the child to grow up to homosexual. Most of the scientific research that has been done on the subject links homosexuality to birth however, meaning that the sexual preference was predetermined and not something that can (or cannot be) learned and encouraged through growth and development.
As discussed, gender-neutral parenting is more about what you don’t do than it is what you do. From the moment that we learn our babies gender while they’re in the womb, if you choose to, or when they make their grand entrance into the world, we begin seeing their place in the world in terms of gender. We paint their room in blues and earth tones if they’re boys, or pretty pastels in pinkish hues if it’s a girl. Overalls or dresses, boots or booties, dinosaurs or princesses, and on and on it goes.
What we’ve done is subconsciously filed our children into their birth gender category. From that moment on, we see them, and they see themselves, in relation to those categories. You can begin a non-invasive form of gender-neutral rearing by simply using neutral colors when decorating the nursery. That way not only will you not subconsciously associate your child with a certain specific gender, they won’t be indoctrinated into specific colors from an early age as well. Stores like Target are even rolling out gender-neutral lines of clothing. With colors and designs that invoke more of a “child” perspective rather than specific genders, the clothes are both stylish and adorable.
One of the biggest activities that we assign gender roles to children is when they are playing. Boys get cars, trucks, and super heroes, and girls get the tea set and Barbie dolls. You can encourage a gender-neutral identity by simply letting your child play with whatever they want to play with. Kids don’t see toys as boy or girl until we tell them that that’s how it works. Many little boys may watch their mothers with their purses and high heel shoes and decide that it looks fun, so kids being kids, they mimic what they see. How many parents correct their boys and tell them that those shoes or purses are for girls? The answer is plenty.
Likewise, the term -daddy’s-girl is derived from the fact that not only do fathers get very attached to their little girls, but girls also look up to their fathers. This can cause the little girl to want to do the things they see their father doing. Rather than label them as tom-boys, allow them to explore and experience these things without stereotyping the roles of men and women.
Rather than a checklist of things to do or not do, raising your child gender-neutral is more about refraining from putting gender labels on the things they like and do. Our goal as parents should always be to allow our children to grow and develop in ways that expose and nurture their individual creative personalities. By avoid gender-specific playtime activities, your child will be free to express themselves in the most natural way for them.
Know What you’re Getting into in the First Place; Knowledge is Power
A word of caution on the topic however, raising your child gender-neutral isn’t always going to be easy. The more you or they interact with other people outside of your family household, the more they will be exposed to gender-identity stereotypes. Likewise, friends and family may not understand what you’re doing either. The entire conversation of gender roles in contemporary times has become embroiled with the choosing of political sides of the most extreme sort. You can expect more than just quizzical looks from strangers if your son walks around with his own purse or your little girl has muddy blue jeans on. Change makes people uncomfortable, and they can come to fear and reject the things that don’t align with their own world-views.
Discuss it in a Healthy Way
You may find yourself involved in some healthy discussions on the subject however, so it’s always good to be well versed in the subject should you choose to engage with people on in. Of course, you’re in no way required to do so either. A parent should never have to defend the way their child chooses to safely express themselves.
It’s worth pointing out that gender-neutral parenting is not an opportunity to use your child as an agent for social justice or change. That is not the goal of gender-neutral parenting, despite the examples of exploitation that you may see on the news now and then. The goal is to raise children that are free of preconceived notions on what roles each gender must have assigned to it.