I feel neutral about gender-neutral parenting

Guest post by Rodrigues

I see no gender confusion in this photo of Jonah
I see no gender confusion in this photo of Jonah
“That is a girl’s name.”

This is what my stepmother, Dora, replied when I told her I would be naming my son Jonah. I was five months pregnant, and had just seen the grainy boy-parts on a sonogram. Dora, recently emigrated from Colombia and suffering hearing loss, may not have understood me, so I repeated, slowly- Jonah, from the Bible, whale, prophet, male. Dora shook her head, clearly upset. “That is a girl name. You are having a boy.”

We argued over whether Jonah was a boy’s name for days. Proof piled up, and Dora conceded that Jonah was traditionally male, but “sounds too feminino.”

It was the first time I encountered a wave of emotion in response to the gendering of Jonah, who at the time had just grown sex organs visible by sonogram. The threat in Dora’s mind was clear: my son would be intimately linked with something feminine, and it would devastate his male identity. It was the same concern expressed by my mother-in-law, proclaiming “boys learn to pretend with guns,” when I showed her Jonah’s toy kitchen; it was the worry of an uncle who demanded we cut toddler-Jonah’s shoulder-length hair, “before its too late, before he’s confused.”

In three years of parenthood, I have collected plenty of anecdotes to promote the philosophies of gender-neutral parenting, of raising a child devoid of gender-stereotypes. Yet I found myself questioning the very possibility of raising a child who would not form his identity, at least in part, around typical lines of pink and blue, dolls and footballs.

I was a gender-neutral zealot when Jonah was born — the time when it was easiest to be. I chose what he played with, since he could only play with things in a one-foot radius of his body. I chose what he wore, where he went, even what he saw to a large degree — I could simply turn him around if I found something developmentally undesirable in any direction.

But then came walking, play dates, afternoons with grandma, and gifts from grandpa. I couldn’t erase the words “boys don’t like dolls” from my son’s mind after he’d heard it from another preschooler. I didn’t have the heart to hide the arsenal of birthday-gifted excavators, footballs, and Hot Wheels in order to create a balance of gender-typical and gender-neutral options in the toy box.

I knew that gender was slipping into Jonah’s life as he grew increasingly autonomous, but when I took a developmental psychology class, I really began to feel hopeless. I read studies showing that the ratio of gender-typical and gender-atypical toys, clothing and activities are a small facet of the gender identity picture. These categories are easy for parents to premeditate their approach to gendering: even with the reduced influence I already have in Jonah’s life, I still choose his clothing, decide what gets thrown out of the toy box, and direct most of his daily activities. But early childhood psychologists believe we gender our children in subtle, subliminal ways. We are more likely to handle a baby boy roughly, and to talk longer to a baby girl. Studies show that, while my son may own a toy kitchen, his father is more likely to play ball or wrestle with him, unintentionally reinforcing ideas of appropriate male activities.

Keeping this in mind, I resolved to pay closer attention to my own gender stereotypes and behaviors. But even then, I had to come to terms with the limited effect my efforts might have, especially for the next few years of Jonah’s life. Theory on childhood identity argues that from preschool until about age 7, children’s identities are naturally and strongly attached to categories: that only from the adherence to categories early in life can children learn to explore and rebuke them as they gain the power of abstract thought. Boy or girl is a category children identify early and often cling to dearly, which can be disappointing to parents who vigilantly protect their child’s gender-neutrality. Then there are hormones and biology, which scientists believe do hold sway in the overall tendency for a boy to smash dinosaurs together and a girl to rock a baby doll.

I went through a period of downhearted, gender-neutral disillusionment. To me, it became another Sisyphean effort of motherhood, as pointless as my gender-stereotypical battle to keep dirty clothes in the hamper. When I read about a Swedish couple determined to raise their child completely gender neutral—with only themselves, the child and a caregiver knowing the sex of the child—I have to admit I scoffed a little at their idealism. Practicalities make their effort seem impossible. What will they do when the child goes to school, and has to choose a bathroom to enter? Someday, the child will have to quickly reconcile itself with a facet of identity other kids have been sorting out for years.

But as I read about the Swedish family, my cynicism lightened as I read the cynicism of others. Who were these people, one reporter asked, to raise their child as a social experiment?

For all my questions and doubts concerning the viability of a gender-neutral society spawned by gender-rebuking parents, I can’t condemn the Swedish couple for trying to this extreme. After all, what is parenting other than a collection of our best hopes for the future, channeled into the actions of raising a child?

All parenting is a social experiment. It is an experiment with no control group, one we each perform individually yielding results assessed individually. It is an experiment where we may not get the results for decades, when our children have grown into a stable identity. Jonah will go out into a world of gender stereotypes, but I can continue to construct a home life where gender doesn’t limit his interests and expressions. And if I wait 25 years to hear him say, “Boys can like dolls, too;” I’ll still say the experiment was successful.

Comments on I feel neutral about gender-neutral parenting

  1. I have yet to have children but I have names picked out (girl scout -always prepared) and I get tons of grief for the ones that I have chosen. Dougless, Quinlynn, and Stockard for girls and Kimball, Tuvia, Samwise, and Alastair for boys. They all mean something to me and everyone else can get over it. At the same time, I plan on using slightly more "normal" middle names.

    When my sister had her first son, she decided to let him choose what he wanted to play with. For three years he carried around a naked Ariel barbie doll. She had red hair like him and he liked to hold onto it while whacking me with her hard plastic body. Sometimes she wore her princess dress (at which time he would hold her body) but usually she was naked. For some reason people found it more acceptable for him to carry Ariel if she was naked! As if a sexually aware todler was more healthy than a kid with a doll?! He also had a twirling dress that he stole from my niece. He's now 15, fences, and only wears black (or really dark colors). As normal as any 15 year old boy can get, I think.

    Good post but don't stress over it too much. Most people don't remember what toys they had as a toddler and every year older is one of change.

  2. I've tried to avoid gender stereotypes w/ my daughter, but there are way more girls in my family than boys, so I'm sure there has been a lot of subconscious, unintentional stereotyping – not to mention all the pink hand-me-downs (at least they know better than to send a bunch commercialized toys our way!). That said, I was a tomboy and am now a mechanical engineer. When I took my daughter shoe shopping for the first time (she was ~16 mo and had only been walking for a couple months and had only worn soft-soled shoes until then but needed some outdoor winter shoes), she kept picking out girls shoes but I noticed that they were all much stiffer both in the soles and the tops than the boys shoes. I want her to wear comfortable shoes that won't affect how her foot grows. What I took away from the experience is that girls are trained to wear uncomfortable shoes from their very first pair unless the parents are paying attention!

  3. I think the thing that really gets me looking back on my childhood is the degree to which my identity and what people implied or told me made me remember. I’ve had multiple discussions with people that started with “my brother got all the legos, but I always built them for hem” or “I don’t know why they gave him the nintendo for christmas” and ended in me realizing that I did the typically “boy” things and then even though I loved them, I stopped thinking of them as me and then slowly I gave up doing them.

    Which is stupid. Oh so stupid. I should have done what I loved and kept doing it instead of letting what others thought deter me.

  4. It is very easy for folks to say, “let the kid wear what they want (or play with)” when the only options are hideously genderized.

    My own solution has been to set limits – for everyone. Sure my son has some truck shirts and toys — that also get played with by little sister. Everyone in the house (mom, dad, uncle) has long hair. Well, little sisters hasn’t grown very long yet, but it will.

    Clothes… well. My son prefers hot pink and lime green. No prob. Plain t-shirts in a myriad of colors. His training pants are hot pink with a black border. Or green. or blue. (bright bots are awesome!) I won’t put my daughter in pastel pink, just as my son didn’t wear pastel blue. I figure they have time enough for that later.

    Toys? Think Audobon. Or aquarium. Its hard to be gender biased with mostly animals and fish. =) Zoo t-shirts rock as well.

    And sometimes, I do have to give excuses to the grandparents. I tell them that I am supporting good causes. Or that we are being organic and pink dye isn’t ecofriendly. =)

    Caveats of course — my husband is a techie (the why shave your legs, dresses are distracting type), I am a grad student (having done theater and tech writing). We are quite non-trad. Uncle does the cooking, and we all do ALL our own car maintenance (engine swaps are cheaper!). So the role models are non-trad. We also have chosen to only have our kids in daycare two days a week, and we don’t own a television. Exposure to the mass-media culture frenzy sure doesn’t help when trying to raise a child in general, and worse if you are trying to be less genderized.

    My .02

  5. I used to help out at my church creche and would regularly see the boys choosing to play with the (very pink) pushchairs and the girls playing with the cars. That said, I do think it’s a lot easier to gender-neutral parent a girl only because a tom-boy is more socially acceptable than a boy wearing girly clothes. Shame really as only having a brother to play with growing up, it would have been nice if he’d played with my barbies as much as I played with K-Nex.

    • I do think it’s a lot easier to gender-neutral parent a girl only because a tom-boy is more socially acceptable than a boy wearing girly clothes.

      Yep. Tomboys are pretty well accepted, at least in American culture. Sissies aren’t. I’ve read some great theories on how this relates to masculine cultural power dynamics … but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s frustrating.

      • I would say the same for British culture too. On a side note, your websites have made me reassess the stereotypes I used to hold about what weddings should look like and what parents should doso thank you Ariel (and the rest of the offbeat team).

  6. You know what I would love? If “gender neutral” was the norm and didn’t need a label and what passes for “normal” parenting today be labeled “hyper-gendered” or something like that, because truly, *that* is the extremism.

    Yes, if you have 10 boys and 10 girls, there will be more boys who are rough and tumble and more girls that are good communicators and play quietly.

    But with my own child, instead of reinforcing and pushing her natural gifts, I make a point to reinforce her less-developed skills. She is soooo physically cautious. I LOVED that as a baby, but she’s 3 now, so I’ve signed her up for soccer and now gymnastics. It’s so much fun to watch her become more physically confident. She’s having a blast and is so proud of what she is learning.

    It’s a tricky line to walk – I absolutely adore her for who she is and who she isn’t – and I want her to feel the same way. I don’t want to limit her to a narrow role of “princess” but I don’t want her to limit herself, either.

    • Jonah is also super careful and, as I call him, poky. His little friends (girls and boys) have been running circles around him since they could walk. Like you, I loved that when he was a baby, but now he’s 4 and he’s still a “delicate mover” compared to other kids his age. I’ve just sort of chalked it up to being his style; I see him move enough to know how strong he really is, so I try to just appreciate how different he is from our other swinging-from-the-rafters kid!

  7. I’ve always enjoyed articles on gender neutral parenting, but lately I have been wondering if it is actually far more common than we think? Perhaps it’s just difficult to see how widespread it is when many boys and girls DO naturally gravitate towards the stereotypes, even when presented freedom of other options.

    For example many of my nieces and nephews have been raised gender neutral but 80% of the time you would never know it, as they generally prefer the gender “normal” activities/toys/clothes.

    My daughter got her first doll on her first birthday and she loved that thing from the moment she laid eyes on it, always cuddling and kissing it and crying if we put it away. Try to encourage her to play with her toy cars or tonka truck and they get barely a second glance.

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