Parenting without gender expectations means accepting all outcomes

Guest post by Aly
Anybody want a knuckle sandwich?

Recently, I took my two-and-a-half-year-old, Avie, to a Toddler Music and Movement class that, thanks to him, devolved into something more like Toddler Music and Mosh Pit. Most of the other kids were girls who twirled or held hands in groups of three or four and happily, almost dreamily, skipped around in circles while music played. Avie stomped, put his hands on the floor and kicked one foot up in his classic “trick” pose, ran around in his own circles wind-milling his arms, and finally, purposefully, crashed into one of the girl groups and knocked them down. Too far away to intervene in time, I watched in horror as I recognized the following flicker of cognition in Avie’s eyes. He saw the girl pile on the floor as a perfect opportunity for a pile on. So, without further ado, he flopped right on top. You can imagine how well this went over with the girls and their mothers.

I want to preface the rest of this by saying that I’m a parenting agnostic. After three years of poring over “expert” opinions, searching online forums, reading mommy blogs, chatting tentatively with other parents in real life, joining and fleeing a parenting cult or two, engaging in fierce Facebook battles, and amassing thousands of hours of personal experience, I’m done. For me, there is no right way and no infallible guru or philosophy. There are plenty of theories and plenty of critics. Every day I realize more and more how much of what I do as a parent is experimental. What worked yesterday might not work today or next week. I’ve got my guiding principles but otherwise it’s all improv, and sometimes, oftentimes, a whole lot of flailing.

One of the guiding principles my partner and I are committed to is raising our kids with as few gender limits as possible. Our intent is not to make them genderless or more feminine. We only hope that by giving Avie and his little brother, Izzy, the space and support to grow and explore without oppressive expectations, gender and otherwise, we will help promote a foundation of emotional health for them. Most of the critical work lies ahead of us when our boys begin to absorb the culture’s pervasive negative gender messaging at school and beyond. In the meantime, their drawers are full of colorful clothes and their toy boxes overflow with musical instruments, play kitchen gear, trucks, and carefully selected children’s books. When our boys get hurt or feel sad, we validate their tears and offer lots of hugs. We’re also cautious about the language we use to describe them, steering away from words like tough and strong, but generously calling them smart, creative, funny, and gooses. (Who knows what kind of harm that last one will do.)

So, I was a little rattled when around Avie’s 2nd birthday, a parent friend described Avie to me as “all boy,” implying that Avie was more boyish than his own son.

So, I was a little rattled when around Avie’s 2nd birthday, a parent friend described Avie to me as “all boy,” implying that Avie was more boyish than his own son. I trusted my friend’s judgment but reeled as I tried to understand what he meant. I still thought of Avie as my baby then, my sweet, sometimes irascible but cuddly, little buster baby. He wasn’t even a boy to me yet. And he definitely wasn’t more boy than other boys. But a real live masculine man and parent of another boy thought he was. And anyway, why did this bother me?

Not long after, on an extended-family vacation, Avie tumbled around with his older cousin, Seth, in a week-long dominance struggle. “Where’s Seth?” he asked once, holding a large metal flashlight. When asked why he wanted to know, he replied, “I want to hit him.” The family members present didn’t take him seriously until they heard Seth’s cries minutes later. Then Avie saw the movie Puss and Boots and fixated for a while on threatening others with “sharp things” like sticks and broom handles. Later, we joined a playgroup where I discovered that Avie was consistently the most likely to cause tears and/or injury among the other friendly boys and girls. Then we arrived at the toddler mosh pit experience.

I began to see what my friend saw. Avie is a physical kid. He has a lot of energy, a strong will, and little fear. I love these things about him. But as I’ve watched him grow and repeatedly menace our cat with heavy objects, growl at kids on the playground, and belly-flop on girl piles, a fear that I had failed in my pursuit to nurture compassion in my oldest son grew too. (Briefly, I also worried that I’d borne a sociopath.) I had been so convinced that, if given a supportive family environment, boys can be just as empathetic and thoughtful as girls. And okay, I admit it: I was harboring a little internalized misandry. I half-consciously believed that “all boy” kids were only like that because they were fed steady diets of macho BS. Well, a funny thing happened. Our special aforementioned guiding principle efforts led us straight to this: a roaring, hitting, sharp thing-wielding, playground tyrant, bear of a boy child (in purple pants).

And then I realized there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s only (almost) three and a lot of kids his age are wild beasts regardless of their home environments. Besides, at least one part of my failure was perception. Avie is all of the above but he is also affectionate, considerate, and sensitive. He was an early talker and sits in rapt attention for books and movies. He tells me that he loves me often, and hugs and kisses me and Izzy and his Duda (my partner) all the time. When Avie’s feelings get hurt (and they do, often), he’ll go sit in another room and hang his head until I find him to talk it out. He picks me flowers, sings songs, tells elaborate stories, and cannot go to sleep without cuddling with one of us. I see now that most of this softer side of Avie emerges at home. Out in the world, he’s still learning how to relate to others (Heck, at 32, so am I!) and for whatever reason, be it nature or nurture or neither (who cares anymore?), he just feels most comfortable presenting as “all boy” in public.

When I shared the toddler mosh pit story on Facebook, a friend and comrade in parenting outside the gender binary joked that we should come over “so Avie can hunt some game in the backyard while [her daughter] tries on dresses and bakes cookies.” I laughed and cringed, and I “liked” it.

Comments on Parenting without gender expectations means accepting all outcomes

  1. I hear you on this front. My daughter loves dresses and princesses (she makes up crazy stories about them all on her own) and little animals. Whenever I start worrying about it, I realize that she also loves dinosaurs, getting dirty, and cooking “like my dad.”

  2. I worried the same for my daughter because she is most girlest-girl child I have ever encountered. Crying for wearing pants and loves her glittery accessories , but when with her dad she loves guns (yes, I let her play/pretend with guns), dinosaurs, and cars. She has her all pink moments but has other passions that aren’t ‘normally’ thought of as female.

  3. My own mom (a contractor and self-described tomboy) loves telling the story of the time she tried to buy me a Tonka truck and I threw a fit in the toy store because I wanted *insert princess/girly toy*

  4. I cringe at the thought of more horrified looks from mothers as my own 3 year old belly flops some poor kid. And then I giggle a little, he’s ‘all boy’ but if you ask my mother he’s my carbon copy. Nurturing aside I was belly flopping with pig tails all over that play ground.

  5. I really loved reading this. As a parent I’ve found myself setting expectations for the qualities my son will have and whether or not he has those depends wholly on whether or not I can teach him to be this way or that. But as he has gotten older and I’ve started to cut myself some slack I’ve realized how much these little people very much come to us as people already. It’s my job as a parent to help him navigate his world safely and respectfully as the person that he is, not to rework the person that he is. As a nanny I once had a dad tell me he saw his children like a super pixelated image on a screen and it was his job to bring that image into focus, refining and building upon the foundation that was already there. As a parent now I find that to be a really fantastic way to look at my child!!

  6. My mom did her best to un-gender my 2 brothers and me…however, I would cradle my blocks like babies, while my brothers would drive their blocks around like cars, and shoot them like guns. She certainly did try, though!

  7. My doll-loving, cuddly 2-year-old girl wants to join Avie’s mosh pit! She’s also quite the breakdancer. She loves spinning around until she’s too dizzy to stand, then she flops down and rolls around on the ground. Everyone tells us we should put her in dance lessons soon, but I don’t think she’d like the restriction.

  8. “Parenting agnostic.”

    And suddenly, my desired future parenting attitude has been given a name. It’s WAY catchier than “See what works for ourselves and the child AND the situation and hope like hell we don’t screw it up.”

    • I love the term, too! So perfect.

      I’m becoming more and more convinced that a lot of gender expression is inborn. I believed that boy stuff was all cultural conditioning, until my son (at 8 months) saw his first toy car at a friends and about lost his shit. We had a plumber over to fix the sink, and my squirmy, unable-to-focus baby watched the guy with tools in rapt attention.

  9. Kids have thier own personalities, it’s as simple as that. You’ll get boys that love pink sparkly tiaras and boys that love to smash tonka trucks. You’ll get girls that want to bake cookies and girls that want to play astronaut. And those kids will like those things regardless of your opinion on them. What I’d be more concerned about is a child who becomes a bully but is allowed to behave that way because they’re just a boy being a boy, or a girl who learns to throw screaming fits but is never corrected because it’s just ‘what girls do’.

    • I get so made when my sister makes comments of “he’s just being a boy” and “that’s just what boys do!” I want to scream “No, that’s what (insert child’s name) does! That’s who (insert child’s name) is!” She uses that comment for everything good and bad our nephew does. As if her own girls don’t like to wrestle with daddy or loved to play with tools or try on mommy’s shoes.

  10. Could it be that some parents’ unintended goals with gender neutrality cause an expectation of androgyny within their children?
    I can just hear now “My child is more gender neutral than YOURS!!!”

    In any case, I loved the story and I love how Aly is rearing Avie. So loved. You can feeeeels it.

  11. I think it’s amazing how quickly kids absorb gendered messages from their environments – outside of the home as well as within it. There is a really good (anecdotal) book on this called “There’s a Good Girl: A Diary of the First Three Years” – not sure if it is print any more though.

  12. This made me laugh! My son is five and quite the opposite of yours. He loves pink, doll, and Zac Efron. I regularly get asked if I “make” him be “that way”because I really wanted a girl or (even more offensively) if I think he is “this way”, because I am a widow! (Yes, my husband died when our son was an infant so as soon as he could express himself he put on a tutu. So clever of you to notice).

    Nope, he just came that way from the package.And he’s perfect if I do say so myself. Sorry peeps. I am, more and more, certain that our children to some extent come to us rather formed. It is merely our responsibility to love and nurture what is already there.

  13. Also good gender-reading: “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine.

    I don’t have kids yet (so I’m going at this with only reading under my belt and zero experience!) but I feel like the discussions on gender neutrality in a lot of parenting communities (not this one!) tend to focus so much on not having girls be into pink and princesses…but isn’t pushing them in the direction of the opposite just as bad as pushing them all towards pink alone? By encouraging the idea that girly-girl is bad, it almost seems like sending a message of “boyish = good, girlish = bad” which I think is just as harmful as “girly = good, boyish = bad” for girls, you know?

    Gender preference for kids is so complicated, in part because they’re just learning roles, whereas we adults have our notions all pretty much set, so we inherently want them to be like us and have themselves all figured out and pegged as non-conformist, perhaps.

  14. My dad lamented for years that he had raised such a girly-girl for a daughter. It was in middle school and high school that a lot of perfectly logical reasons for some of it came out, and he also just hadn’t seen me eating worms and chasing snakes–or if he had, he forgot about them when the Barbies came out.

    But the pants they bought me always cut funny in my girly bits, so skirts were more comfy. Barbies were just the right size for my intentions, all the rest of the dolls couldn’t be tied up properly to a 4-poster bed. Sure I learned to sew, but that’s because Ken needed a hospital gown, and I needed a case for my leather-working set.

    I LOVED eating worms to gross out my brother, and anything involving building in the sand box or with linkin’ logs was awesome. Problem was that I was struggling with the beginnings of OCD so I would get dirty, freak out, clean up, then get right back to getting dirty again, and it made my parents mad. They also didn’t buy me my own linkin logs, so I had to borrow from my brother who never really learned how to share. I was also very much the girly-girl when it came to cooking dinner, but he failed to notice that I was emulating HIM when I did it, not some 50’s housewife.

    But I was also the first one to pick up a hammer when it came time to build sets in theatre class, and I’m a lot better at household building projects than my somewhat-experienced-construction-worker of a partner. So it can’t have been all bad. I think when I was a kid my dad just couldn’t see all the things I was learning, because I didn’t have the opportunity to show them.

  15. Ha. My son insists that pink and purple are my favorite colors because “I’m a girl”. He is definitely on the “all boy” end of the spectrum (hate that term too). It really is innate! He discovered trucks at a rest stop when he was 5 months old. Neither his dad nor I had even looked at the trucks, let alone pointed them out to our son, but he was staring in awe.

    We just try to keep communicating to him that he can like whatever he likes, and if he likes pink or wants to wear makeup (when he’s a grownup) that is okay. 🙂

    • I remember when I was a kid a boy in my class said his favourite colour was purple and I told him he couldn’t like purple because it was a “girl’s colour”. The teacher heard me and gave me such a talking to! At the time I was confused, but retrospectively I understood why she did it. I never assigned colours to genders again.

  16. I believe both genders have an element of the other in it. Girls need to learn to be “tough and strong and self-sufficent” like boys are. Likewise, boys need to learn to be “gentle, home-makers, and sensitive”.

    When I was 19, I won a pageant. Also, I was rebuilding my ’78 Firebird engine. I’d come in from the garage looking like a grease-monkey and leave looking like Miss America. We princesses would participate in the local car shows… while most of the other girls were saying “oh i like that red one” i was asking about the specs.

    My brother is in high school theater and Jr Navy.

    looking back, i guess my parents did a pretty good job of Gender Neutralizing us. So i’m unconsciously raising mine that way…

  17. While reading folks’ comments about their girly girls, I was reminded of this:

    I started reading Peggy Orenstein’s “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” today (prematurely, or maybe preemptively, as my daughter is just approaching the year mark), and she’s got a chapter on what makes girls, girls (and, consequently, what makes boys, boys).
    I’m sure you mamas of older kids know this, but Orenstein talks about how kids of a certain age (3-7ish?) get into this black-and-white gender role habit. It’s a developmental stage, and knowing this is totally calming me down in preparation for the dreaded Disney Princesses.

    Oh, and “parenting agnostic”? Thank you for that! Sometimes it helps to have titles for things (for myself?)! 🙂

  18. While your son might be “all boy” I do feel the need to point out that there are a lot of “all boy” little girls out there too. Don’t worry about it.

    It’s funny, because I was a pretty “boyish” kinda girl. I wasn’t super high-energy or athletic but I hated the long hair and frilly dresses my mom liked me to wear. I wanted to wear pants and go topless and watch Star Trek. My favorite movie when I was 4 was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But my mom had dreamed all her life of having a little girl so she could play dress up with her and stuff.

    And then meanwhile, my aunt was also not a girly girl at all, and her little girl was so uber-“feminine” that it made everyone’s teeth ache! She refused to go to school in anything other than a “twirly dress,” she adored pink, etc. etc.

    I think it just goes to show that there is a HUGE variation of gender and personal expression among even very small children. You are totally doing the right thing by keeping your son’s horizons wide open, but that also means that he’s free to choose whatever path works best for him.

  19. This is in no way a comment on the writer of this article or her son, but my dad always joked that whenever someone makes the comment “He’s all boy” that they really are just politely saying “You’re child is a little beastie!”

    But this was after my parents raised my brother, who consistently got the “All boy” comment and consistently wreaked havoc from the time he could walk until he was about 13 years old!

    No matter what parents to to combat gender stereotypes, those things are just there. If it isn’t ingrained then kids pick it up through pop culture. Little girls gravitate toward pink, princesses and dolls, little boys toward blue, roughness and trucks.

  20. My cousin’s daughter was a dress-in-all-pink-dresses girl that wrestled other kids to the ground and climbed trees to the top and liked to dissect mice that her cats killed. You never know how they’ll turn out, and the wonderful (and perhaps confusing) thing is that they just keep evolving as they soak up your (and other’s) influence!

  21. I did my best to go ‘gender free’ for their earliest years. I hardly ever used the word ‘boy’ for example, and they always chose what they wore, played with etc.

    In spite of all that they are thoroughly gender conforming! They have grown up in conventional circumstances (outside the home!) so they started standing to wee and using sexist language once they went to school (fortunately I talked them out of that pretty quickly!). I had to face it – society is going to condition my children more than I ever would.

  22. Oh, they’re funny little critters. But it’s easy to forget, while we’re waiting with baited breath to see what they’ll do and who they’ll be, that an awful lot of that isn’t up to us!

    I’m another mom who wsa surprised and – I’ll admit it – a little disappointed by just how girly my daughter was during the preschool period. But she was also the little girl who didn’t even cry when she was learning to rollerskate and her momma ran over her fingers not once, but twice.

    Then, I had a son who wants to play for endless hours with matchbox cars and wants to know the mechanics of *everything* – and also wants a pretty dress for Easter like his sister. ROFL.

  23. Thanks for all the comments, everyone. I’ve realized that at the bottom of my fear of failing to nurture sensitivity in my son is really a fear that I won’t be able to relate to him if he does turn into a macho man. I’ve never dated men, macho or otherwise, but the male friends I’ve had have not been traditionally masculine. Macho men have always seemed like walking brick walls to me. Of course I realize that those walls are often just public fronts, obscuring softer centers. Can you tell I tend to overthink things? Basically, I need to stop projecting and fretting, and focus instead on loving and guiding my son in the here and now while also doing my best to protect those in his vicinity from his tornadic energy. Phew. Remember when we thought our parents knew everything? Ha!

Read more comments

Join the Conversation