Recently, there was an international storm around Storm, a Canadian child whose parents have declined to divulge their sex. This followed a similar story from Sweden in a 2009 with a child named Pop, and a Swedish pre-school that doesn’t use gender pronouns. Predictions are even being made for The End of Gender. Once again, “gender neutral” parenting is in the news, but is anything new really going on?
A Quick History Review
In the 1970s to early 1980s, thanks largely to second-wave feminism, there was a surge of gender neutral parenting. Androgynous children’s clothes abounded; Free to Be You and Me was the chorus of this counter-culture movement. Minus socialization to the contrary, went the theory, boys would love dolls, girls would engage in down-and-dirty, truck-centric play, and neither would be distinguishable from the other without peeking inside their brown corduroy pants.
It did not, surprise!, go entirely according to plan, as boys and girls both asserted that no, they didn’t want to dress and act as indistinguishable automatons.
Before long the cultural pendulum started to swing back the other way — and kept going. Pink became not only a girl color, but, going by the toy aisles in big box stores, the girl color. Princesses became not royalty but girls’ prime role models, and even mice and mermaids took on this mantle. Boys, meanwhile, were relegated to a darkly colored world of hyper-violence. “Boys will be boys” regained popularity, and their higher rates of hyperactivity were accepted as wholly biological, with little consideration for how society might set them up to fail.
The modern movement attempting to counter these trends, while sometimes seen as the reincarnation of 70s-era attempts to eliminate gender, and typically referred to with the same term, is distinct: rather than gender-neutrality, gender-diversity is the goal of this generation.
Since we as parents, at first, select our children’s clothes, choose a wide variety, aiming not for genderlessness in every outfit but a gender midpoint on balance. Don’t say no to pink or blue, but have both in equal measure, and browns, purples, and beiges besides. Avoid only those articles that generalize about gender (eg t-shirts with annoying slogans). This way, when your child starts insisting on dressing themselves at one, two, three years old, they’ll have a familiar variety to select from and your implicit, unquestionable acceptance of and permission to wear whatever they like, whether or not it accords with the stereotypes of their assigned gender.
Q: What if she only wants pink? What if he rejects anything without monsters on it?
A: Then let her wear pink, and find monster shirts you both can agree on — but, don’t assume that’s the only thing your child will ever want. According to my mother, I annoyed her no end in preschool and kindergarten by switching every year whether I wanted to wear skirts or pants to school — which she would discover after she’d bought my wardrobe if the fall based on my preferences from the previous year. Lesson: your children’s tastes are authentic, but not necessarily unchanging.
Toys and play
Much as with clothes, the goal with toys is to provide diversity, and eschew only those most stereotyped by gender. Of course the most important criteria when choosing toys is the child’s enjoyment, but as parents frequently lament, children, especially in the early years, often prefer the box to the expensive toy that came in it. So think creatively, and think creativity: is a toy meant to be used only one way — usually training boys to be active, and girls to focus on appearance — or does it encourage open-ended play? Think also of what sorts of play a toy encourages, and provide a variety: blocks and building are great, but so are dolls and nurturing or playacting, arts and decoration, interesting substances and sensory stimulation, climbing structures or, yes, weapons and full-body movements.
According to Lise Eliot, PhD, play is the area of gender differences most affected by biology and not merely socialization; but rather than wash our hands of the difference, we can take a hand in encouraging an array of play skills. Why bother? Because play is the work of childhood, and profoundly affects brain development and later skills. So honor your child’s preferences, but encourage expansion: build a hospital or beauty salon for trucks, and challenge Barbie to a wrestling match or math competition.
Pronouns and the Public
Of course, we’re not the only ones who talk with or to our children, and how we reply to those who address them can make a difference in how they view themselves and gender.
Probably the most common situation gender-diverse parents have to deal with is someone using the “wrong” pronoun, followed by profuse apologizing or bewilderment when corrected or simply upon hearing a different pronoun or a name that doesn’t seem to match. How to handle this depends on whether your child has started declaring their own gender or shown that they care about pronouns, but either way the trick is to keep low-key and not allow it to become a Very Big Deal, imbuing gender with more importance than it needs. A smile and a shrug can go a long way in communicating to both stranger and child that getting a pronoun “wrong” isn’t particularly insulting or embarrassing.
Still, especially once a child has started caring about gender identity, a gentle correction can both affirm their concept of self and challenge gender-stereotypes in their, and the stranger’s, mind.
In Our Families
Critics often question how kids will learn gender if we don’t “teach” it to them, but the truth is everyone has some sort of gender identity (even if it is “none of the above”), and children are remarkably good at noticing this and learning “what boys do” and “what girls do” from observation of their gender-conscious elders.
And so, while of course we should never suppress our own genders, we can and ought take care what messages about gender we are sending via our lives. Dress as you like, engage in the activities you enjoy and are skilled at, but avoid essentializing such to your gender (“I wear make up because I’m a woman” is right out, though “…because society demands that I, as a woman, do, which is utter shite, but I need to pay the bills so on it goes” might work for an older child, and of course “…because I like to” is always good), and strive to reach past prescribed and proscribed gender roles.
What message does it communicate to your children when you ask your wife for a “honey-do” list? What message is sent by “I need to get a man in to fix the toilet”? Whose responsibility is it not only to dress your child daily but make sure they have clothing that fits? Some of these apply only to families with a mother and father, but many are traps any of us, of any family configuration, can fall into, and therefore must watch out for.
The point of gender-diverse parenting, and the goal we can keep in mind when evaluating each choice before us, is not our children’s coercion into uniform unisex-ness, but freedom to figure out gender for themselves: what gender they are, what being that gender means to their society, and how, and to what extent, to perform it.
Rather than endless rows of solid brown corduroys, this generation will form a rainbow; they herald not the end of gender, but a beautifully diverse explosion of our understanding of it.