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Beyond Pink and Blue: Can You Raise a Gender-Neutral Child?

From the minute you see the sex on the ultrasound, it starts. Even if you don’t tell anyone,  there’s the internal monologue: Will my son be good at sports? What if my daughter isn’t pretty? For many people these worries feel natural and not unpleasant. They can be a part of the excitement of imagining your child and your life as a parent. But some parents would rather just say no thanks to the whole predetermined gender situation.

You might think it’s impossible to reject the rules of something as basic, and biological, as gender. But it turns out that gender is actually not biological at all.  Sex is  biological, determined by our chromosomes and hormones.  Gender, on the other hand, comes from the culture, its ideas and expectations.

So how do you go about raising a gender-neutral child…and is it even a good idea?

There are some good things about traditional gender roles. Gender can be a way of identifying with a group, and a connection between the child and the same gender parent and other family members. It can also be a way for the child to understand what is expected of him—or her. But it is these expectations, experts say, that are the biggest problem with gender: when we project our expectations for boys in general onto one individual boy, we encourage him to focus on meeting those expectations. At the same time, we put less stress on the behaviors and choices that don’t fit into our ideas about how boys should behave. So he gets the message that those things are not “for him”.

An article by Niharika Mandhana in the Philadelphia Inquirer explains:

Lise Eliot, a professor in the department of neuroscience at Chicago Medical School and the author ofPink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It, says gender-specific parenting has the effect of “reducing the palette” of a child’s skills. She draws a cause-and-effect connection between boys’ comparatively low writing and reading levels and the fact that they tend to spend more time with cars than with people and books.

“What you do with your time is what your brain becomes good at,” said Eliot. “So what we call our children, how we talk to them, what they wear, what they do, wires up their circuits in a specific way.”

Her solution: Gender Cross-Training. Encourage activities that teach girls to be active and “brave”. Encourage boys to express their feelings more freely by reading stories and making eye contact.  Try not to limit decor and clothing to stereotypical colors and styles. Provide a wide range of toys and see which one your child gravitates to naturally.  Parents who want to discourage gender pigeonholing may even begin before their babies are born. One way to avoid preconceived notions, parents say, is to avoid finding out the sex in advance.

At their recent 20-week ultrasound, New York parents-to-be Joey Drucker and Debra Flashenberg sat with their faces turned away from the sonogram screen. “If we found out we were having a boy, we would be flooded with cars and sports stuff; and if we were having a girl, it would be pink bows and princess dresses,” said Drucker, 34, who convinced his wife to wait until birth to find out whether they were having a girl or a boy. “I want my child to be able to choose for himself or herself what is fun, what is interesting, what is creative.”

But even those who strive to break the boundaries of the pink-or-blue box realize that the idea of raising a truly gender neutral child isn’t realistic, or necessarily desirable. A child will begin to make his or her own gender identification at some point, even if parents work hard to avoid stereotypes. And I don’t think the goal of gender neutral parenting is to raise a gender-neutral adult, or even a gender neutral kindergartener. The point, I think, is to try to keep the window of discovery open long enough to allow children to make those choices themselves, rather than have others decide who they are before they are able to—or before they’re even born.

What do you think about gender-neutral parenting?

photo:Abooth202/flickr

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