Why There’s No Point to Gender-Neutral Parenting



Over the summer, my daughter asked for a doctor’s kit. You know, the plastic toy kind with a stethoscope, thermometer, and various other instruments. She proclaimed she wanted to be a doctor, and yes, my heart swelled with pride. (She also wants to be a dancer and a football player.) It made me think back to my own medicine kit that I was proudly given the Christmas of 1978 when I was 5 years old. The only difference? Mine was a nurse’s uniform, replete with apron, head scarf, hanging watch, and cape. In those days, only boys got the doctor’s kit; girls were seen as nurses only.

Hurrah that life has moved on and girls and indeed women can be treated as equals. That boys and girls can dream of being doctors or nurses alike. But the idea of raising a child gender neutral? I find it completely absurd. Not because I think children should be guided toward being into glitter and princesses if they’re girls or trucks and mud if they’re boys, but simply because I think children find their own interests and hobbies regardless of what we try to push them towards. This is why I find the whole gender-neutral parenting style to be ineffectual.

Beck Laxton has been raising her son Sasha as gender neutral for five years and writes about her experiences on her blog, Beckblog. She said that he knew all along that he was a boy (having a willy was a giveaway!) but what they didn’t push was gender. She banned Disney films and Barbie and never uttered the phrases “boys don’t cry” or “you run like a girl” or the like. While I applaud her for not using those tired phrases, which I am certain over years can be damaging, just like the Run Like a Girl video proved, I think she’s going overboard in refusing Disney movies. Brave, Frozen and The Incredibles all show girls and women being every bit as tough and brave as boys, and they also have great plots and wonderful characters. Surely if we ban something, don’t we make it all the more desirable?

In Sweden, they have introduced a gender-neutral word instead of he or she. It is hen, which is used to replace han (he) or hon (she). Is this progressive? There’s even a nursery in Stockholm, called Egalia, where the dolls, tractors, and sand pits are placed deliberately side by side to encourage a child to play with whatever he or she chooses. Boys are free to dress up and play with dolls if that’s what they want to do. Apparently, it’s all about giving children a wider choice and not limiting them to social expectations based on gender. But my question is: Don’t most nurseries do that anyway? My daughter and son both painted, played with trucks and sand, and baked at the nursery they went to. But their school didn’t have to use the unisex “hen” description to hammer this home! Surely in children finding their own identity, knowing their sex is a huge part of that.

I understand the need not to make girls feel like they have to be pretty and boys think they can’t cry. Having volunteered at a crisis hotline for several years, I am all too aware that the most at-risk group of suicidal people are men aged 16 to 24. Boys do cry, and they should be encouraged to be open with their feelings. Likewise, it isn’t just a male trait to be brave, speak out in class, or want to run around all the time. But children will become who they are going to become, regardless of whether or not we give them a Barbie to play with. My daughter hates dresses, won’t wear her hair in anything other than a simple ponytail, and loves trucks, football, and running. She had all these opinions and preferences at the age of 2. We haven’t tried to make her love pink or blue, but we have dressed her in some of her older brother’s cast offs. Having an older brother has no doubt influenced how she thinks, but her love of handbags comes from who she is, not what anyone has pushed on her.

So the Swedish couple who declined to say what sex their 2-and-a-half-year-old Pop was? I think they’re loopy. Raising a child is about embracing their sex, but only in terms of who they are and choose to be. We know we have a girl, but we don’t tell her she’s pretty; we tell her she’s clever and funny and sometimes, cute — because she is. Likewise we say exactly the same thing to her brother. We let them know that she is a girl and he is a boy; they bathe together and discuss one having a willy and the other not, but otherwise there’s no difference in how we raise them. Clearly, we don’t have to go to such extremes.

Because regardless of what we do or say, our kids are becoming their own little independent people. And that’s what’s most important: that they think for themselves and have their own ideas and opinions. If that means one likes pink and one likes blue, fabulous. There is no crime in being feminine — as a girl or as a boy, and likewise, there’s no crime in being masculine. But what is wrong is a parent making a child hide who they are just for the sake of being “neutral.” Then it isn’t about raising a gender-neutral kid, it’s about raising a child in our clone, and how free thinking is that?

Image source: Suzanne Jannese

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