Clear (and literal) demarcation of boy and girl toys. A centrefold of a pamphlet from a children’s apparel company that I’ve received recently in the post box. It reads, “The tough prince fights off enemies and dragons to set the beautiful princess free. Who wins? Fantasy does!”
When I became pregnant, I was asked quite often if I would prefer a boy or a girl and I would always say that I’d like to have a boy. I thought boys have it easier when puberty hits: no menstruations, no fear of teen pregnancies. And when he comes of age, he would not have to enter a professional world where he would earn less than his peers who’d have similar education and work experience or worry too much about breaks in his career when he decides to start a family. I thought women generally have it harder than men.
Then came the news that we were expecting identical twin girls.
My imaginary manual to parenting back then read a little something like this: 1. Raise a girl and prepare her well for a patriarchal world. Got that? 2. Now, raise two of them at the same time. Got that? 3. Now, make sure you don’t treat them as though they were the same person but you have to treat them equally. Got that?
Those were huge, daunting tasks that lay ahead of us but luckily unlike myself, my husband is a let’s-cross-the-bridge-when-we-get-there kind of person and he assured me that we will deal with it just fine when the time comes. True enough it was perhaps too early to ruminate on such serious questions. How could questions of gender ever really be applied to newborns? Moreover, we were totally wiped out trying to keep our two helpless little prematurely-born babies alive.
But when those helpless little things started walking and talking, I thought about those daunting questions again. We had avoided the colour pink whenever we could because pink meant girly in our times and I didn’t like girly. Yellow, green, red, blue. Everything else but pink. But what if my offsprings, now little ladies, tell me they really want to wear pink tutus and be princesses? Should I tell them that an interest in insects and dinosaurs would be preferable? Surely, as parents we know what’s best for them?
In gender-neutral parenting, the answer would be a sound “no” because by denying our girls pink dresses and limiting them to what I deem is the opposite of girly, would be replacing one set of artificial constructs with another.
What is gender-neutral parenting all about?
The central tenet of gender-neutral parenting is about exposing children to an array of gender types and allowing them to decide what they are comfortable with without any judgement. The sex that they are born into should not dictate how they are “allowed” or “not allowed” to behave. In fact, by refusing them pink tutus even though they may want them, I would be feeding into one of the myths of gender-neutral parenting – that it is anti-feminine.
In everyday feminism , Paige Lucas-Stannard, author of “Gender-Neutral Parenting: Raising Kids with the Freedom to be Themselves” (2013), makes it clear that gender-neutral parenting is not about:
- androgyny because it is not about forcing any preconceived notions of gender on a child,
- making your child gay because being gay is not something parents can “train” their children to be,
- being anti-feminine or anti-masculine because opening them to a wide range of gender types and having an open dialogue about gendered hierarchies and binaries is “so much more powerful than a room full of gender-neutral toys that raise no questions”,
- being something only for trans children because no one can know, when a child is born, if s/he is trans, non-binary or non-gender conforming. Besides, gender-neutral parenting can benefit cisgender children since it offers them a whole spectrum of expression that is not hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine,
- a social experiment because traditional gendered upbringing is just as much an indoctrination and a political statement as gendered-neutral parenting.
So how does this all translate?
I have never felt the need to confront the gender issue so bluntly until I’ve had children. It all started when I was looking at a picture book with my girls when they were around two years old. As with most picture books, there were simple pictures of objects that were matched with words. So there was a picture of a house and I had to explain to the girls that the word “house” goes with that picture. Then there was a picture of a girl and another of a boy and corresponding words “boy” and “girl” that the reader has to match.
With hesitation, I told my children that the word “boy” should be matched with the picture of a figure with short hair wearing a shirt and a pair of trousers whilst the word “girl” should be matched with the figure with two pony tails sporting a dress. And then I added, “But girls can have short hair and wear trousers too.” They were two years old and I didn’t think they understood what I was trying to say. It was something I said more out of guilt for betraying women all around the world. I was confronted with having to pair visuals to text. It was a picture book. My kids were two. And I was driven to simplify the complicated.
On hindsight, having a gender discussion with two wide-eyed two-year-olds must have looked a little comical. Tilly and Frida are almost four now and it seems like a better age to drop in little comments to break their own gender stereotypes. For example, when Tilly said in a conclusive tone, “John* in my kindergarten can run fast because he’s a boy”, I answered, “John can run fast because he’s two years older than you are and is very tall. Girls can run fast too and if you eat your broccoli right now, you’ll grow tall and strong and run very fast as well.”
There probably isn’t any hard and fast rule to raising our children gender-neutral but more of a conscious effort, when interacting with children, to compensate for the existing inequalities and bias. I say “effort” because as long as there is bias, there has to be the challenge to break that bias.
There is for example, a clear inequality in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields for girls. In 2016, the percentage of females in STEM careers in Germany was a measly 15% . So if the status quo is that of a struggle to attract women to these fields, we should be compensating by providing our daughters with the necessary minds (and mindsets) from an early age.
We all want our children to lead happy and fulfilling lives and bringing them up to be gender-neutral conscious is part of it. I love how staff from a Swedish kindergarten advocating gender-neutral policies explain it. In front of parents, they drew a circle. Half of it was filled with girl stereotypes and the other half with boy stereotypes. Then they asked their audience, “Do you want your child to have half a life or a whole life?”
*Name has been changed.