Dr. Shalini Mullick
Gender-neutral parenting is a new concept; one that is being, and frankly should be, explored. Gender neutrality encourages people to be seen as just people, without the constraints of their gender. This approach will lead to a truly equal society encompassing all genders. And since the concept of gender starts right at birth, parenting has a huge role to play in it. Let us understand why gender, and consequently being gender-neutral, is so important and how we can create a gender-neutral environment.
Understanding gender, and gender norms
Children begin to comprehend gender around the age of three. But gender is assigned to us much before that, based only on physical characteristics. As they develop, they begin to explore gender roles through their family, society, and the larger world. But by that time, it is too late; our actions have already given them expectations about their choices and behavior. Blue and pink baby showers, gender-specific toys, games, books, and clothes are typical examples of this.
If we look around us, almost everything has a strong gender lens – media, advertising, cinema, educational materials. This is how gender norms – beliefs about activities, preferences, and behaviors – associated with gender form. Subtle and not-so-subtle messages associating behavior with gender are abound. Boys need to be aggressive, competitive. Women are soft and docile. These are reinforced in many homes. Maleness often becomes associated with power and authority, and femaleness with being submissive. By the time a child is 5 or 6, these gender norms have been planted firmly in their minds.
Why is this a problem?
From a young child’s perspective, playing with a toy or wearing certain clothing is simply a matter of choice. This may or may not be aligned with a person’s assigned gender. For example, a boy may play with trucks, but a girl might enjoy the activity equally. This is how children explore and express their sense of self, which is still developing at those tender ages. Cultural expectations and heavily gendered parenting styles can stifle this exploration. If children are not allowed or encouraged to be comfortable with their choices, it is hard for them to understand why.
Our forced expectations of behaviors, careers, and personal lives will be internalized by them. These ‘girl boxes’ and ‘boy boxes’ expand into gender stereotypes; eventually resulting in gender inequality, patriarchy, and toxic masculinity.
In addition, the rigidity of these portrayals leaves no space for a third, non-binary possibility that the child may be exposed to later in life, in themselves, or in their peers.
What is gender-neutral parenting; and what it is not?
The nuances of gender-neutral parenting differ across perspectives, cultures, and communities. Sweden has introduced a gender-neutral pronoun. Gender-neutral schools are becoming common in Scandinavian countries. Some states in USA allow ‘x’ on gender columns in birth certificates. While the long-term impacts and feasibility of steps like these remain to be seen, it is possible to apply this parenting style at any level.
Pragmatically, in the context of the world in which we are raising our children, gender-neutral parenting is about giving children the nurturing environment they need to explore gender and the expression of gender. It allows them to feel comfortable in being their authentic selves. At the level of the society and family, it is about debunking gender stereotypes.
Gender-neutral parenting is not about making boys more feminine or girls more like boys; nor is it an attempt to interfere with biology or change the child in any way. The goal of raising children in this milieu is not to eliminate gender. Rather it is a step towards a world without gender-based oppression, disparities, and violence.
Also, gender identity is distinct from sexual orientation. Gender identity is about who you feel you are as a person. Sexual orientation is about the gender of the people you are sexually attracted to. Expression of gender related preferences in childhood in clothes, hair, activities, etc does not necessarily predict gender identity or sexual orientation later in life.
Why gender-neutral parenting is a concept that you must adopt?
The biggest gift for our children is the space and permission to be their authentic selves. This is exactly what gender-neutral parenting gives them by removing the pressure of expectations around gender behavior. Children comfortable with their own sense of self will be empowered and self-assured. Having been exposed to a variety of influences, they are likely to be more creative and have a positive approach to problem solving. Children brought up with an emphasis on inclusivity are more accepting, welcoming and kind to those who seem different from them. They grow to become adults capable of kindness and empathy.
How can you work gender-neutral parenting into your lives?
- Educate yourself; explore your beliefs.
Like with all things parenting, this is an opportunity, and a need, to educate yourself. Understanding how we form our gender beliefs and how gender stereotypes result in a gender unequal world is crucial. Recognize, and accept, that gender need not always be a binary construct; that there is space for a non-binary too. Be mindful of the need for true inclusivity for an equal world.
- Encourage healthy gender development by allowing gender expression.
Children make sense of the world by observing, playing and imitating. Start with gender-neutral colors, clothes, furniture, and toys. Allow them to select these as they get a little older and don’t judge them for the choices they make.
Expose them to games that may have unexpected gender roles, for examples males as caregivers or females as warriors. Encourage them to explore activities not typically associated with one gender or the other. For example, ask the girls if she wants to join a football class, and let the boy arrange the dolls.
Use inclusive phrases to address them. “Let’s go, children” can replace Let’s go, girls”. Discourage dividing classes or groups into teams or groups that force a child to self-identify as a particular gender. Avoid statements like “How come girls lost to the boys? “
Divide chores equally, without a gendered perspective. Cooking is a life skill, not a gender dependent activity. Everyone needs to be able to fix a light bulb and fold laundry.
Don’t force gendered expectations for behaviors. Boisterous girls are as acceptable as boys. Quiet, emotional boys have as much place in our hearts as girls.
- Normalize diversity; encourage conversations around it.
A family with a stay-at-home dad, the column ‘other’ for gender, relatives where only the lady drives, books with characters from the LGBTQ+ community or same sex parent families are opportunities to normalize diversity. Use these as opportunities to discuss and listen to your child’s thoughts about these situations.
Small, but sure steps towards gender-neutral parenting will eliminate the stereotypes of pink and blue and give way to the colors of diversity.
Shalini is a practicing doctor who writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She is a Juggernaut selects author, a winner of the Orange Flower Award. She has also won many short story contests and her stories have been published in anthologies. Her work has been published in journals of Medical Humanities, an area she is keenly interested in. Shalini enjoys the many hats she wears and has decided to let the hats figure out how to share space, as she lets the parts sum up the whole. She can be found at www.shalinimullick.com
*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*