We realize that intentional gender neutral parenting is probably not very familiar to a lot of our friends and family. However, I have begun to notice that there might be some confusion about what exactly gender neutral parenting looks like. We have heard quite a few comments along the lines of “it’s so hard to shop for gender neutral things” and “it will be so much easier to pick stuff out once the baby gets here”. So the purpose of this post is to clear up any confusion. Feel free to ask questions if anything is still left unclear.
People regularly misuse the word “gender”. Most of the time they actually mean sex. Sex is a biological category. Your sex is either male or female (or intersexed, in some cases, but we will stick to the basics). Sex is determined by your genitalia and/or chromosomes. You are male because you have a penis, testes, etc. and are XY. You are female because you have a vagina, uterus, etc. and are XX. Gender has nothing to do with biology.
Gender is a social construction which in most cultures can be viewed as a spectrum ranging from masculine to feminine. By social construction, I mean gender is really not based on anything concrete. It is simply a compilation of attitudes and trends in a given society. Different societies define and value gender differently. For example, in Western civilization (i.e. us), masculinity is generally associated with power and strength while femininity is associated with emotions, communication, and nurturing. Masculinity is valued above femininity. This isn’t because it is the right way or “natural” (remember, there is nothing natural, given, or biological about gender, it is completely constructed), it is just because that is how our particular society developed. Others do things differently.
So we have determined gender is different than sex. Masculine does not equal male. Feminine does not equal female. Males can be masculine or feminine. Females can be masculine or feminine. A lot of research and study in fields like anthropology and psychology have been conducted over the last 50 years concerning gender and sex. There is no link between the two. There is more variation between masculinity and femininity within sexes (between lots of men or lots women) than there is between the sexes (between men and women). This may seem counterintuitive. After all, when thinking about all the men and women you know, it’s probably easy to say that men do X and women do Y. Boys are rambunctious and girls are sweet. What most people don’t realize is that they are observing gender, not sex. These behaviors are taught and instilled in us by the society we live in (parents decorate the rooms, pick out the clothes, buy the toys- these choices made by the parents shape children’s preferences). We teach boys to be masculine and girls to be feminine. It has nothing to do with natural inclinations. When children are not pushed one way or the other, there is actually no difference between boys and girls.
Gender is not sex. It is also not sexual orientation. Your gender has nothing to do with what other genders or sexes you are attracted to. Masculine men may prefer men or women. Feminine men may prefer men or women. Same for women. So in review, sex is what is between your legs, sexual orientation is what you want to do with it, and gender is a social construction that guides your preferences and behaviors.
Fun Fact: Prior to the World Wars, blue was actually the color for girls. It was calm and demure. Pink was reserved for boys because it was so robust and bright.
Something to think about: For most of history, boys and girls were dressed the same (soft colors, ruffles, gowns) for most of their early years. By creating gender differences earlier, companies have expanded their markets.
So what does this have to do with parenting?
In a lot of respects, children are a blank slate. Each child is born with its own unique personality which if left alone would guide its behaviors and preferences. That leaves an enormously wide range of potential for emotional expression, interests, and everything else. We want that for our child. We don’t want to shape our child or force any preconceived expectations upon them. We don’t want to push them to do certain things or behave a certain way because it is what is expected of their sex.
If this sounds weird or radical, just take a second to think about it. I think it comes easier in the context of girls. Thankfully a lot of women have worked very hard over the past century to expand our horizons. Whether my parents did it intentionally or not, I was raised pretty much gender neutral. My nursery was blue, as were a lot of my clothes (the hyper- pink/blue dichotomy is relatively new and in fact, simply a marketing ploy. If you say boys wear blue, girls wear pink, and then only make products in those two colors, you have a 50% chance of your customer needing to re-buy everything the next time around…but I digress). I had dinosaurs, Barbies, ligthsabers, Nerf guns, Polly Pockets, etc. I was never told that “that’s for boys” or I couldn’t do something. My parents didn’t want to limit me. But unfortunately this seems to come more difficultly to parents of boys. The same parents who don’t bat and eyelash at their daughter wearing blue or playing with trucks may flip out when their son tries on a dress or asks to take ballet. Or play with dolls or play kitchen. Because God forbid your son grow up to be…you know…a dad or know how to make a sandwich.
The goal of gender neutral parenting is to remove these barriers so that the child can be led by their own personality. Gender neutral parenting isn’t about avoiding blue or pink and only buying yellow and green. Gender neutral does not mean androgynous. It has nothing to do with the actual objects/choices involved. It has everything to do with creating an open attitude about the fact that gender and sex are not equal and dichotomous and therefore allowing your child to develop his or her own gender regardless of their sex. Gender neutral parenting is about all the colors (colors are for everybody). Gender neutral parenting is about providing blue AND pink, and all the other colors, as well as all types of toys, hobbies, and interest then following the child’s lead as to what he or she likes. Everything is gender neutral.
If this is still confusing, here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when trying to determine whether or not something is gender neutral (appropriate for both sexes):
- -Does this object/clothing/hobby require a penis/vagina/other sexual organs to use appropriately?
If the answer is yes (an athletic cup perhaps?), then you might take the child’s sex into account.
If the answer is no (toys, dolls, music, colors, extracurricular activities, etc.) it doesn’t matter and can be used by both sexes.
- -Will this object/clothing/hobby cause the penis/vagina/ other sexual organs to shrivel, rot or fall off? If the answer is yes…well that just sounds dangerous and I’m not sure I can recommend that choice for anyone.
If the answer is no, congratulations! It’s gender neutral.
Ways you probably gender children without realizing it
Maybe this doesn’t seem crazy to you. Maybe this seems pretty simple. But regardless, we all have a tendency to gender children and most of the time we don’t even realize it.
We call girls with masculine traits “tom boys” and use other similar terms. Girls are just girls. They like all kinds of different things. Same for boys. Just because a child doesn’t like something that we associate with their sex or likes something different doesn’t mean they are abnormal or need be labeled.
We call things “girl stuff” or “boy stuff”. If a girl likes action figures, by definition they can be girl things. If a boy likes dolls, they are boy things. But let’s just make it simple. Toys, colors, etc. are for everybody that likes them. End of story.
We steer our boys towards the blue side of the store and girls towards the pink side. Heck, we don’t even question why stores have two sides in the first place.
When a child does something stereotypically associated with their sex, we say “oh, he’s all boy” or “she’s such a girly-girl.”
I can go on forever. The point is, these subtle words and attitudes shape how we treat each other and how our children view themselves. The point of gender neutral parenting is to become aware of these things so that we can give our children room to develop to their full potential.
Questions and Concerns
This has been a pretty basic overview of the concept and gender in general. By all means, seek out more information. I have included some great links at the bottom of this post. But in closing, I will bring up a few common (or at least common to me) responses or questions about gender neutral parenting.
-Won’t that make your child gay? (As if this that is the worst thing that could ever happen) We have already determined gender has nothing to do with sexual orientation.
-Will that create an identity crisis? My question to that is, is your identity really that tied up in your gender? By taking the focus off of gender, you are allowing your children to develop themselves in other ways, maybe even discover something about themselves they would have otherwise been kept from.
-If this is how things are, doesn’t that make it right? There are many things that were once the status quo (slavery?). That doesn’t make them right. Isn’t it everyone’s hope for the children that they have more opportunities and a better world than the generation before them?
-You’re just asking for your kid to get bullied. This is one of my pet peeves, because I hear this statement in response to a lot of things. This is straight up victim blaming. If my kid gets bullied, it’s his fault for XY or Z or my fault for allowing him to do it. Newsflash- it is not my kid’s job (or my job) to make my kid bully-proof. If my child has big ears, should he get plastic surgery? What about a speech impediment? I understand that these aren’t choices, but the implications are still the same. No, it is YOUR (a general “your”, nothing personal) job to not be an asshole. Will my kid encounter general meanness in his or her life? Of course. But that doesn’t mean he/she has to accept it or that the onus is on them to prevent it. They can do everything in their power to make themselves as socially acceptable as possible and people will still be jerks.
-How will they learn their role in society? I would love to think that we are the sole influence on our children (well, maybe, that's probably actually a little scary and too much power), but I know that is not the case. We get a pretty important role in the early years, but by two years old, children's peer relationships begin to take an increasingly important role in their lives in proportion to caregivers. Society will get to our children, I promise. They will go to school. They will meet strangers in stores. They will be exposed to media and commercialism. The idea is not to prevent these things entirely. The idea is to give our kids a safe place in our home to go against these things if that is their desire and to give some balance to the messages they will receive.
In conclusion, if it won’t make your penis or vagina fall off, it’s fine to buy for our kids no matter what their sex. They will have all types of colors, clothing styles, and toys so that they can decide what they like. So next time you hesitate getting something for a child, just remember- everything is gender neutral and colors are for everybody.