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Gender-Neutral Parenting

Gender vs. Sex.

Have you ever thought about it?  Have you considered the differences between the two words?  Well, some have and while it seems that the vast majority of people haven't given it much thought at all, there is a very small but growing faction of those that have apparently thought about it so much that they've filled the thought quota for the rest of us.

The words 'gender' and 'sex' are used interchangeably throughout our culture.  Though, according to some sources, it is said that sex is biological and therefore more black and white, while gender is sociological and better thought of as a scale.

They say that gender is more of a culturally learned thing.  And, it is true that many things are decidedly masculine and decidedly feminine (certain behaviors, activities, interests, etc.). I'm reminded of all my years of learning French.  Like many latin languages, nouns are given a gender.  The gender of the word denotes whether you say 'la' or 'le' preceding it.

So, with all this assumed gender being thrown around, there are those that take issue with it.  They believe that girls are unfairly missing out on "boys" activities and, likewise, boys are missing out on "girls" activites.  They suspect that with all the societal gender's understood do's and don't's, children are being limited to certain activities and thus only acquire certain skill sets.  Hence, enter gender-neutral parenting.

But, what is gender-neutral parenting?  It seems that the answer to that question is a parenting style in which the parents attempt to avoid all gender stereotypes for their children.  They do this by keeping their children's environments free of "extreme" gender-specific clothing, toys, colors, etc.  They may also try to keep a balance between the toys and such that are made available to them to allow for the freedom to choose what they want to play with.  They might take efforts to balance playtime so the child gets equal exposure to playing with both sexes.  It could be said that they are simply parenting their children while consciously avoiding stereotypical situations that might "force" their children into a stereotypical social slot.

The issue that proponents of gender-neutral parenting have (as far as I can gather from articles I've read) is that they believe that children growing up in traditional settings (with which some label "gender-specific" parents) at the very least will be limited in their skill development or at worst be oppressed by this setting.  The idea is that a boy will be led to believe, whether directly or indirectly, that he shouldn't need to learn how to cook, sew, do laundry, etc., and that they will be limited in their vocational scope due to these inabilities. The true would be the same for a girl but in regards to other "decidedly male" skills.

Here are some situations that would pass as "gender-specific" parenting examples:
  • A girl's bedroom appearing to be a "girl's" bedroom.  Same would be true for a boy's.
  • Telling a girl that she looks "very pretty" weightedly more when she is wearing a dress than when she is wearing pants.
  • Having an imbalance of traditionally boy's toys versus traditionally girl's toys in any play area.
"Gender-enforcing" is more directly from a parent as opposed to the child's surrounding environment.  Here are some situations that would pass as "gender-enforcing" parenting examples:
  • Telling your son "boys don't cry."
  • Telling your girl "to sit like a lady" as opposed to "sit properly."
  • Not supporting your son if he wants to wear pink or your daughter if she wants to play football.
  • Discouraging play with toys that are decidedly the opposite gender of the sex of the child.
I'm sure that people who support gender-neutral parenting can come up with a slew of more reasons to support their belief that it is the better parenting option.  But, this provides you the basic idea.

Now, alas, my opinion.  I agree that "gender-enforcing" in most examples is probably wrong.  Of course, boys can cry.  But, I think it's fine to tell a girl to sit like a lady.  So, I can't agree whole-heartedly.  And, I don't really agree with most of the "gender-specific" examples as being in any sense "bad".  Ultimately, I find the psychology of gender-neutral parenting to be well-intentioned but nevertheless flawed.  In no particular order, here are some issues that I take with it:
  •  It ignores behavioral science.  Our biology does affect our behavior, our likes, our priorities, etc.  It's very well established.  Gender is not just culturally learned.  Yes, it is culturally learned, but not exclusively.
  • It inherently disrespects the "extreme" ends of gender.  It wrongfully assumes that people who are in a "traditionally stereotypical" position are so because of their socially-ingrained gender-specific limitations. Lots of people willfully choose "traditional" roles and live fulfilled lives, and it's disrespectful to purposefully try to avoid that end result with your own children for fear that it is a result from limitations.  Society already fails to put enough well-deserved value on roles like stay-at-home moms and blue collar dads.  Why reinforce this backwards concept?
  • It denies children all of the so-called extremes.  If you're refusing to provide your daughter a pink dress on principle then you are limiting your daughter's development (by the definitions set forth by pro-gender-neutral-ness) while claiming the high-road that states the opposite.  The irony is that, in an attempt to avoid the perceived limitations of a stereotypical childhood, the parents are limiting typical childhood things and activities.
  • It takes the "you can be anything you want to be" lie to the furthest extreme.  Yes, I said lie.  Let's face the truth.  You can't be anything you want to be.  Limitations are very real and vary from person to person.  Also, skill sets vary from person to person.  Encourage your children to break out and do amazing things, sure.  Champion the skills they do have.  But, feel free to tell them that the levels of resistance will vary between differing goals.  They'll appreciate the truth.  Also, I find it very strange that any parent would encourage their boy to be as feminine as he wants to be, while purposefully avoiding the same for their daughter just because that would be stereotypical.
  • It assumes that there is value in the sheer number of opportunities provided.  I'm reminded of those little Asian children that are full-on concert soloists in their adolescence.  It's an extreme example, I know, but isn't it also valuable teaching your children to master a handful of skills instead of a million skills somewhere shy of mediocre?
I believe that the core goal of gender-neutral parenting is to protect children from having their identity "imposed" upon them by our culture.  I can relate to this goal quite well and find it to be a good one.  In many cases such as morals, ethics, moderation, modesty, etc. I would completely agree that our culture is a bad influence and thus, I support counter-cultural efforts in these categories.  Where we disagree is the case of gender.  I don't believe that gender is necessarily a cultural imposition.  I believe that children's discovery of gender traits is part of the natural development of a child and, dare I say, a necessary one.  Children categorize things and activities naturally.  My young children ask me all the time questions with a false dichotomy in an attempt to classify things.  "Is McDonald's good or bad?", they'll ask.  I often provide a "gray scale" answer such as, "It's bad if you eat there all the time, but a meal there every once in a while shouldn't hurt us."  This is all fine to do when answering questions like my example, but providing gray scales for everything in an attempt to allow the child to find his/her own way isn't parenting at all.  Purposefully trying to filter out the black and white found virtually everywhere trying to force a gray scale on certain things such as gender could not only be non-beneficial but potentially detrimental to the child's normal development.

Remember that the main arguments being made for gender-neutral parenting are against "forcing" children into categories.  Perhaps, the creation of a new category, the non-category, is equally "forcing" your child into something.  Perhaps, even more limiting?  Perhaps even greater prejudiced?


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