Not that gender neutral nonsense again.

Gender neutral parenting. It’s a big buzz word these days. Parents who want to give their children the freedom to explore gender constructs on their own terms and without shame. Shocking!

It gets a bad rap sometimes. It seems a great number of parents are perfectly  happy telling their sons that pink, and dolls are for girls, and teaching their daughters that firefighting costumes, and trucks are for boys. I can’t blame them exactly, consciously counteracting the prevailing social norms is exhausting, and confusing, and often leads to alcohol consumption to combat the never-ending feelings of frustration with the world. Walk into any major toy store (and even an independent one) and you’ll be assaulted with the “toy section” and the “pink section.” It’s nearly impossible (nearly? It might BE impossible) to avoid the influence that gender stereotypes have on our children.

I’m gonna wade in with two of my own experiences, one that’s cute and satisfies me perversely, and the other that makes my little feminist heart sing.

Kidlet wears a ponytail. For the last month or so, nearly every morning he says, “Mama, put mah hair in ponytail!” We sit down on the floor together while I comb his hair, and he holds the rubber band. Then he spends the rest of the day checking to make sure it’s still there. Apparently ponytails are the major gender indicator for toddlers, as everywhere we go, people refer to him as “she.” He’s often dressed in clothes from the boy section, though I try very consciously to not buy him clothes that have construction equipment or sports motifs on it, and I know he has a penis, so to ME he looks like a boy. But I guess because of the ponytail, people assume he’s a girl. I’m cool with that. Doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But, HOOO WHEEE does it bother other people. I don’t bother to correct people unless I’m asked a direct question like, “How old is she?” then I’ll reply, “He’s…” Here it is – boys don’t have to have short hair, and girls don’t have to have long hair. It’s really that simple. So, my piece of performing masculinity subversion, acted out through my son. Yeah, yeah, I’m using my kid to further my own agenda. Know what? I’m ok with it.

The second piece is significantly more important to me. This toy is pretty popular in our house these days:

Kidlet calls this toy his FIREFIGHTER. YES!!! A thousand yesses! Instead of calling it a fireman, my kid has picked up on the efforts of his dad and I to speak in gender neutral terms whenever we are given the opportunity and now speaks in them too! I love this. This is so important to me because so many professions represented to children are represented as male, which winds up creating a subliminal understanding that boys have certain opportunities that girls don’t. I think the language we choose to speak in, with it’s ageist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, and violent  roots teaches our children VOLUMES more than we think it does. So, to hear his little 2year old mouth speaking to me in gender neutral terms…well, it just makes my day.

How do you support your children in their gender exploration?


Filed under culture, feminism, O, parenting

18 responses to “Not that gender neutral nonsense again.

  1. My confession. I will tell my toddler every single time that Barbie is a girl’s toy. Because I HATE BARBIE. He has a baby doll that he loves dearly. But Barbie isn’t allowed over here.

  2. I find it interesting that encouraging children to be themselves is labeled as “gender neutral.” What’s so gender specific about a boy saying “I like playing with dolls,” or a girl saying, “I like building things with legos.” There’s nothing neutral about being a certain gender and liking things not stereotypically liked by your identity.

    • It’s true, there isn’t anything neutral about choosing a gender and then also choosing to like things that aren’t stereotypically associated with your chosen gender. But the performance of gender is, in large part, entirely socially constructed. For instance, Pacific Islander men wear skirts and it’s no big thing. So the gender construct that exists in Samoa doesn’t associate skirts with femininity. In order to give children the freedom to perform gender the way they want to, they need to be given the freedom to explore outside the confines of their assumed gender.

      I’m not in love with the term gender neutral. I think it oversimplifies the process of trying to raise a child without expecting strict adherence to gender constructs.

  3. It never occurred to me that the difference between “fireman” and “firefighter” could make a difference. My MIND IS BLOWN. I am going to make an effort to do the same with Little Evan’s toys. You’re so smart.

  4. Janine

    awesome – good for you.
    I believe I missed the boat with Sadie. We had an “argument” in the car about whether or not boys can wear dresses and pretend to be princesses or queens or sorceresses. Me “of course they can – people can wear whatever they want!” Sadie “no, mom. dresses are for girls.” *sigh*
    I suppose I need to try harder/be more aware with Lilah. I don’t want to sound like I’m scapegoating or shirking my conscious parenting responsibilities, but I do think it is impossible to avoid stereotypical gender signals; they’re everywhere. It’s actually eye-opening, once you start noticing them and it gets easier. I actually don’t mind the reminder to look for teachable moments. 🙂

    • I doubt very much you’ve missed any boat. I think you’re right, it’s freakin’ impossible (if you’re making any attempt to live any sort of social life) to escape gender stereotypes. How about going all Socratic on Sadie and asking her, “Why can’t boys wear dresses?” and seeing what she says? I know one of the ways that I learned a lot from my parents was from my parents asking me to simply explain why I was saying what I was saying. It’s also what makes me a big ass as an adult. But you’re used to that part of me. 😉

  5. Ugh. I didn’t even think of fireMAN. Although he mostly calls them “uncle uli” because of a friend.

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  7. Sister

    Interesting! Never thought of this at all. Why do you consciously stay away from clothing with certain images? Do you think if makes a difference? When I shop for my daughter, I choose whatever I think looks nice (fully taking advantage of the fact that she has not started choosing her own clothes yet :)). If a pink shirt with sparkles looks good to me, I’ll take it. If a boy’s shirt with a monster on it looks cute, I’ll take it too. But why eliminate something on principle?

    • I eliminate all sorts of things from my life on principle. I don’t think my kid needs to be an advertisement for clothing companies (Old Navy, for instance, puts OLD NAVY on just about every graphic t-shirt they sell). His wardrobe isn’t devoid of graphic or character t’s, but they’re the minority.

    • WildHorse

      Slowly we become what we look at the most. I don’t buy those kinds of clothes for my son either. It shows children what they are expected to like, and so then, they do. It also shows them what they shouldn’t like even if we tell them differently. It takes vigilance to tell my kids that all colors are for all kids and that all occupations are for all people. But, even though I do, they know that “out there” things are different.

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