Have you heard of GNP? No, not Gross National Product but Gender Neutral Parenting.
For most, the decision to adopt a gender neutral approach to parenting comes out the belief that we treat and have a different code of expectations at the very moment we know the biological sex of a child. Raising a child gender neutral is as a result of the parents’ desire to challenge gender stereotypes and to not pigeonhole a child based solely on his or her biological sex at birth.
In an effort to eliminate, as much as possible, the impact that societal stereotypes or expectations have on individuals as result of their gender, some parents – especially those who have approached this in an extreme way – not only give their children gender neutral names but may not reveal the gender of their child to anyone, until such time that it becomes difficult to keep it a secret – when they begin a pre school program, for example. At this time, the child may need to choose between the male or female washroom or be included on a separate list of boys and girls.
The difficulty I have with adopting this parenting style in an extreme way is this: if parents clothe their son in both pants and dresses until the age at which is able to exert free will, choice and preference when selecting his own clothing (around the of 3), how can one be sure that when he chooses a dress from his closet, that this is truly his innate preference, or merely his continuing to choose what has been his norm?
And what happens when he ventures into the mostly gendered world that we live in, wearing a tutu and hair barrettes? There’s a difference between deciding to dress or grow one’s hair longer than the norm when he’s older and consciously choosing to assert his individuality by being “different”, but when he’s so young and does not understand the consequences of his decision, is this fair?
In her book, Gender Neutral Parenting: Raising kids with the freedom to be themselves, author Paige Lucas-Stannard explores the benefits of raising kids gender neutral and tries to debunk myths such as the belief that GNP is anti-feminine or anti-masculine.
In an article at everydayfeminism.com, she writes that “What we want to do is expose kids to a wide range of gender-types and give them the freedom to explore without judgment those that call to them” when writing about toys and that “If your daughter proudly proclaims that ‘dolls are for girls’ while playing, instead of correcting her, open a dialogue.”
I do agree that exposing our children to a variety of toys and allowing them to select those that are personally appealing provides them with the ability to broaden their skills and interests beyond what society might perceive as being more of a boy or girl thing. So, regardless of the sex of your child, you may have dolls alongside trucks and a plastic tool kit.
When it comes to activities, it’s again helpful to accept that some boys may prefer ballet over soccer and vice versa, and to try not to inhibit your child’s interest strictly as a result of the sex that has been assigned to him or her.
While I may not be convinced that the merits of adopting this approach in its purest form outweigh the risks (confusion on the child’s part in regards to his or her gender identity and possible alienation within society), I believe that there may be benefits to adopting this approach in a milder manner.
Beyond toys and activities, we may want to consider the pressures and expectations society places on our child based on his or her gender. For example, there is pressure to conform on a physical level such as expecting that boys not grow their hair beyond a certain length or that girls not get too dirty.
And there are also emotional pressures such as the expectation that boys not cry while girls are encouraged to be delicate and more empathic. The reality is that boys and girls (and men and women) feel the same intensity of emotion, but many have been socialized to express these feelings differently.
So, if you’d prefer not to perpetuate gender stereotypes you may want to:
- Consider how you model or debunk them. For example, is cooking and cleaning considered women’s work in your home, while dad mows the lawn and takes out the garbage?
- Do you make comments such as “he’s such a boy?” or “she’s such a little lady?” or a “tomboy”? Consider how these might perpetuate how society perceives boy versus girl behaviour?
- Is your son free to pick pink and purple as his favourite colours? Many men wear these colours handsomely.
- When choosing story books, do you consider gender stereotyped messages in the story? Are only men depicted as construction workers? Only women as nurses? If so, you might want to let your child know that both sexes are mostly equally capable.
- Are you planning on painting your daughter’s room pink? Your son’s room blue? How about something more gender neutral? Yellow or pale green, for example.
By becoming more conscious of your expectations and working at change, you may encourage your child to explore individual likes and dislikes without fear of being reprimanded or judged strictly based on his or her gender.
Sara Dimerman is a Psychologist, Author and mom to two daughters. For more advice, connect at www.helpmesara.com or on Twitter @helpmesara.