Raising Kids to Be Gender Neutral: Can and Should It Be Done?

Raising Kids to Be Gender Neutral: Can and Should It Be Done?

Moms and experts discuss the pros and cons of kids following stereotypical gender roles.

By: Leah Maxwell

It seems that every few years there’s a news story about parents refusing to reveal the sex of their newborn child as a way of keeping him or her safe from the oppression of stereotypical gender roles. They give the child an ambiguous name and dress him/her in ambiguous clothes and make sure he/she only plays with unpainted wooden blocks and generic teddy bears. Most parents don’t push the issue to that extreme, but it’s also not uncommon for parents to, say, refuse to dress their daughters in pink or let them play with princesses. Whatever your reaction to stories like these, you have to admit it’s an interesting concept, and it brings up two intriguing questions: Is gender neutrality good for kids, and is it even possible to raise children to be gender neutral, especially once the kids themselves start having opinions about the clothes they wear, the toys they play with, and the activities they engage in?

We asked parents and experts to weigh in on the idea of raising kids to be gender neutral. Their comments might surprise you, and may even change the way you think about raising your own kids.

Katie Gibson, a mother of a 4-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son from Sterling Heights, Michigan, did what she could to avoid “girly” things after her daughter was born, but soon found it was a losing battle. “When Olivia was born, we didn’t want her to be super girly, mainly because we didn’t like it ourselves. We shied away from princess stories, shows, movies, [and an] abundance of pink, ruffles, frills and lace, fake plastic high-heeled shoes, makeup, and jewelry.” What Gibson discovered, though, was that it wasn’t easy to maintain that neutrality within a culture that has its own deep-seated ideas about what girls (and boys, for that matter) should be. “Other people started buying her clothes and presents, and even though we asked them not to buy her certain things, she ended up with princess dresses, dolls, movies, and storybooks,” Gibson remembers. “Their need to see Olivia decked out as a cute princess apparently trumped our need to introduce it slowly and at age-appropriate times.”

Yet even if parents manage to control what products come into their house for a few years, eventually another influence arises, and this one is harder to ignore: the preferences and opinions of the children themselves. Jennifer Lobban, a mom of two girls, ages 3 and 5, from Albany, New York, also found herself wanting to avoid or at least postpone her daughters’ exposure to all things stereotypically girly but soon found she could only hold out for so long. “I wasn’t too thrilled about princess stuff and never introduced it to them myself, but it is in their BLOOD,” she says. “We tried (and still try) to let both of our girls choose what they like, but they did sort of gravitate in the direction [of ‘girly things’] on their own.” She said her older daughter started voicing her taste for all things frilly when she was only 18 months old. “She suddenly wanted to wear dresses ALL the time and wasn’t happy in the sweatpants or leggings I would put her in.”

Some parents might consider themselves defeated when they give in to their kids on this issue, but while it’s easy to understand that parents might want to protect their children from gender stereotypes that could negatively affect self-image and future opportunities, experts assert there’s nothing wrong with letting kids follow their own preferences, especially when they’re little. “It is more detrimental to prohibit young children from making their own decisions,” says Darby Fox, a child and adolescent family therapist in New York. “Parents who try to direct their children to be gender neutral run the risk of inhibiting the important developmental skills of making decisions and developing an individual sense of self.”

Fox goes on to say that using gender-neutral toys, clothes, and activities as a way of forcing kids to be gender-neutral people is not the answer. “It is important for parents to expose their children to gender-neutral toys and activities, but it is not important to push a child into feeling they are gender neutral at a young age because they really are not.” Gender neutrality is as artificial a construct as the idea of “girl things” and “boy things,” and, Fox says, “there is no harm in stereotypes as long as there is exposure to the opposite.”

A good approach, then, is to include rather than exclude – instead of banning overly gendered things, expose children of both sexes to a diversity of clothes, toys, and activities, like dolls and trucks, superhero costumes and princess dresses, dance class and soccer. “Encouraging gender neutrality should involve making a wide variety of toys available,” says Miriam Liss, a professor of psychology with the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Liss also warns that “banning certain toys may inadvertently make that toy more desirable” to the child and therefore cause the parent’s good intentions to backfire.

The goal, says Fox, should be to teach gender equality, not gender neutrality: “If we have done a good job of exposing children to a wide variety of toys and have allowed them to pursue pretend play based on their own interests, we won't need to worry about gender neutrality.”

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The experts shared these tips on how to help children coexist with gender stereotypes instead of avoid them entirely:

1. Teach kids to be savvy consumers of media and peer culture rather than trying to protect them from it. “Our society is not gender neutral, and gender assumptions are everywhere. A parent is not going to be able to shield children from the gender socialization that happens by peers and by the media,” says Liss. She encourages parents to talk with their children about gender stereotypes they see and then offer alternative ways of thinking. Liss gives this example: “The parent can say, ‘Wow, I notice that the mommy is always doing the dishes on X show. That seems unfair to me -- don’t you think the dad should help out?’” From that point, it’s equally important to model gender equality at home. In other words, instead of trying to change the child, work to change the surrounding culture.


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2. Be mindful of the subtler ways gender stereotypes are taught.

“Often without realizing it, parents encourage gender identities with their children,” says Liss. “For example, parents often praise their daughter’s appearance and their son’s talents or intellect. Parents tend to talk about emotions with daughters while talking about events with sons.” More important than controlling your children’s choices is treating them as whole people rather than as “types.”

“Parents would do better to educate their children about all the incredible personalities people possess [than to try] directing them toward [gender neutrality],” says Fox.

3. Let kids take the lead. “Exposing young children to a variety of activities and toys without gender labeling allows them to explore and make their own choices about what they like to do,” says Fox. Ultimately, that’s what’s working for Lobban, who says she and her husband try to encourage their daughters to pursue things they show interest in, with no regard for whether it’s considered “girly.” “My older daughter is definitely girly in lots of ways, but she loves playing pirates, her favorite color is green, and she loves playing soccer.” She says that although her daughters’ tastes are “trending more to pink as they get older,” she and her husband make a point to neither encourage nor discourage their children’s preferences in any one direction. “I think we are doing our best to let our kids make their own choices about the things they like, and to encourage them to be strong, kind, and thoughtful people.” And isn’t that what all parents wish for their children?

How do you talk to and teach your kids about gender stereotypes?

Leah Maxwell is a book editor, freelance writer, cereal addict, wife, and mom to two young boys. She has been blogging at A Girl and a Boy since 2003.

Image ©iStock.com/Saksoni

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