When my son was born, I made a conscious effort to allow him access to a variety of toys – whether they were dolls and prams or cars and diggers.
In my opinion, toys shouldn’t be divided into girl’s toys and boy’s toys. However, living in Hong Kong at the time, it quickly became apparent that this was not the norm when he was laughed at on the playground for pushing a toy pram around, aged 13 months. He’s 6 years old now and has most definitely fallen into the cars, bikes and aeroplanes camp and that is totally fine with me – the choice was always his.
The new generation of gender neutral parenting
There are a new generation of parents however who are choosing to raise their children gender neutral. By this I don’t mean they are giving their children choices where toys or clothes are concerned but rather not assigning their child a gender for fear of their child imbibing the self-limiting beliefs and/or stereotypes of either gender i.e. girls have limitations and boys shouldn’t show their emotions, for example.
These parents go so far as to not reveal the gender of their child for fear of society treating them differently based on their sex. But no man is an island and eventually it will become apparent what the child’s sex is (wouldn’t it?!). There is only so long the parents can keep the child unexposed to the outside world.
I can (sort of!) see why they might want to do this. I watched a video on YouTube recently where a group of babies were put in a room but all the girls were put in grey/blue/green clothes and all the boys were put in pink/purple/red clothes. Strangers were then sent into the room to play with the babies and almost all of them spoke differently to the girls compared to the boys AND handed all the boys cars/diggers/dinosaurs and all the girls dolls/princesses/magic wands. Perhaps then these parents just want to protect their children from other people?
What the research says
This phenomenon isn’t just fashionable either, it seems to be backed up by research. A recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that children forced to adhere to strict gender expectations during their childhood are at an increased risk for mental health problems in their adolescence. But I believe this would be the case for either side of the gender debate, including those not allowing their child to identify with a gender.
Embracing gender neutrality
Sweden, known for it’s more gender-neutral style of schooling, recently added the word “hen” to their vocabulary which is to be used as a gender neutral pronoun instead of “him” or “her”. As of October 2018, the Dutch issued their first gender neutral passport, marking Leonne Zeegers with an X rather than an M (Man) or a V (Woman). However, many countries (including Australia, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Malta, Nepal, Canada, Denmark and New Zealand) already offer their citizens a gender neutral option on their passports. As it appears, we have some catching up to do.
If we want our children to live in a world of equal opportunities, we need to start confronting the way society treats children. Championing shops to not separate toys into “boys toys” and “girls toys”, pushing schools to treat children the same, having children’s clothes rather than boys clothes and girls clothes, etc.
We are in some small ways moving towards that but we’re not quite there yet. Last year retail giant John Lewis made a point of advertising on social media that they no longer have “boys clothes” and “girls clothes” on their labels but will now have “Boys & Girls” or “Girls & Boys” on their new labels. As they were glorified on Instagram and congratulated, I wandered through a store and there was most definitely a divide between the girls and boys clothing which reinstates my belief that it’s not about the label, it’s about how we truly change the way we do things.
Similarly, Highgate School (an independent school in North London) announced a gender neutral uniform last year and while this libertarian point of view may recognise individual preferences, I would ask whether boys and girls are allowed to play in mixed sports teams yet.
Progress or confusion?
We all want our children to be happy and I am of the opinion that if we treat our children as individuals, exposing them to all that is out there, they will find themselves and show you who they are. But, we don’t need to deny them a gender to do so.
Both sides of the gender debate are quite extreme and I worry that we will end up with more children who are confused rather than secure in their choices, especially in situations where you have parents who go out of their way to push their child one way or another (under the disguise of being gender neutral).
A child’s anatomy is relevant and should be respected, not made redundant. There is a physical and social difference between boys and girls and this isn’t something we should be trying to change. Instead, we should be allowing our children to be who they are and at the same time teaching them to be compassionate, kind, respectful, stand up for themselves and believe in themselves, no matter what their gender.
See Natasha Mahtani’s other piece, Breastfeeding – what no one tells new mothers
- “It Begins at 10: How Gender Expectations Shape Early Adolescence Around the World”, Journal of adolescent health
- “Girl toys vs boy toys: The experiemnt – BBC Stories”, Youtube