Is Gender Neutral Parenting Possible? Is it Desirable?

Earlier today I skimmed through an article about how raising girls changes a father’s views on gender identity that explored the concept of gender neutral parenting which made me ask myself if it’s a good idea or not. Parents.com comments on gender neutral parenting that “some think it’s a great way to encourage a child to embrace his or her true identity, others believe it will confuse the child and alienate [them] socially.” For many parents, it seems to be significantly about how to decorate the baby’s room, which seems a bit odd to me. One expert even counsels: “Stripping the space of anything gendered is a poor solution… A better strategy involves filling the room with materials and toys that encourage engagement and play.” Do parents really have that much angst over wall colors and toy choices?

heavy construction equipment - diggerPretty darn interesting stuff and it got me to thinking about the gender journey we’ve had with each of our children. My kids are now 22 (female), 19 (male) and 15 (female). Their Mom and I didn’t particularly push traditional gender roles on them and we weren’t deep in traditional gender roles ourselves either. She cooked, but I cooked at least as much, I worked and traveled on business, she worked and traveled on business too, neither of us fixed cars 🙂 and she and her folks (well, her Mom) were way more into sports than I was, or anyone on my side of the family.

As a result, it was fascinating to see how our children gravitated to what would doubtless be called fairly “gender normative” interests: My son was fascinated by construction sites and would happily spend hours watching a building go up from the comfort of his stroller. Both of his sisters at the same age were uninterested in construction and trucks but completely fascinated by baby animals and horses of all sizes.

Of course, gender roles come from more than just Mom & Dad because ya can’t live outside of your culture and society. Knowing that, however, we definitely did our best to limit their media exposure, though we didn’t really aim for neutral programming. I do believe that almost all media, whether TV, streaming videos, or computers, are deleterious to their cognitive development, but that’s another story.

Movies were a big deal and Mom and I had very strong feelings about what was appropriate, so their (imposed, I admit) favorite movies were Mary Poppins (which has pretty cisnormal gender roles, I suppose) and Aristocats (which I’ve always seen as more of a socioeconomic equality theme than anything gender related). We didn’t really worry about it, though, and figured that if we talked about gender roles and demonstrated gender balance in our lives (I clean, their mom liked fiddling with a screwdriver, fixing things), it’d all just work out okay in the end. Our boy wouldn’t be sexist and our girls wouldn’t feel disempowered.

mare and foal

But here’s the thing: I don’t want to be following some sort of gender neutral parenting model anyway. I want to raise children who can decide for themselves what interests them, identify what they gravitate towards and feel competent doing, and pick out books, movies, hobbies, even clothes and colors that appeal to themselves, not conform to a particular gender norm. And I’m glad to report that I feel that we have done that with our children. They’ve all played competitive team sports, they’re all happy to advise each other on fashion and style, and each has their distinctive personality that’s not either completely masculine or feminine.

rainbow unicornLet me instead share my philosophy of parenting, and it’s a tough one, I admit. Children growing up to be happy adults comes from us parents and other adults listening to them and honoring and supporting their interests. That goes way further than being anxious about whether you’re forcing them to conform to an external gender norm. At least, in my opinion. Will their peer group impose gender norms anyway? Yeah, probably. But like everyone else, if you can help kids learn to expand their social circles to have inclusive and supportive friends, that can go a long way to balancing out judgy and overly critical friends. Heck, we adults can practice that skill too.

But that’s all my opinion and while I’ve raised three young adults who are traveling into their adult lives with success, I’m just one parent. I’m just a guy. 🙂 So…

What’s your take? If your daughter wants to wear a t-shirt with a unicorn and rainbow graphic, will you tell them it’s too gendered? Or if your son wants to get a sports jersey from a favored athlete? Or what if it’s vice-versa…?

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