More often than not, when my feminist friends were pregnant they would swear, up and down, that everything was going to be gender neutral for their baby. No pink. No blue. No princesses. No sports onesies. And certainly no Barbies. If we’re being honest, that's a pretty tall order, and I think it sets us up for failure, or at the very least disappointment. Gender, specifically the gender binary, is everywhere. But that doesn't mean there aren't things you can do to parent your kid in a gender neutral way, even if it falls short of the gender-fluid Utopia you've imagined before you actually have a child.
Look, it’s a beautiful ideal! But above and beyond societal and marketing pressures to conform to maleness or femaleness (yeah, these bozos are still trying to make us believe it's a binary), the practical difficulty of establishing a gender neutral childhood is significant. I mean, have you ever tried to find gender neutral clothing without spending a million dollars at a specialty store? Your choices are limited and, frankly, pretty boring. As time goes on, you may also have to face the fact that your son is singularly interested in cars and your daughter only responds to the name “Princess Cinderella," despite your not promoting either of these things. You may also, throughout this process, eventually admit to yourself that you are more invested in gender norms than you’d thought before your child was born. It’s one thing to say there will be absolutely NO ‘boy’ things and ‘girl’ things for your baby, and another to put your son in a dress. (There’s absolutely nothing wrong with putting your son in a dress, to be clear, but in my own experience most parents shy away from it, and it’s related to the fact that we ourselves are not immune to gender expectations!)
The idea that we can raise children devoid of any gender preference, bias, or concept of binary is, in the long-run, almost certainly impossible (at the very least, it’s really, really, really difficult). Just because gender is a social construct doesn’t mean that construct doesn’t hold sway over us in myriad overt and subconscious ways. The monster that “lived under my bed” was a construct, too, but that didn’t stop it from affecting my bedtime routine between the ages of 5 and 8. (I SWEAR I SAW IT’S WARTY HAND THIS ONE TIME, YOU GUYS!) So what can we do to empower our kids to slough off societal hang-ups about boys and girls? Here's a start:
Go For Gender Inclusive Over Gender Neutral
This is my daughter (when she was an itty bitty). She is the bat. She is the Dark Knight. She is also a ballerina.
When you can get your hands on some specifically gender neutral toys or clothes, go for it, because that’s awesome (albeit often difficult and/or expensive), but I wouldn’t worry too much about eliminating all pinks, blues, dolls in lacy dresses, monster trucks, and any other traditional indicator of “boy” and “girl.” I think a more realistic approach is to include the aforementioned items regardless of your child’s gender. Buy your son a tutu and froo-froo baby dolls to play with. Give your daughter a tool belt and some trucks. Don’t worry about boy toys and girl toys. Just get your kid started with toys you think are cool and be sure to offer variety. This way, they will see these items as “theirs” before society teaches them which ones are “for boys” and “for girls.” One of my personal proudest moments as a parent was when my daughter went into the costume box and started putting on a tutu, and my son shouted, “Mommy! Tell her not to put on my tutu! Tutus are for big boys!”
Strive For Gender Parity In The Media They Consume
Female characters are given short shrift in books, television, and movies. Women and girls make up a lower percentage of speaking, named, or visible characters, and those who do are often secondary or tertiary characters or confirm gender stereotypes about women. In short, it will be hard to try to ensure that your kids are seeing a broad variety of well developed characters across the gender spectrum. I wholeheartedly recommend A Mighty Girl to browse some options. I’ll also go ahead and suggest that PBS kids’ shows, across the board, do a pretty great job of featuring male and female characters from across racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Avoid Gendered Pet Names
Girls are princesses, angels, and cupcakes, while boys are buddies, champs, and sports. I’m not saying to eliminate the use of these terms completely, necessarily, but if your little girl is constantly and almost exclusively being told she’s a princess and your son is constantly being called champ, that’s sending a message. It’s sending a message about what they should be, how you see them, and what you value in them.
Let Them Choose Their Personal Style
As you can see, my son's personal style for a while was "Dinosaur Brony."
Not only does this promote the feminist ideal of complete bodily autonomy, but it just lets your kid be themselves without having to worry about conforming to (or for that matter, intentionally subverting) gender norms. If your son wants a buzz cut and a Superman shirt paired with sparkly flip flops and nail polish, go for it. If your daughter wants the same, go for it. If, however, your daughter wants to wear pink from head to toe with a tiara and poofy skirt, that is also completely fine. The only “problem” with gender normative clothing, toys, activities, etc. is when normativity is presented as one’s only option.
Model Gender Equity & Equitable Division Of Labor (When Applicable)
If you are parenting with a partner whose gender expression is different from your own, this will be especially clutch. Be aware of traditional divisions of labor (and the fact that women tend to take on more household labor than men) when you and your partner go about running your household. Let your children see daddy cleaning and mommy fixing a leaky faucet. Have them “help” in all of these tasks so they can see if they like cooking or building or both. As parents, we’re, like, role models or some such. Apparently they pay attention to what we do and take cues from that.
Pay Attention To How You Praise & Describe Them
If I had a dollar for every time someone called my daughter “pretty,” or her outfits “pretty,” or her hair “pretty,” I wouldn’t have to worry about the debilitating student loan debt we will no doubt incur paying her college tuition. I mean, she is. But beyond pretty she is brilliant and kind and inquisitive. Those things are far more deserving of attention and praise than her being beautiful, but she doesn’t get those compliments nearly as often. By all means, call your daughter beautiful and your son brave, but make sure you’re passing out those compliments the other way around. The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice, so let’s make sure that inner voice is assuring them they are a well-rounded human being.
Remember That You Are Not The Sole Influence In Their Lives
Unless you’re creepy and keeping them isolated in a tower a la Rapunzel’s witch mom, your children are going to be exposed to the wide world, which just so happens to be full of gender normative, binary bullsh*t. So despite your noblest efforts, there will probably come a day when even your sweet, TinkerBell-loving little boy will come home with some crap about how x is for boys and y is for girls. Don’t worry! Your fine teachings have not been in vain! It’s just that he’s becoming exposed to conflicting ideas. He may have even announced this newfound discovery to you because he wanted to see how you would react to it. Just assure them that boys and girls can like and do whatever they want, continue to model these beliefs in your home life, and trust that, even if they’re hearing other people’s hang-ups, they’re hearing you, too.