“Gender neutral parenting” – it’s a bit of a buzz phrase rattling round the parenting community right now isn’t it? We have all seen images of Adele apparently causing controversy by allowing her son to wear a dress at Disneyland. Pink is no longer just for girls or blue for boys and clothing shops are cashing in on this trend by producing lines of “gender-neutral” clothes. I watched a vlog from a well-known parenting channel the other day giving their top tips on how to raise your child in a “gender neutral” fashion as though this is now the expected norm. Parents are choosing gender-neutral names for their children and allowing them to have the freedom to choose their own gender. Sweden has even gone so far as to add a gender-neutral personal pronoun to its national vocabulary. The lines between feminine and masculine have never been more blurred and parenting through these murky waters has never been more complicated.
All this leaves me feeling a bit perplexed to be honest. Surely, the whole concept along with the phrase ‘gender-neutral’ is a complete oxymoron? In my mind at least, gender is anything but neutral. The dictionary definition of ‘gender’ is “the state of being male or female.” Since when did people start choosing which they would prefer to be? It’s not as though your vagina or penis is something you can collect at a later date once you’ve decided which you’d prefer. You are born one or the other – the choice has already been pre-determined. I must quickly point out that I am not referring to people who are actually born as transgender individuals. If you are born believing that you are biologically the wrong gender and you feel trapped inside your own body, then my heart goes out to you. However, let’s be real, that only happens to a very small minority of people so why exactly are we all being encouraged to parent our children in this way?
The theory is that parenting a child in a gender-neutral way opens up the world for a child to discover him/herself without the usual stereotypical restrictions. It’s supposed to allow the child’s real personality to shine through. That’s great in theory but have you ever met a child who responded well to freedom of choice with no boundaries or guidance? Kids in my experience, particularly young ones, much prefer certainty and feel more secure for it. So does it really matter if I encourage my son to play with a train set rather than a doll? Will this stunt his emotional growth in some way because I haven’t offered him the opportunity to explore all avenues of the make-believe world? I’m not convinced.
My initial impulse is to be irritated by the whole concept of gender-neutrality (as if you couldn’t tell!) I have had to really sit and challenge my preconceptions. Having done this, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the whole contentious subject. On the one hand I firmly believe that our gender is defining and inherent to who we are, how we behave and how others perceive us. To ignore the fact that my daughter is female or that my son is male seems to imply that it is somehow shameful to be one or the other and yet it is such a crucial part of their identity and one that should not be ignored.
On the other hand, I do try to steer clear of stereotyping my children. You will never hear me say the phrase “boys don’t cry” or “girls don’t play football”. They can wear whatever colours they prefer and play with whatever toys they want. If my son grows up and wants to be a hairdresser and my daughter wants to be a trucker or vice versa then so be it – I’m not holding them back or buying into gender stereotypes. Therefore, I suppose I am subscribing to the gender-neutral parenting manual – albeit in a rather laid-back fashion
Ultimately though, for me there is a big difference between encouraging children to express themselves and ignoring a child’s gender or worse, encouraging them not to have one at all. Gender makes up a significant part of our identity, it cannot be denied. Having a clear identity is an essential part of feeling secure in your own skin and developing a solid sense of self-confidence. What is the point in bringing your daughter up to believe that she can be a boy if she feels like it? It’s like encouraging a horse to believe it can be a sheep – when ultimately it is always going to be a horse. I can’t see how it can be better to offer the horse the chance to explore it’s feelings of wooly-coatedness.
No doubt the gender-neutral argument will continue to rage on until the next parenting fad emerges. In the meantime I am going to have to wrap this up because my son is pestering me to help him build Lego spaceship zombie apocalypse ninjas or something equally un-neutral. After all boys will be boys…
This post was originally featured on Meet Other Mums website where I write as a guest blogger.