Here’s the problem gender stereotypes: they say many true things about boys and girls — who they are, what they like, what they want, what they’re capable of — but they don’t say all of the true things. My son does indeed enjoy pushing his toy truck across the floor. He rough houses. He ate a handful of mud the other day. He loves the outdoors. He plays catch. He likes bears, lions, dragons, and dinosaurs because they growl and roar. One of his first words was “whoo whoo” — the sound of a choo choo train, obviously.
Name any toddler boy thing, and he’ll likely be into it. All of those “boy things” are great fun, and not remotely toxic.
What’s problematic is when a descriptive observation (most boys like trucks) becomes a prescriptive value that limits and shames boys who don’t conform — e.g., all boys should like trucks, and by extension, shouldn’t like a certain set of other things that only girls should like. It’s also problematic when those accurate descriptive observations ignore other accurate observations that give the whole story about boys and girls — such as, “most girls like trucks too.”
People being who they are and liking what they do is never a problem, even if their interests are stereotypical. There’s nothing wrong with statements such as, “Most boys I know prefer trucks to dolls,” and there’s nothing toxic, dangerous, or oppressive about boys enjoying trucks over dolls.
But gender stereotypes often get internalized not only as “the way things are” but also “the way things ought to be” — so much so that those generalities, however accurate, prevent us from seeing our individual kids as they actually are. In other words, we often miss when our descriptive observations become prescriptive, and oppressive, values.
Already someone has snatched a doll away from my son because “boys don’t play with dolls” — a funny observation, since a boy was literally just playing with a doll. “Pink is a girls’ color!” some of my former students shouted at the boy using pink scissors — an odd assertion, since a boy is currently using pink scissors without any evidence of a sex change.
We say “boys don’t,” but what we really mean is “boys shouldn’t.” Instead of changing our concept of masculinity to include all the things that boys can and often are interested in, we try to restrict the parameters of our sons’ unique beings based solely on “what most boys do.”
Do I really have to elaborate on how blind, repressive, and, frankly, silly this is? Even if it’s true that more boys like “boy things,” many boys do like many of the things girls like. That’s a fact. Why deny it? Why can’t “most boys prefer trucks to dolls” be an interesting factoid instead of a prescription for how our individual sons must be? My individual son is not “most boys.” He is himself. And there are many boys (and many girls) like him.
Gendered parenting says be this, not that. It takes all the different things and interests and traits in the world and divides them into two categories: masculine and feminine. It introduces a faulty, absolute division of the world: you can be like a girl, or you can be like a boy — as if that’s the only or primary value governing children’s interests. If a boy possesses too many things, interests, and traits from the “feminine side,” he allegedly becomes effeminate. Even though he may naturally value those “feminine” things and interests and naturally possess those “feminine” traits, gendered parenting says those things, interests, and traits cannot be a boy’s true masculine nature.
Gendered parenting is a lens that trains the eye to look only for masculine or feminine traits and interests in boys and girls, respectively, and thus reinforce only those things as good, normal, and desirable. And if children don’t respond to this subtler reinforcement, gendered parenting openly shames the “effeminate” or “unladylike” things their children do.
Basically, gendered parenting only values parts of our kids — everything that falls under a predetermined “masculine” and “feminine” category.
Gendered parenting particularly hits hard against feminine traits — obviously in boys, but also in many girls raised in “gender-neutral” households. There is a kind of “gender-neutral” parenting that applies the same prescriptive censorship against “girly” things. Their girls will not wear pink. They will not like princesses. They will not wear dresses, or make up, or sparkly shoes. On principle. These gender-neutral households act as if there is only one way to be a strong woman — and that is to be like traditional masculinity, or at least not like traditional femininity.
Of course, many girls like “girly” things even in households where parents don’t introduce them or outright discourage them. Restricting our children to a predetermined way of being — even if it’s a less traditional, allegedly more subversive way — is just plain old gendered parenting. There’s nothing progressive about it.
My husband convinced me to get rid of the term “gender-neutral” altogether and replace it with “parenting without gender stereotypes” instead. For many, gender-neutral parenting implies an aim to make boys as feminine as possible and girls as masculine as possible, deleting and adding feminine and masculine traits until their child is completely androgynous.
This is not the parenting without gender stereotypes that I advocate. Parenting without gender stereotypes is not prescriptive. It doesn’t let gender concepts for either sex dictate how the child will be raised. It doesn’t place any inherent value on masculinity and femininity as distinct sets of virtues, interests, traits, colors, activities, and so on. It isn’t about making boys less like boys and more like girls; it’s about operating outside of the idea that boys should be one way because they’re boys, and girls should be another way because they’re girls.
Parenting without gender stereotypes draws awareness to gender stereotypes only to check parents’ own biases and tendencies — never to restrict a child’s being.
That needs to be understood clearly: parenting without gender stereotypes is not about “un-sexing” children. It’s not about confusing them about their biology, or discouraging stereotypical interests, or ignoring real differences between boys and girls and how the culture socializes them. It’s about un-gendering and un-stereotyping parents‘ perspectives that would cause them to miss, ignore, downplay, or shame certain of their children’s traits when they view their children primarily as boys or girls instead of as individuals who happen to be a boy or a girl.
Parenting without gender stereotypes challenges parents’ gendered assumptions. We assume that baby boys like blue, sports, bears, dinosaurs, and rough and tumble play, so we decorate their nurseries in “boy colors,” buy them dinosaur rompers, and purchase Little Tykes push mowers for their birthdays. Let me again be clear: nothing is wrong with any of those things, and nothing is wrong with the assumption that boys will enjoy them. In fact, I decorated e.e.’s nursery in primary colors, dressed him in dinosaur rompers for a good chunk of his babyhood, and bought him a Little Tykes push mower for his birthday. Those are all things that are good, fun, and likely to pique any kid’s interest.
A problematic assumption is that there’s something wrong with a boy if he doesn’t like those things, or an assumption that boys wouldn’t like the color pink, dance, cats, flowers, and make-believe dress-up — because let me assure you, they are just as likely to enjoy them as they enjoy all those wonderful “boy things.” e.e. chooses his pink sparkly hand-me-down shoes over his no-nonsense sports shoes every time. His first explorations in play involved a beloved leather purse, a teething necklace, and Mommy’s scarves. He spends the majority of his day “cooking,” and if I ever lose him in a crowded play place, I can generally find him at the play kitchen.
Gendered assumptions miss whole chunks of a child’s world. My e.e. still doesn’t play with his Little Tykes push mower, but he loves snuggling his Monkey stuffie. Going off gendered assumptions, who’d’ve thunk that?
Parenting without gender stereotypes also challenges parents’ gendered assumptions on the meaning of children’s play and interests. Many people would recoil at many of e.e.’s toys: He has a purse? You bought him a purple necklace for Christmas?! You’re emasculating your son!
But that’s superimposing a gendered understanding of the world onto my son’s play. He’s one years old. I guarantee you that he doesn’t gravitate toward or away from certain things based on the social pressure to be a boy, or to advance a feminist agenda. Even if I wanted to shape him into a particular kind of child, I couldn’t: I can’t get him interested in most of the stuff I set out for him. He plays with what he likes, for reasons that have nothing to do with gendered stereotypes. He doesn’t play with purses to challenge the status quo. All he knows about purses is that they’re fun to hang around his neck, pull around, fill with stuff, and fiddle with buckles, straps, and zippers.
Adults read far too much of their own beliefs and fears into their kids’ play. Because we’re hyper-aware of gender stereotypes, we often fail to see the context, the meaning, and the true appeal of a child’s particular interest. We might see the boys who come to my school with painted nails and assume that they’re secretly gay, or want to be girls, or will grow up to be fashion icons, or don’t want anything to do with “masculine” things.
We’d guess wrong, because every one of those boys fits the traditional rough-and-tumble stereotype. They like painted nails because colorful paint fun, especially on nails! It doesn’t stop them from digging for worms or tackling each other on the playground. Nor does it predict that they’ll be feminists or emotionally intelligent or anything like that. It’s just nail polish to them — no gendered thinking, whether traditional or subversive, attached.
Shame, oppression, toxicity; self-confidence, equality, freedom: they start with outside values that parents’ inculcate in their children, not with children’s innate interests. Parenting without gender stereotypes redirects parental influence toward teaching real virtues and values, rather than assuming that certain interests will predict a certain kind of virtue or value.
Of course, what children are interested in can and does influence their values. Play is their way of exploring the world — and it matters. So there’s nothing wrong with deliberately introducing or not introducing a child to something because you as a parent value and enjoy it (or don’t). Parenting without gender stereotypes asks us to examine the reasons why we do or don’t value that thing, and get rid of reasons that are based in gendered thinking — thinking that is entirely arbitrary and culturally bound.
I deliberately put my son in pinks and florals. Why? Because his dad and I like them. Sharing something we love with our son is a perfectly natural parenting instinct. Pink is a great color, floral fabrics are fun, and good grief, God created pink and flowers for everyone. Why shouldn’t naturally-occurring parts of creation show up on my son’s sweatshirt? Once e.e. starts picking out his own clothes, I won’t mind if he prefers different prints or colors. There’s no inherent goodness in him liking pink or floral; no inherent danger in him picking out his truck pjs and dino shirts instead. His color and print preferences are not, in themselves, indicators about his values or personality.
But the fact that he can wear whatever he likes without having to worry about whether he’s less of a man — that’s an important value I hope to pass on through his pink shirts.
For me, parenting without gender stereotypes isn’t trying to get my son to prefer pink over blue or girl stuff over boy stuff. It’s trying to get him to see that every option is valuable in its own way and open to his choosing. Where gendered parenting says he can be this or that, parenting without gender stereotypes says he can be this and that. He can rough house and play in the mud and play kitchen and drive his trucks and read mermaid books and like lions and like all the colors of the rainbow (or only prefer blue). He can respect women and hate the color pink; he can be a firefighter and unwind with a latte; he can be completely, stereotypically masculine and still be not an ounce toxic in his thinking or behavior; he can be every inch gay and not be any less of a man.
He can like whatever he likes, and by extension, he can be whoever he is, and he doesn’t ever have to worry about conforming to what most boys do just because most boys do it. And I will love all of who he is.
It’s not that kids should enjoy a predetermined amount of “girl things” or “boy things.” It’s that they already do enjoy a whole bunch of diverse things that range from “girl” to “boy” to “neutral.” If we take away our gender blinders long enough to see, that would be the most obvious and accurate description of our children.