MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Fri 25-Apr-14 15:22:01

Guest post: Raising gender neutral children - can it really be done?

In a society where shops selling children's toys are still divided into 'boys' and 'girls', is it possible to raise a child free from gender baggage?

In this guest post, MN blogger Anne Thériault reflects on her experiences of raising her son, and argues that parents must balance their desire to protect their children from others' prejudice, with the need to let them find their own identity.

Do read the post and add your thoughts to the thread.

Anne Thériault

The Belle Jar

Posted on: Fri 25-Apr-14 15:22:01

(74 comments )

Lead photo

"When a little boy wants to play with a doll or have his nails painted, it's not because he's feminine - it's because it's fun."

"Are you having a boy or a girl?"

It's pretty much the first question an expectant mother is asked, right after inquiries about her due date and demands to know what strange foods she's been craving. She will hear this question over and over throughout the course of her pregnancy. After the birth, well-meaning strangers will approach her, strangers who, for some reason, absolutely need to know her child's gender before they coo over how wonderful they are. Even cooing must be gender-appropriate, you see: "she's so beautiful," or "he's so strong," or "look at how sweet she is, she's such a girl."

Children are gendered to a frightening degree, and – with the majority of expectant parents finding out their child's sex during pregnancy – they’re boxed in to its narrow confines long before they draw their first breath. A baby girl can expect to go home to a pink room sprinkled with pink toys and with a closet full of pink clothing. You've got to try really hard to find gender-neutral apparel for children – shops are divided neatly into "boy" and "girl" sections, with all things related to sports and transportation and outer space on one side, and all things lacy and ruffly and pastel-coloured on the other. Right from birth, society teaches our children that they need to fit into stereotypical gender roles, or else suffer dire consequences.

Of course, gender is a social construct. Everything we think we know about how boys are different from girls is informed by the society we live in, and we reinforce these ideas in our own children in both subtle and overt ways. "Boys are so rambunctious compared to girls," we say, which in turn, influences how we treat loud, active boys versus how we treat loud, active girls. Perhaps we’re more lenient about curbing that type of behaviour in boys, whereas we might be sterner with a girl who exhibits those tendencies. We give cues to our children about what we expect from them, and in turn they modify their behaviour according to those cues - it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An increasing number of parents would say that little boys should be allowed to wear dresses and make-up if they want to – but the truth is that their sons will face repercussions that might be difficult, painful or even physically dangerous. Even if we as parents understand and acknowledge that letting our kids dress in and play with the things that they love is the best possible option, we simultaneously want to protect our children from any kind of abuse.


Society tends to conflate sex and gender, but they’re not the same and a distinction should be made. A person's sex is typically (though not always) identifiable at birth, while it might take them years to figure out how they fit into the gender roles our society has created. But we don’t give children time to figure anything out about gender – we foist all of our own ideas on them from the word go, and then hope for the best.

I'm determined to raise my son with as little gender baggage as possible, and while it hasn't always been easy, so far it's been worth it. I've given him trucks and trains to play with, yes, but also dolls and a kitchen set. I switch up the pronouns in books so that it’s not just boys doing 'boy things' and girls doing 'girl things' all the time. I try to keep his clothing as gender-neutral as possible and I let him wear his hair long because that's how he likes it, and he should be able to have his hair whatever length makes him happy.

The fact is, kids don't have an innate concept of gender - anything they know about gender, they've learned from us. When a little boy wants to play with a doll or have his nails painted, it's not because he's feminine – it's because it's fun. It's only once an adult tells him that those are 'girl' things that he creates the association. And when the adult acts as if they're uncertain or disapproving of that choice, then the child starts to feel that 'girl' things are bad or wrong. Although I'm conscious of how I teach my son about gender, I don’t think of him as a boy, really – I just think of him as my kid, his own individual person with his own likes and dislikes.

The other day, my neighbours saw him wearing pyjamas with rocket-ships on them, and they said: "Oh, of course he loves outer space – he's a boy!" But he doesn't love outer space or rockets or astronauts because he's a boy – he loves them because these things are fascinating and fun no matter what your gender. By the same token, when he takes care of his baby doll and pretends to feed it and change its nappy, he's not doing that because he's a girl – he's doing that because he's practising the nurturing skills that he's learned from his father and me. Sometimes he'll tell me that when he grows up, first he wants to be a mama and then he'll be a dada. I love that right now gender is still this strange, fluid thing to him. I hope that he keeps that belief for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, our culture routinely punishes people who deviate from the gender boxes that they've been put in. An increasing number of parents would say that little boys should be allowed to wear dresses and make-up if they want to – but the truth is that their sons will face repercussions that might be difficult, painful or even physically dangerous. Even if we as parents understand and acknowledge that letting our kids dress in and play with the things that they love is the best possible option, we simultaneously want to protect our children from any kind of abuse. It’s a fine balance, but we owe it to our children to try to find that balance – above all we want them to be as comfortable in their own skins as possible.

We need to let our kids be whoever they are and create an environment where they feel safe exploring all of their options. We should teach our children to question assumptions about gender – if they tell you that only men drive trucks, ask them why they think that and then provide examples of women truck drivers. And we must be gentle on ourselves – if you have a girl who only loves pink and princesses, don't assume that you've somehow failed to fully tear down gender stereotypes. Maybe she would have liked princesses no matter what. Maybe her best friend loves pink and your daughter wants to be just like her in every way possible. Maybe she'll grow out of it, and maybe not. The point is that it’s their choice.

We have to make them feel that whatever they like is exactly the right thing for them to like, because the truth is, wherever our children end up falling on the gender spectrum, that is exactly where they should be.

By Anne Thériault

Twitter: @anne_theriault

BillyBanter Fri 25-Apr-14 16:09:13

I think it is important to reduce genderedness as much as possible and I get frustrated when people insist that their child likes pink or trucks on the basis of no external influence whatsoever, just because they are a girl/boy. However, as you discuss, I don't think one should push it so far that our children carry the burden of our social experiment. eg sending your son to school in a pinafore because you want to challenge the status quo is probably going to make life quite hard for him and the repercussions will follow him into adulthood.

Society wide challenges like let toys be toys are a step in the right direction but it will take time to change attitudes.

LackaDAISYcal Fri 25-Apr-14 16:15:31

hear hear. I try to let my children have as much choice as possible over clothes and colours, and recently had a quite heated debate about the fact that my five year old DS likes to wear his sisters cast off dresses, tights and leggings (multi coloured stripes, what's not to like!) and dressing up clothes. Equally my DD wears her bigger brother's cast offs and occasionally dresses as a pirate.

What annoys me in the supermarket dressing up section is nurse's outfits for girls and doctors outfits for boy's and I am constantly reiterating that no, X isn' a boy or girl colour; it's just a colour, and telling all my children that they can be anything they want to be regardless of their gender, if they work hard and apply themselves.

It also struck me this afternoon, picking up DD and "her" bike at school, she had a crowd of small boys admiring it; it's blue and silver and belonged to her brother and is pretty beaten up. Her friend, with a brand new pink one with ribbons on the handlebars had no such admiring crowd of boys. It's a shame that boys are programmed to like something old and beaten up rather than something new, based purely on its perception of belonging to their gang or not.

Things were so much easier growing up in the 70s!

rabbitrisen Fri 25-Apr-14 16:24:55

It wont work because men wont let it.

Bunbaker Fri 25-Apr-14 17:13:51

I think you could only make things completely gender neutral if you didn't watch TV, send your children to school, mix with society in general. You might do your best, but you can't control outside influences.

BTW I used to buy cars and train sets for DD, but she just wasn't interested.

Bonsoir Fri 25-Apr-14 17:38:37

I just don't agree that gender differences are not innate.

rabbitrisen Fri 25-Apr-14 17:42:57

I agree Bonsoir.

And the op only has one boy at the moment.

mrscog Fri 25-Apr-14 17:43:52

I am doing my best with DS, interestingly his favourite things are his toy tractors and digger, being outside, toy kitchen, puzzles and Peppa Pig. So quite balanced really, but I have been careful not to 'push' any particular activity over another. I cringe though when people give him gender labels as he's just a child to me.

mrscog Fri 25-Apr-14 17:45:29

Bonsoir, and rabbit. I don't disagree that there are likely to be some innate gender differences. However I think that our societal stereotypes which are so heavily pushed completely cloud us from knowing what they are. Have you read Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine? It's a really interesting book on the subject.

noddyholder Fri 25-Apr-14 17:50:05

No

Bonsoir Fri 25-Apr-14 17:50:22

I think personality is massively shaped by genes. Culture is not nearly as important as some like to imagine.

mrscog Fri 25-Apr-14 17:59:30

That's interesting and I suspect fairly true Bonsoir (personality shaped by genes). DS certainly displays strong personality traits of both DH and myself.

piscivorous Fri 25-Apr-14 18:12:39

I agree that children should have a choice and not be forced into roles or choices however, having had one child of each sex, I think it is just as wrong to push them from any gender specific choice into neutrality.

littleredsquirrel Fri 25-Apr-14 18:15:15

We don't live in a gender neutral society.

Bonsoir Fri 25-Apr-14 18:15:23

My DSSs (to whom I am of course not genetically related but with whom I live in very close proximity and in whom I attempt to instill what I think are some of my more desirable habits) are proof positive of the infallibility of genes grin.

I wish I could take credit for (what I perceive to be) DD's great qualities but they are merely inherited, not the fruit of my labours.

littleredsquirrel Fri 25-Apr-14 18:17:08

agree piscivorous.

BillyBanter Fri 25-Apr-14 18:23:34

I think environment is a lot more important than you imagine, bonsoir.

We treat girls and boys differently from birth. Give people a baby in a pink romper suit and they will be more gentle and guide it towards more 'girly' toys than if it is in a blue romper suit.

Gender influence is all around children from day one, from primary carers to siblings to shops to tv programmes, books, nurseries etc.

Children use their environments and experiences, interactions to develop their identities including gender identity. Many parents will notice a time in their child's development where they become more aware of who is a boy, who is a girl, what boys are like/do, what girls are like/do and align themselves to one or other to some degree. 'But blue is a boys colour, mummy!!' It used to be pink was a boys colour. It's not innate that 'girls just like pink', it's a societal construct.

SoftSheen Fri 25-Apr-14 18:54:00

Gender differences are innate (and fundamental to our continued existence as a species). It is natural to want to identify someone else's gender, and to make one's own gender identifiable, according to societal norms.

We shouldn't be attempting to erase gender differences, but rather ensure that children are equally valued, and given equal opportunities, irrespective of their gender.

claraschu Fri 25-Apr-14 19:10:41

I do think there are some natural tendencies which seem to be gender linked, but certainly not things like a taste for outer space or pink ponies. I feel that girls tend to be more aware of other people, and more motivated by other people's approval.

Of course, many children are exceptions.

LackaDAISYcal Fri 25-Apr-14 19:12:04

yes, gender preferences are innate; my DD is one of the girliest girls ever, and I am sooo not like that. But since she could crawl and toddle, shoes and bags and jewellery have fascinated her as have babies and nurturing things. Doesn't mean she can't be a top doctor or scientist!!

Equally my DS1 was obsessed with anything with wheels on, building blocks and constructiony type toys; not through me pushing them onto him, but because that's what he made a bee line for.

However, there is also an element of nurture as well. DS2 who has both an older DBro and DSis, is much more gender balanced.

Bonsoir Fri 25-Apr-14 19:14:39

My sister, who is a girly-girl to the core and can't tell a Rolls-Royce from a Twingo, couldn't work out where her DS1, whom she brought up herself with no childcare and who spoke to his (frequently absent) father in another language than English, had learned to recognise all the cars parked in the road by brand name before he was 2...

mrscog Fri 25-Apr-14 19:29:55

LackaDAISYcal, if gender differences are innate, how do you account for the fact that you're so different to your DD?

LackaDAISYcal Fri 25-Apr-14 20:32:38

ah, good point mrscog grin

I suppose I am typically female in that I am nurturing and caring, and tend towards perceived girly things like bags and shoes and make up, but not silly nails and manicures and I am not girly in the pink and frilly sense at all, but my DD is. So, I supose there is an element of nature and nurture in all of us. What I try to do is weed out the less savoury bits of the nurture, such as gender stereotyping and pigeonholing girls into being less capable or able than boys.

Interesting that I am a structural engineer by profession; I felt from an early age that I should fight against the suggested career path for girls from my background of nurse or secretary if clever, shop/factory worker if not, and believe me it was a fight. I did technical subjects at school rather than home economics (one of the first years at my comp to be given a choice back in 1980) and was the only girl in my class at high school and in a small minority at college and university and in the workforce.

NotCitrus Fri 25-Apr-14 21:42:08

Friends of mine has been bringing up their baby as gender-neutrally as possible, which has meant not telling people what sex it is. Once they assured me that once they hit potty-training age they'd start to use sex-specific pronouns, and I'd had two years of people dumping their expectations onto my ds, I figured it was a bloody good idea.
Their HV reported them to social services - luckily ss had better things to worry about...

It's all those tiny things that get me - saying "ooh, be careful" to a toddling girl and "isn't he brave" to an equally wobbly boy, "mind the other baby" versus "oops, he knocked her", giving the three pretty flowers on the garden wall from left to right to children in sign+sign class, unless it means a boy would be given the pink flower, in which case he has to be given the other one.

Or go to stay and play: bemused toddlers taking in all the activities and girls being told "look, there's beads! you like beads, don't you?" and boys get "aw, he's such a boy!" whenever they pick up a car and slience if they drop it, whereas girls get silence when they pick up a car but "oh, let's find something you like" when they put it down again.

And when I took my newborn, the mums cooed to their child, "look! a little baby!" - and generally the child glanced over and went back to playing. But then practically all the mums with girls commanded "It's a little baby! Look at the baby!" but the ones with boys just shrugged. I lost count after about 30 girls being ordered to admire my baby versus no boys...

Given hours of such statements each week, is it any wonder most toddlers 'prefer' gendered things by 18 months? If you want to be more gender neutral, shut up.

As it happens, my ds is mini-me, but loved pink (which I hate, but all toddlers prefer warm colours like pink and orange and red and yellow) until he got to preschool class, when older siblings started to pass down messages that pink is a girly colour. Dd is hugely more into messy play and wheels than he was, while being feminine in other ways like caring about clothes. But she's only 2.

LackaDAISYcal Fri 25-Apr-14 21:50:01

I think not telling people the sex is just plain odd confused. By all means be as gender neutral as possible, but that is a tad extreme is it not?

And on the "oooh, brave" vs "oooh, be careful" comments for boys vs girls, I don't think I've ever witnessed anything like that with all three of my children; there was the same amount of careful comments for all of them. And I have one overly cautious boy, one moderately cautious girl and one fearless to the point of physical endangerment boy.

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