Raising him purple: a defense of gender neutrality in early childhood

One of the stereotypes about feminists is that we’d have everyone raise their children completely gender-blind, ignoring and eliminating any sex-based variables that pop up, seeking to create a generation of complete androgynes, indistinguishable from each other, with equality achieved through absolute sameness.

Which is complete poppycock, of course.

Except, well, it kind of isn’t. Because I do think there is value in raising our children in a gender-neutral manner. Not in the stereotypical way, perhaps, in that my end goal is as far from creating a generation of androgynes as one can get, but yes, in that I wish we would dress all our infants and toddlers the same regardless of sex, give them the same toys, talk to them the same — even perhaps give them the same names, because so much of gendering is unconscious, and we are unlikely to treat a “Suzette” the same as a “Steve”, no matter how enlightened we think we might be.

There are several reasons I believe this, but first let me say: I’m not interested in judging individuals, or determining whether anyone is “gender-neutral enough” to get whatever gold star or mental checkmark anyone might be imagining goes on in my head. Honestly? I don’t care that much, and “my best friends” (no, really!) raise their children highly gendered, The Man and I (obviously) do some gendering of the Boychick so we’re not “perfect”, I think you can raise girls in pink dresses and boys in blue suits and still be feminist, etc, etc, and so on.

What I do care about is how we think about these things — and that we think about these things. I care about the pervasiveness and the degree of gendering in society, so that these things aren’t a matter of individual choice, but of cultural prescription. I care that I can hardly find clothing for my child free of sexist characters or stereotyped colors. I care that I cannot take the Boychick out in public without him hearing some variation of “What a big strong boy you are!” or “What a pretty girl you have!” depending on how he’s been gendered in the eyes of strangers that day. I care about the culture my child is growing up in, and more and more entering into and being influenced by as he ventures out of the environment we his parents create for him.

But individuals? As long as you’re doing your good enough (screw “best”), that’s good enough for me — and really, it shouldn’t matter to you what I think anyway. Even if I were judging you. Which I’m not. Honest.

OK, got that out of the way? Good. Let’s talk gender.

I do not think gender is entirely patriarchally created — exaggerated, adulterated, interpreted, interpolated, yes: but not created. Just like sexuality, I think there’s some part of our brain that is filled in with some concept of Who We Are (or for sexuality, Who We Like). Sometimes this matches our bodies — and thus the slot society ascribes to us, whether we appreciate the roles and dictates that go along with that slot or not –, and sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, we hardly think about it, and assume that “gender” is nothing more than culturally ascribed ideals based on our phenotypic sex (that is, our genitals and secondary sex characteristics) — or, that those roles are Inherent Immutable Characteristics, which arise from our sex-gender (since they’re obviously the same thing, right?).

This type of thinking is what is known as cis privilege. Just like heterosexuality used to be (and still too often is) considered the default/only state of being, so obvious it was/is unnamed and invisible, so too is the state of being cissexual and cisgender. But our cis person inability to recognize the sex/gender difference (that is, that assigned gender based on phenotypic sex and inherent gender based on whatever it is in our brains/selves that determines this sort of thing are two different categories which may or may not accord) does not make it any less real.

So, what does this have to do with my annoyance at gendered infant and toddler clothing, and toys, and stereotypes? Only that while I know my child has a penis and testicles, and apparently lacks a vulva and vagina, I do not know that he is a boy. I may think that he is a boy, it is likely that he is a boy, but just like I do not — and cannot until he informs me — know his sexuality, I do not — and cannot until he informs me — know his gender. He might be a boy. He might be a girl. He might be some variation of genderqueer or otherwise fall midway in the gender spectrum, or outside of it altogether. (And for that matter, he might be a high femme boy or a very butch girl, but that’s getting too complicated even for me to contemplate in depth in this blog.)

But let’s say he’s a boy. Let’s say I know — or am willing to take the 90% or so odds — that his gender matches his phenotypic sex, and that his phenotypic sex reflects his genotypic sex (that is, that he is not some variation of intersex, any of the numerous types of being that do not fall into “neat” XX female-bodied women and XY male-bodied men, not all of which present obviously at infancy). Why not then dress him all in blues and browns and trucks and puppies? Why not avoid pink like the plague (and dream of a daughter if I desire demure little dresses and dear little bows)?

The answer to that comes down to a more traditionally feminist (and thus all too often transphobic, but let’s see if I can avoid that) objection to the codification of arbitrary gender roles. This part you’ve likely heard before: why must girls wear clothing that is decorative, delicate? Why must they present as precious, pretty, petite? Why must boys wear clothing that is rugged, dark (or on occasion bold)? Why must they be strong, boisterous (“boy-sterous”?)? What the hell do kittens and butterflies have to do with being female, trucks and dinosaurs to do with being male? (And when we raise children in a culture that colors everything “girl” pink, and slaps truck on everything “boy”, even if we their parents do not, why are we so damned surprised that our highly intelligent and observant children notice this and fall in line with what they feel they’re supposed to like?)

Our children are intelligent and observant, and they will and do pick up on the messages coded in the genderization of practically every product they encounter (and the more explicit messages they hear and see). These messages — still, today, in 2009 — say that girls are for looking at, boys are for doing; they say girls are relational and boys are aggressive; they say that girls do fantasy (unicorns, fairies), and boys do science (bugs, dinosaurs).

These messages are, in short, misogynistic patriarchal bullshit. And I want no part of them, for myself, or for my child.

Do I want him (if he he be) to be androgynous, indistinguishable in all ways from his presumably-female best friend? No. But I would far rather let him learn that he is fundamentally the same as her than that he and she are as wildly different as patriarchy would have him believe.

Are there inherent gender differences? Indubitably — in the nature of highly overlapping bell curves on a population scale. There are differences based on our physical bodies, differences that arise from our hormones once we enter puberty, differences in preferences based on our inborn gender. But these are not absolute differences: they are tendencies noticeable only on the large scale, tendencies the patriarchal arm of the kyriarchy pushes as far apart as it can in an effort to divide and conquer us.

But far more profound are our similarities as members of the same species; far more profound are the individual differences based on inherent personality. I want to honor my child for who he is, who he may be even before I know exactly who that is; I want to minimize the misogynistic messages he absorbs; I want him to recognize everyone’s common humanity even as people differ; I want him to pursue his interests whatever they are, regardless of the gendered coding his society has ascribed to them; and I want to create a culture in which this is true for all children, because if it is not true for all, it cannot truly happen even for one.

He will know his gender one day (he may know it now and be unable to tell me). He will want to create his presentation based on the combination of what he knows his gender to be, what his culture tells him belongs to that gender, and what he as a person simply likes. He may be one of the many, many XY male-bodied boys who simply likes things that go (and why not? trucks are nifty). But unless I give him room — psychic and psychological space, if you will — to discover and create these things on his own, I will never know how much of what he does is what he really wants, and how much is what he’s adopted because it’s what he thinks he’s supposed to do and like.

I’m not opposed to gender (which would be about as sensical as being opposed to gravity); I’m just opposed to its imposition on children too young to know better, but not too young to be warped by all the baggage it brings with it. I cannot say it better than this: “Turn down the volume on the gender coding. Respond to the child’s personality. Let your child be who he or she is.” Not gender-free. Just free to be whatever gender they are — whatever that means to them.

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54 Responses to Raising him purple: a defense of gender neutrality in early childhood

  1. I know a Lesbian Couple — friends of mine — had a girl from a donor and a boy who was adopted. Both kids born months apart from each other. They raised them the same…and they both told me they were shocked that the boy was so into cars despite them providing no cars and transportation like toys. What you have to say has merit but there is nature and there is nurture. Both exist and both influence.

    • yeah, at some point around 20 months, our son developed a rather sudden interest in cars, trucks, bulldozers, backhoes, etc. On the one hand, it really took us by surprise because we’re car-free and can’t stand vehicles used for ‘development’ (destruction, more like). On the other hand, we live on a major street that has been under construction for some time now (his entire life), so maybe he’d just reached a saturation point… I don’t know… It seemed pretty hard-wired.

    • Both of my sons are crazy over cars, dinosaurs, and other “boy” things. But they also love baby dolls, playing house, and other “girl” things. Come to think of it, as a girl I loved cars and climbing trees and making mud forts.

      Maybe nature just means that some kids will love these things and others will love those things. But that line doesn’t have to be drawn between boys and girls.

    • A child’s parents are not the only influence on their life. If they are exposed to television, toy stores, other children, other children’s parents, or relatives, they are going to be exposed to strict gendering.

      • Exactly, which is why I said “I want to create a culture in which this is true for all children, because if it is not true for all, it cannot truly happen even for one.” A single family unit can only do so much; the culture must change as well.

    • But saying that boys cannot play with cars is just as sexist as saying they must. Girls like cars, boys like cars, the point is to let them be what they want to be and not encourage or discourage stereotypes..

  2. Oh my god. I agree with this so much – every single word – it’s as if you have downloaded my brain onto your page. Except probably better written.

    I am finding it frustrating and challenging and annoying and confusing and amazing, trying to raise my little (20 month) girl without a gender role straight jacket, whilst at the same time registering and recognising that there is such a thing as gender, and trying not to unintentionally push her into “tomboy”, or whatever is the current socialy acceptable bullshit version of not-uber-pink.

    Trying to get that balance, to be aware of myself and my expectations, has further convinced me (not that I needed much in the first place) of how utterly messed up our society is about gender (and by society, I mean Western society – I’m English, not American, but there are many many similarities, and I don’t have enough experience of other parts of the world to be able to competently comment).

  3. Brava! I’m not a parent but I am obsessed with these issues re: children and imposed gender. Love your blog.

  4. you said it! all of it. i think. thank you for articulating a lot of what i haven’t been able to re: gender vs. sex vs. sexuality vs. gender roles. i’m afraid that my post that you linked to was pretty short-sighted/overly simplistic in that regard and didn’t take trans issues into account.

    speaking of conflating sexuality and gender, i remember something interesting my mom once told me about the cultural motivations for white, gender-neutral children’s clothes pre-1900. children were dressed in white (which seems otherwise pretty impractical) due to a cultural fixation on their purity and innocence (ahh, victorian era). they wore gender-neutral clothes from infancy well into childhood, because overt gender distinctions were seen as a form of early sexualization, and a sullying of children’s purity.

    today’s adults are obsessed with finding out whether a child is a boy or a girl, and are sometimes uncomfortable to the point of consternation of they can’t easily determine someone’s gender. conversely, 19th-century adults would have found a child whose gender was apparent rather disturbing. in both of these cases, it’s all about the adult (the beholder) and their comfort level. i find that interesting.

    love this post. one of my favorites :)

    • “in both of these cases, it’s all about the adult (the beholder) and their comfort level.”

      Genius you are. That’s an excellent point. Especially in early childhood, it’s about the objectification of children, and projecting adult values onto them (whether notions of “purity” or ideas of gender segregation, gender roles, and gender essentialism), rather than recognizing and honoring their inherent personhood.

      And I really want to write a post about children and “innocence/purity” sometime. After the eleventybillion other posts I want to write with all my, erm, spare time?

  5. Happily reading and wish I had time/energy to comment more and read more carefully, but I at least wanted to chime in and say how much I enjoy this blog and to say how CRAZY it is to try to find clothes for a little boy that are not all blue and covered with slogans like “Future Football Champ.” I just want to dress my baby in cute, plain, simple clothes, ideally not all in brown and blue and without too many dump trucks and footballs. This is so much harder than one would think, especially buying second hand or less expensive clothes. Anyway, thanks for all your great work here.

    • I don’t know if you have an H&M anywhere near you (don’t even know if it’s in the States), but in their kids section they actually have plain t-shirts made of blended organic/conventional cotton for about $7 each. In both the boys AND the girls sections.

      We ended up with So Many blues and trucks on all our son’s clothes because 90% of what he wears was 2nd hand gifts from a more mainstream family, so I hear ya on that one. I’ve been able to do ok at the local Goodwill, finding a decent selection of greens and yellows. Some of which are even gender neutral.

  6. I love this, especially the last part: ““Turn down the volume on the gender coding. Respond to the child’s personality. Let your child be who he or she is.” Not gender-free.Just free to be whatever gender they are — whatever that means to them.”

  7. Oh yes, this is why I love your blog – putting all those complex overlapping issues into a beautiful, clear balanced post.
    I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot lately. I started out trying to dress my son gender neutrally and provide gender neutral toys, but that is not made easy by the world. And in any case, I am beginning to think that it might be better to provide clothes and toys which are ‘gender diverse’ (if that’s the best way to put it?) – by which I mean he has blue clothes and pink clothes and many other colors, he has toy trucks and dolls and fairy outfit. So that rather than trying to make him ‘androgynous’ I am giving him the freedom to try out whatever he likes.
    I would be interested in hearing more about whether and how you actually talk about gender with your boychick. So far with my 2yo, we’ve avoided it – we talk about ‘people’ and ‘kids’ rather than men/women or girls/boys. But as he has picked up gendered words anyway (and is using them interchangeably) and is also very interested in the different body parts people have and categorising everything – I feel like it might be time to introduce positive non-restrictive ideas about sex/gender, before he picks up society’s norms. Afterall, we are not saying that gender doesn’t exist or that there is anything wrong with being a boy/girl, just the way it is imposed in such a restrictive and misogynistic way so early on. I’m just not sure how to talk about this with him in an age-appropriate way, without making it too simple or too complex. Any thoughts?

    • Gender diverse: yes, that’s it exactly! Thank you. That’s really what I meant, rather than gender-neutral. Although we eschew the most extreme from both sides, the Boychick has (and loves) pink shirts with flowers, blue hoodies with sharks, and everything in between. (When we’ve gotten a run of hand-me-downs from families with boys, we seek out some from families with girls to help balance it. It’s worked so far.) It’s almost impossible to find gender “neutral” clothing anyway, because of our cultural insistence on gendering everything: if denied blatant representations, we pick up gender cues from the smallest details: the stitching around a collar, the cut of the pants, the hue of the green, whatever. So I say, rather limiting the colors ever more (as the new “neutral” options get genderized) until we’re back down to only pure white, give ‘em a rainbow and let them experience and enjoy the full spectrum.

      As for your question, we’re pretty much there with the Boychick, and I don’t have any good answers right now. I’m thinking we’ll do (or are doing) things like asking questions (“really? what makes him a boy?”), accepting his “misgendering” without questions (his doll, Ira, underwent a gender change in pronouns a few months ago, and appears to be quite happy as a she/her), and using simple statements like “most boys have penises, yes, but some boys have vulvas”, and so on. And statements like “boys AND girls can do ____”, should stereotypes arise.

      Does that even address what you were asking? I’m definitely going to have to think on this more.

      • Thanks, Arwyn. Yes that is along the lines that I was thinking. But it is complicated. How would you explain to a 2yo what a boy (or girl) even is, since they’re not defined by anything as tangible as genitalia or clothing?
        This might be getting on to quite another topic, but it’s just what I’ve been thinking about. I guess they’ll work it out in time, in their own way, if we just give them space.

  8. I like that phrase: “gender diverse”. That’s what I tried to do, lo these many years ago. Arwyn’s brother had dolls and unicorns and frilly clothes along with trucks and blue clothes. Since neither his father nor I have ever been into sports, we skipped all that “future jock” stuff. Arwyn had lots of boyish hand-me-downs, as well as girly stuff, some of it handed down as well. I didn’t think much about intersex or cis issues, but I tried hard not to limit them by gender.

    One of my favorite stories if of the son of a woman doctor, asked in preschool if he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up, answering that “no, that’s for girls.” That’s just as wrong as thinking it’s just for boys, but it does show that we can change our perceptions about what belongs to any gender.

  9. I’m so glad I found you via Summer on Twitter! This is a wonderful post and I’ll be following your blog from now on.

    I’m trying to rear a boy to be compassionate, loving, and giving, while living on a military base where the “culture” among the young boys is violence (many war games, playing “like daddy”, etc.).

    It is a challenge, and I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy your blog. It is a needed breath of fresh air in this teeny, tiny base, where I am mostly isolated. I’m so glad Summer shared this link!

  10. As you know from la Twitter, we are trying to have a baby, and as silly parents-to-be the wife and I have bought the random baby thing here and there (Halloween bib that says “I love my mummy”), and among those things have been clothes. Vicki LOVED sharks and elephants growing up, and still does, and blue and brown are her favorite colors. I was also very fond of animals, we have pets, and I love yellow and green…see where this is going? We actually picture ourselves with a “girl” baby- not that we have an iota of control over what genitals or gender our child will be born with- but folks who know what we’re accumulating (an ADORABLE blue and brown onesie with a picture of Bob Marley that says ” ‘b’ is for ‘Bob’”) think we want a “boy”.
    All too often people think that ‘nurture’ is only the at-home nurturing that is happening, but unless you never allow your child to experience any unapproved stimuli, they are being gendered by their society from their earliest interactions/exposures. It will sink in! We can (and imho SHOULD) counter it with the gender diverse (LOVE that term) images and messages, but in the nature vs nurture argument, there can be no control group. I entirely agree with your post, love it, and as usual, think you have written eloquently and incisively and have -again- made me think. Thank you, Arwyn!!!

  11. My children (a boy and a girl) both played with the same toys, but in very different ways. My son battled his toys, his cars and trucks grappled and his dolls grappled. Everything said vroom, things blew up (I don’t even KNOW where he got the idea of explosions, but there they were).

    When my daughter played (and when they were very small, they didn’t individually own toys. Toys belonged to the household, not to one child or the other) the toys related. Cars and trucks talked to each other, hugged and kissed and had familial structures (mommy and daddy cars, baby cars). Things said “I love you” and “how are you today?”

    At the time, I thought it had to do with boy/girl nature. And maybe it does, partially, but knowing more about my son’s neurology (he’s autistic), it could just be that my daughter’s play was “typical” and his was “non social”

  12. OH! I forgot a point I wanted to make in that.

    Now that my kids are older (my son is nearly 11 and my daughter is 8), My son is very interested in feminism, and matters of priviledge. He also doesn’t care one IOTA what clothes he wears – to him, how he presents himself to others is a non-issue (I think this is largely due to autism). However, I find myself feeling that he struggles socially enough already, that to encourage him to wear clothing that other kids (and adults – - I swear, these days, many adults, particularly boomer generation ones, are WAY more thoughtlessly cruel than the other children) will deride as “effeminate”.

    Is that a terrible bargain I’ve struck? I certainly wouldn’t discourage him from wearing “effeminate” clothing, but since he really doesn’t care what he wears (beyond comfort), and since he’s the oldest (in my family, in the extended family, and within my social network) his clothes are all new, and I buy him “boy” clothes.

    • One of the posts I linked to (bluemilk: Come play gender stereotypes) talks about the fallacy of generalizing from one child, or one set of children (a son and a daughter, for example), onto ALL children, based on assigned gender. It’s a natural inclination, perhaps — humans are amazingly good at spotting connections, sometimes seeing them where they really aren’t — but still too often erroneous. It’s good to question those “well my son likes trucks, therefore boys like trucks” generalizations, even (especially?) if they match up neatly with the messages forced on us by patriarchy/kyriarchy.

      As for your question: “Is that a terrible bargain I’ve struck?” Really, I wish we could take the language around a lot of parenting decisions down a notch. You haven’t traded your daughter’s life for your son’s, you haven’t colluded with terrorists to smuggle him out of a war zone… It’s about clothing choices. So is it a terrible bargain? No.

      (Which really, truly was not meant mockingly, at all. I’m a horrible one to speak, since hyperbole is my natural language, and self-flagellation my number one hobby. Just trying to lend some perspective — far easier to do for other people than for oneself!)

      That said, if he doesn’t care about his clothing, is it possible he doesn’t care about the derision or teasing? If he does, obviously steering him to more “appropriately” gendered clothing to help reduce it is sensible, but it occurs to me that often adults (and the neurotypical) care far more about the judgment of others than children (and those on the autism spectrum — a generalization I draw from my experience as the daughter of a man with Asperger’s, and so potentially entirely wrong-minded).

      So no, no terrible bargain, and maybe quite a sensible, justifiable decision, just possibly unnecessary (but I trust your assessment on that, of course).

  13. Love it.

    The gracious serpentine preemptive “I’m not judging you” stuff was artful and funny, too.

  14. (Sorry for the double post, but I forgot to mention this)

    When my older son was about five, he came home from school and told me that one of the other boys told him that his favorite color, purple, was a “girl” color.

    I told him that the next time the boy said that, to ask him where the vagina was on crayon.

    Now I know that girls can be girl gendered (and sexed, for that matter) without a vagina, (and so do my kids) but I was still learning at the time.

    Then I told him to not really say that, but to tell him that it was the color of kings.

  15. How is it even possible for boys liking cars to be innate? If they had never seen a car of course they wouldn’t be interested in them.
    Cars weren’t around 150 years ago so how can liking them be inherently male?
    Surely for a difference between genders to be down to nature it has to have been there in every culture throughout history?
    I mean it is possible (though not necessarily true) for males to be naturally more violent but how can it be natural for males to like trains and cars and computers?

    My theory is that boys like cars because they are encouraged to like practical things and girls to like impractical things. When horses were the fastest method of transport riding was often seen as unladylike but today horseriding is seen as girly.

  16. We started off my oldest son quite gender-neutral. He developed a like for cars, but he also developed a like for pink shoes. He’s now 5 and distinguishes between genders along the very typical lines. “Pink is for girls. Barbie is for girls. Trucks are for boys.” I think he picked this up from his peers at school and daycare. I always put in a rejoinder that I like trucks, too, or some boys like pink, but he thinks that silly. It sounds silly, but it makes me so sad to hear words like that from his mouth.

  17. I do not think gender is entirely patriarchally created — exaggerated, adulterated, interpreted, interpolated, yes: but not created.

    And enforced! Remember enforced.
    We tried giving our child a gender neutral name and not telling anyone if the child was a boy or a girl. People were upset all out of proportion.

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  19. There must have been some vibe drifting about to end up linking me here of all days. I just finished an e-mail with an old friend of mine. (newly reunited) In describing her kids she said; “so and so, is all boy and she is all girl.” I asked her what all boy meant, she was flumoxed. My Jax is 4 and you are right, as much as I try to gender diversify at home, he gets it everywhere. From picking him up at his daycare, where he was the only boy for a time, and having his provider come to the door absolutely mortified that he was wearing make-up the girls had applied…to suddenly discovering that his favorite color has changed from pink to blue since he began pre-k. I asked him when he started to like blue, he truly said. “Blue is for boys and pink is for girls.” I told him all colors were for everybody and he could love whatever color he wanted to love. Then I told him blue and pink together make purple and that is a super cool color. Thanks for the post….and incidentally for the whole blog! It’s nice to reaffirm I’m not a “bad mom”. Just thanks!

  20. The question is how, at the same time, to defend the child against or prepare the child for the inevitable hostility directed against those who act contrary to their gender role. It’s worse for the boys, I think; girls who act “boyish” might get disapproval, and not much of it in early childhood, while boys who act “girlish” get ridicule, and right from the start.

  21. I guess I agree that gendering clothing & treatment can unfairly segregate and control infants, but I’m wary about the language you use concerning the child’s personality. “who he/she really is” and all that stuff. How the hell is a baby supposed to know who they are? Identity isn’t some inherent attribute in an individual, which can only be corrupted and oppressed by outside influences. A person’s identity is inextricably bound to outside influences. Humans learn by imitating those around them, not by self-directing their personality. And when a child’s caregivers refuse to give them direction or influence towards the kid’s identity, it can be, well, extremely confusing and difficult.

    Counter to the modern Western ideal of absolute individualism trumping the evils of peer pressure, the individual is just as much an imaginary construction as the collective. A person does not become their “true self” by living in a cultural vacuum. Like it or not, our personalities = genetics + upbringing. There is no pure identity that we can preserve and nourish by blocking influence from the outside world. I’m not saying we should force our children to be what we want, because that’s how it works anyway. I’m just saying, a child raised into a rigid lifestyle is no more unnatural than a child given the option to be whatever they want.

    Some freedom is essential, but complete freedom is paralyzing.

    • Some parts of identity are inherent and immutable, like gender and sexuality — except when culture creates an environment so antagonistic to one’s inherent gender or sexuality one represses them for one’s own survival. (And if anyone wishes to argue about that, this really isn’t the blog for you. I simply haven’t the time nor the inclination.) That’s mostly what I meant by “who he really is”.

      Aside from that, I’m interested in offering children a full spectrum of culturally-available options, for toys, clothes, games, dreams, etc, so they can choose what resonates with them, rather than having half (or more) cut off because society dictates their genitalia (and thus assigned gender) is “wrong” for it. This doesn’t mean I’m advocating going out of one’s way to procure, I dunno, a djembe just in case one’s kid turns out to be the Next Great Thing in African-style drumming. But what we do have available should be available to all kids, regardless of its color or their genitalia or gender. And I cannot fathom how that could possibly be paralyzing.

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  23. wow. I thought i was the only one that thought this way! =) thanks for this insightful post. Im gald i found your blog.

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  25. My 3 year old daughter is really in to princesses. I started out relatively gender neutral (although some of the girly clothes were just soooo cute…no dresses, though, just cute pants and tops) and I -think- I’ve been following her lead by responding to what she likes. How much of it comes from the inside and how much comes from seeing pictures of girls playing with “girl toys” and her thinking that’s what she’s supposed to like? It’s so hard to know.

    She does like a lot of toys that are traditionally boy toys, but she plays with them in “girl ways”: her cars talk to each other and she builds castles with her blocks. Her exposure to mass media is pretty much limited to the Treehouse channel and kid movies; I try as much as possible to find movies with positive messages for girls but it’s hard because even the ones with strong, independent women are all about fashion, too. I just wonder all the time how much is nature and how much is nurture.

    • I think it’s pretty clear that almost everything about us (or at least, the expression of all underlying traits) is both nature and nurture. That is, nurture isn’t going to change anyone’s gender, but it is going to teach them how to perform it. Which means that in this culture, it’s almost inevitable that young girls (both cis and trans) will be in to pink and princesses to some extent at least (unless they also have the underlying trait of counter-conformity, like, oh, no one I would know! Certainly no one I would recognize in the mirror…).

      And since we can’t completely by our own will change our culture overnight (oh, if only ’twere so!), that means that the best we who are raising-kids-purple can do is give them options, and try not to expose them to/push them in to assigned gender roles and gender performance before they pick it up on their own. (Which they will.) Give them at least a chance to develop according to their own desires, and then yes, let them choose pink and princess if that’s what they’re drawn to from the (limited) options society offers them.

      There’s no way that love-of-princess is from “nature” — but the desire to be girly could be, and yes, to some extent, I think it’s ok to go with that.

  26. Pingback: Hodgepodge: well-behaved kids, life insurance for babies, and being in love with Arwyn « Mistress Mom

  27. Reading this late.. but very iteresting ideas and thoughts :) I remember crying in Target the day we had our ultrasound saying that our 2nd child was a boy. It seems silly now, years later. He is my baby and I love him so much. But just seeing the dozens of racks of cute girl clothes and the literally ONE rack of boring, bland boys clothes, not a single thing without sports, trucks, or dinosaurs made me so sad. I had never realized just how unfair the gender roles society creates are until that moment. Still, 2 years later, I find it unfair and still silently roll my eyes when shopping at the lack of choices for boys, how everything seems to be the same colors or have sports/cars/dinosaurs/dogs almost without exception. This article kind of makes me say “screw society” and go buy him a flowery outfit. heehee I’m reminded of gender stereotypes everytime I leave the house with him. At least one person everytime we are out tells us what a pretty girl he is.He has long curly hair.. which people always just assume means he is a girl. sigh. Sometimes I correct them, sometimes I just say thank you. But my daughter is 6 and ALWAYS wants to correct this. Yep, she’s hit the age of being very particular about things being gendered.. pink for girls, blue for boys, etc. It makes me sad, as another poster said. But I have gone out of my way to tell her that anyone can like any color, anyone can play dolls or cars or whatever. And sometimes I hear her say those things and it makes me smile. My son and daughter mostly have shared toys, but he has his own dolls too. In fact he breastfeeds them on occasion :D But, there is also the innate car thing I saw others mention. Both of my kids have always had every type of toy presented and available to them.. dolls, cars, art supplies, blocks, musical instruments, etc. My daughter occasionally played with cars and REALLY wanted an airplane and a helicopter one year and adored them.. but my son is just wild about cars, trucks, planes, trains, robots, etc. I try not to over encourage it or suppress it, just let him do what he is interested in.. but I can’t help but deny there is an innate love for those types of things on his part. And that’s okay. He still loves his dolls. In fact, as I sit here typing at almost 4am (sorry that’s why this is probably incoherant haha) he is sleeping with his favorite babies, one in a pink dress, one in a purple dress. ;) And that’s okay. :)

  28. I go back and forth on this one. I am pregnant with my first right now, and recently read The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, which looks at how the female brain develops differently throughout the lifespan, even at the fetal stage, and there are noticeable behavioral differences even between boy and girl babies. The author is a neuropsychiatrist, and wrote the book partly as a reaction against the large body of research that assumed the male brain was the norm. She doesn’t really get into issues such as homosexual, transgendered, and intersex brains, but the key take-home message for me is that there ARE differences that should be acknowledged so we can raise all our children in the way that best suits them.

    That said, I also know that gender is fluid, and that behaviours tend to get stereotyped in certain ways depending on people’s preconceptions about gender. Girls are “bossy,” boys are “confident” or show “leadership.” I don’t know how many people have told me that a boy will be easier to raise in his teens than a girl because girls are “moody” or “they get into way more trouble.” I point out that I know quite a few teen boys who fancy themselves a cross between Hamlet and Holden Caulfield, while the perception of girls getting into more trouble seems to be chiefly driven by the fact that parents have a much higher level of discomfort with their teenage girls drinking, doing drugs, having sex, or getting in physical fights than they do with their teenage boys doing these things; the expectations for good behaviour from girls are so much higher that they are set up to fail. And the boys are kind of set up to fail too, if we have low expectations for them.

    So I think the thing to do is try not to over-intellectualize the raising of your children with complex gender theories; rather, just try to commit to encourage them to explore all kinds of experiences, support instead of belittling them when they act against gender type (and making sure others don’t either), and as they get older, raise them to be critical of the gendered expectations that society will sometimes throw their way. As a feminist, I can’t deny that I’ll be disappointed if my child turns out to be an ultra macho man or girly girl, but as someone whose own father always criticized and never really valued who I was, I don’t want to make the mistake of thinking I can shape my kids to be other than who they are.

  29. My biggest reason for planning to raise a child gender neutral is because of the EXTREME pain that making the wrong assumption causes. I’ve heard parents of 3 year olds say that their child has wanted to cut off “his” penis, even being caught taking scissors to it. I can’t even imagine that- 3 years old and already hating your body that much. And while it might actually be bodily dysphoria- I honestly think the real problem is that these children get told “boys have penises, girls have vaginas” (or some “kid-friendly” version), and think that if they just got rid of the penis they’d finally be accepted as the girl they know they are.

    Raising a child gender neutral has never, to me, been about making a non-binary child. I know too many trans people (and, of course, am one) to think that you can do that. If a child is a girl- she is a girl. It doesn’t matter if you raise her to be a girl, a boy, or try to stop her from being either. (but guess which one will make her happy) To me, raising a child gender-neutral is to raise a child to know that no matter what they are, what presentation they prefer, what their pronouns are, or who they’re attracted to- this is fully acceptable and not only will they be loved, they deserve to be loved and respected.

    I’ve seen some parents of a trans child who, every morning, ask their child if they want to be a boy or a girl today- so that the child knows that whichever they choose is fine, and another mom who sometimes “checks-in” to see what gender her child is identifying with. You can do some form of that as soon as a child is old enough to show preferences- which isn’t very old at all. I don’t really think that a few years of not enforcing gender on a child will ruin them for life if decades of forcing a person into the wrong gender role doesn’t.

  30. Pingback: Transgender Child Awareness Week: December 5-11, 2010 « Raising My Boychick

  31. Pingback: Raising (Potentially) Trans Children at Questioning Transphobia

  32. Found this post from Questioning Transphobia. LOVE these points you raise. My partner is trans, and there was so much pain on the part of my partner’s parents, about the “loss” of a gender they were really invested in. We will become parents at some point and we talk about all of this a lot. We’re both also former domestic workers and did our very best to resist the intense gendering of the kids we were lucky enough to take care of.

    Also, another term that I love, to add to the pool, from a class that was discussing a Coptic text with a “genderless” narrator, is “genderfull.” The professor noticed that the narrator of the text expressed many, many, many gendered characteristics, some really explicit, and had started thinking about the narrator not as having “no” gender but instead having LOTS of gender. I love that, and now my partner and I say to each other “I love you, you’re genderfull” (in the same way we say “I love you, you’re wonderful.”).

    One little question, though – I realize your blog is long established, but doesn’t naming it “Raising my boychick” make the mistake of assuming your child is a boy before your child has said so him- or herself?

  33. I come at this from another perspective. I’m trans but my
    ex partner has a real issue with my son being told at the moment.
    She still wants a male role model for her son – and even my psych
    said that my son wanted a normal dad – even though I told her that
    he wanted his dad to be happy. I don’t think I’ve raised my son in
    a tradtional gender fashion. But we did get him toys he liked to
    play with such as trains and tractors. He just got interested in
    them. We also tried to avoid the overtly sexist toys covered in
    blue and pink as well as the t-shirts but let’s be honest, fashion
    for boys and girls is very different even at toddler age. That said
    - he’s non aggressive, not into sports or violent cartoons in spite
    of peer influence at the age of 5. He’s actually a very good
    communicator with an extensive vocabulary and much prefers playing
    with girls in role play activities. His mum though still has
    traditional views on males so when I eventually transition, I hope
    it will open his eyes to a new world and help him think about
    gender stereotypes – at least now he knows that his Dad is a little
    bit different to other parents.

  34. Pingback: To Parents | Binary Subverter

  35. *sniff* You are the BEST mother ever. I wish my mom were more like you. I really do. ;__;

  36. Your blog is fantastic and I am so appreciative of your ability to articulate many of the things I’m trying to think about, and to teach me about things I’ve not even thought about. I also appreciate the time and energy it must take to produce and maintain.
    I couldn’t find any ‘trackback’ feature – I have, however, linked to your blog on my own. and this post and your post on the use of ‘crazy’ are both specifically linked to within my blog. Please let me know if you would like it removed (i only post infrequently so I the traffic is limited).

    • Tariq — Thank you. Of course linkbacks and trackbacks are welcome. I don’t have a “submit trackback” feature, because most blogging platforms do that automatically now. But thank you for letting me know. :)

  37. Pingback: “Gender Neutral Parenting”, in which Lisa Belkin at the NYT confuses “gender” and “gender roles/performance” | Raising My Boychick

  38. Pingback: 10 Myths About Gender Neutral Parenting | Raising My Boychick

  39. Pingback: Growing up gendered « The Felt Fedora

  40. Pingback: Gender and My Baby | LoveLiveGrow

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