If you’re expecting a little one anytime soon, you may be longing for the day you’ll be able to answer that pressing question: “Is it a boy or a girl?” But how significant is your baby’s gender, anyway? According to Christia Spears Brown, PhD, author of the newly-released Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, whether you’re having a little Ethan or a little Emma shouldn’t influence much. And it’s not about being gender neutral, she says. “It’s making gender irrelevant to how I raise my child.” Read on to hear what Brown has to say about many of the gender-related issues she explores in her book.
Gender isn’t just relevant to parents of older kids. As you write, “One of the very first questions a parent-to-be is asked is ‘What are you having?’” What do you hope parents of babies will take away from your book?
“I think this book is best targeted to parents of babies. I want parents to recognize that gender, for the life of their child, won’t predict very much about what their child acts like or thinks like or is able to do. Parents have to think, ‘How can I foster the traits, skills and abilities of my child in which gender is just irrelevant?’
We want our kids to grow up to be nurturing and empathetic, for example. All toys teach kids something. What toys foster nurturing and empathy? Baby dolls, for example. All babies should have baby dolls and things that they can practice caretaking for. We know that boys and girls both like baby dolls until they’re about 2 years old. There’s not a gender difference in that.”
Can you explain the consequences of categorizing children by gender?
Every time we say, ‘What a smart girl you are,’ ‘What a good boy’—that teaches kids from a very early age that gender is the most important thing about them. Kids think, ‘If this is so important, I better figure out what a good girl or a good boy is supposed to do,’ so then kids create the stereotypes for themselves. The other part is for parents to recognize that our language matters. The times that we label gender, the ways that we constantly color-code, all that does matter—even if we are trying our best to be really egalitarian and to foster gender fairness, those really subtle messages tell kids these are the things that you need to pay attention to. That starts right from the beginning. It’s impossible to avoid pink and blue worlds. But to reduce it as much as possible—and it’s not about being anti-pink, there’s this big anti-pink movement, it seems—it’s more teaching kids that you don’t need to be categorized by gender.”
You note that your daughters’ relatives often gift stereotypical presents that they assume young girls would enjoy. How should parents address instances such as these in which others’ views on gender don’t align with their own?
“I think there’s ways to do it that are respectful. I very subtly correct the stereotypes that I hear them say. I do correct it with my kids in private, I’ll just typically say, ‘They kind of forget that boys and girls don’t really differ this way,’ or, I sometimes say, also for older folks, ‘Back when she was young, girls didn’t roughhouse as much as they do now, but now we know that girls roughhouse just as much as boys do.’ I do make sure that I don’t let that stuff go uncommented on, but I also want to be really respectful of the people in our lives. When it comes to the toys that well-meaning relatives give, if I find them really stereotypical, I donate them. I try to walk that fine line of being respectful and recognizing that people of a different time have different attitudes about gender than I do, and it’s not really my job to change them. I try to in subtle ways, but my job is to really just help my kids navigate the stereotypes they encounter. I want them to have a stereotype language, to be able to recognize stereotypes when they hear them. I can’t protect them from all the stereotypes they’re going to encounter, but I can give them tools to recognize them.”
Are your kids ever upset when they receive a toy that you’d prefer to give away?
“I explain why I don’t like it. You know, ‘These clothes really aren’t appropriate for a kid to play with. Let’s give this to someone else, because I just don’t think this is the best toy for us to have in our house.’ They seem to be ok with it. The reality is, kids have plenty of toys. They have plenty of other things; this one toy isn’t going to make or break the birthday or Christmas.”
How do you work to address stereotypes with your kids?
“My 3-year-old had a big princess movement for awhile, which I’m not real fond of. I didn’t want to just ban princesses, because I felt like that wasn’t quite fair, so I was asking her, ‘Well, why do you like princesses so much?,’ and she said it’s because they wear sparkly, pretty outfits. I had to reflect on my own attitudes about it and I thought, well, really what I don’t like about princesses is that they’re passive and they wait for the boy to come and save them. I don’t mind the sparkly, pretty outfit. There’s nothing wrong with that. So I suggested, well, what if we don’t keep the princesses but get other dolls that are also sparkly and wearing nice outfits. Wonder Woman came to mind. She has a tiara, she has a very sparkly belt, very sparkly bracelets, but yet she has lots of powers, and she’s very strong, she comes and saves the day.”
So what do you think of Frozen?
“I think the princesses are fine in it. What’s frustrating as the parent of a daughter is it’s really hard to find movies that feature girls in which finding love is not a primary theme. Typically the movies are either about finding love or about pushing against finding love. Brave was a movie, which, again, I liked, but it’s about how she doesn’t want to find a boyfriend. In Frozen, there’s that boyfriend, true love theme. It ends up where the true love is the sister, which is a great take-home message. I would love a movie where a girl goes on an adventure and there’s nothing love-related, because boys get those movies where boys just go do interesting things. My philosophy is talk to them about it. We went to see Frozen, and I talked to [my then 9-year-old] and I said, ‘I really wish there were movies about girls where it wasn’t always about boys and who they were in love with. I think you do lots of cool stuff, and I think a movie about girls doing lots of cool stuff would be great to go see.’ Research shows that the best way to help kids battle stereotypes is to recognize them. Knowledge is power, when you recognize them, you can fight them, which I find is much better than just trying to censor and edit out the world.”
How can parents impart these beliefs on their children without going to the extreme of raising a child as a gender neutral being?
“From the moment they’re born, focus on their individual strengths. Keep your focus on ‘what’s my individual kid like’—it’s not about making a political point, it’s not about trying to make them gender neutral—it’s what are my individual child’s strengths, and how can I foster those without consideration of gender. Within that, you’ll have natural variation. Some girls are going to be more feminine and caretaking and passive and verbal, whereas some girls aren’t. Within each of your kids, there’s going to be natural variation, so if you happen to have a very passive, somewhat sensitive girl, that’s just who she is, and that should be fostered and valued. But recognize that not all girls are going to be that way. Some girls are much more rough-and-tumble and don’t like to sit still. There’s nothing inherently wrong with feminine toys or male toys. It’s figuring out which is the best for my kid and what are they interested in. That’s tricky for parents of babies, because babies come out not being able to tell you what they’re interested in. For babies, try to provide both. Have trucks and cars and blocks and dolls and stuffed animals so that kids can naturally gravitate toward whatever they’re specifically interested in.”
You write that “mothers talk more, interact more, and are more sensitive to the smiles of girl babies than boy babies. Baby boys are handled more roughly than baby girls” and these biases carry over as kids get older in terms of how parents respond to their children’s emotions. How can parents work not fall into these traps?
“Again, it’s that idea of knowledge is power. There are very few actual differences between boys and girls from birth. There are no differences in how they express emotion. There are no differences in their temperament beyond some kind of impulse control. There are very few differences in terms of activity level. There are no differences in terms of how much they like to look at people and how social they are. Part of it is knowing what the facts are and then being able to check your own preconceived notions. No parent tries to raise a stereotypical child. The goal for parents is really just check their own preconceived ideas. When you think, ‘Oh, I’m having a boy,’ what do you think that means? Well the reality is, it shouldn’t really mean anything. It should be irrelevant, because knowing that they’re a boy shouldn’t predict anything about their behavior or interests or preferences. But if you assume that that’s going to predict what your child will be like, then clearly you have some assumptions. Research shows us that those aren’t accurate assumptions, because there aren’t reliable differences between boys and girls. You’ve got to own what your own assumptions are and do your best to keep them in check. That’s tough for all of us; I have to do the same thing. When we live in this culture, we’ve all been influenced by stereotypes, and we all endorse them, at least implicitly. The only way we know from research to reduce our own stereotypes is to be aware of them.”
How do genetics determine your baby’s gender? Watch below to learn about this amazing process.
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Editor’s Note: In a post for an ongoing series, Dr. Harley A. Rotbart, a Parents advisor, will be guest blogging once a month. He will be offering different advice, tips, and personal stories on how parents can “savor the moment” and maximize the time they spend with kids. Read more posts by Harley Rotbart from this series.
As a pediatrician, I may have been ahead of my time in advocating gender-neutral play for kids. Beginning nearly 25 years ago when our oldest was born and continuing with his sister and brother, we gave our boys ample opportunity to play with dolls and our daughter saw more than her share of toy trucks. Despite our advanced thinking, by the time they were 2, 4, and 6 years old, the kids seemed to have already absorbed society’s subliminal stereotyping, gravitating to the predictable playthings for their gender. Our kids really loved playing together, so most of their play was gender generic: backyard soccer, Beanie Babies, Candy Land, card games, and climbing towers. We gradually reconciled ourselves to the fact that some of their play would never cross gender lines.
As they got a little older, our daughter found girlfriends who loved Barbie dolls as much as she did (there were some non-stop Ken and Barbie days from breakfast to dinner) and the boys played ball — all the time, with each other and with other boys in the neighborhood. (Our oldest son’s first question, when we brought his baby brother home from the hospital, was: “When will he be old enough to play baseball?”). Occasionally, when Ken and Barbie were tired or when her friends had to go home, our daughter would join the boys in the backyard for ball. But the reverse never happened, for two reasons: the boys never tired of ball and Barbies were for girls.
That brings us to the fateful day when our now 4, 6, and 8 year old kids taught us an important lesson about the ability of kids’ imaginations to transcend all the TV, movie, children’s books, and playground stereotypes they were exposed to every day. It was a rainy Saturday and Emily’s closest Barbie buddies were all unavailable. This was a potential 7.0 crisis on the kid Richter scale.
Downstairs, in the basement, our boys had a 5 foot basketball hoop set up for rainy days. To compensate for age and size difference, our 8 year old played on his knees. Meanwhile upstairs, our daughter was able to sustain a Barbie soap opera (there was always drama with Ken and Barbie) on her own for about half an hour, but then she exhausted her imagination and needed a friend to contribute to the plot and dialog. But on this day, there were no friends and no outdoor options.
This was clearly a parenting moment, and my wife leaped into action. She called the boys upstairs and told them they had to be their sister’s Barbie buddies, at which point we both upgraded to DEFCON 3 and waited for the explosion. No explosion. Just a loud groan from the 8 year old and an echo groan from the 4 year old, followed by the negotiations. Will she play basketball with us after? How long do we have to do it? Do we have to talk like Barbie? When’s lunch? Each question asked by the 8 year old was echoed by the 4 year old. At that point, mom made it very clear: Your sister puts up with a lot of boy stuff in this house. Please go upstairs, now. Play Barbie and pretend to like it. Big groan, echo groan, synchronous stair stomping.
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You’ve probably already read the big pregnancy news of the day: at-home blood tests can now predict your baby’s gender only seven weeks into pregnancy with 95% accuracy. The tests, which cost a few hundred dollars with lab fees, aren’t new, but a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association yesterday raised their credibility.
Seven weeks is much earlier than the standard 18-20 weeks when women can typically find out their baby’s gender. But is finding out whether you’re having a boy or girl so soon a good thing? For parents who can’t wait to think of a baby name and decorate the nursery, the tests are great news. The tests can also provide relief for parents worried about gender-linked diseases.
But many news outlets are focusing on the potential for women to use these tests to select the gender of their child. While it’s hard for us to imagine a mother aborting her child because it’s not the sex she hoped for, it is a possibility with the new tests.
Many of you read and responded to our previous blog post about a Canadian couple raising their child “genderless.” Yesterday another report brought the gender-neutral trend back into the media spotlight.
So you give toy trucks to boys and baby dolls to girls, right?
That’s what we typically buy for young children, often unconsciously aligning with the unspoken gender norms that form our world. It’s just second nature.
But inside the Swedish “Egalia” preschool, children play with toys and read books specifically designed to slash gender stereotypes. Even language, like the pronouns for “him” and “her” have been altered, with students addressing each other as “friends” instead of girls or boys.
It can be assumed you won’t find any Disney princesses in this establishment.
Some parents are thrilled at the prospect of having a child unaltered by what they believe are society’s biased beliefs. Others are unsupportive of the taxpayer-funded preschool, located in a liberal district of Stockholm.
But what’s wrong with boys who play with trucks and girls who play with dolls?
One article quotes a teacher explaining that girls are expected to be “nice and pretty” while boys are meant to be “manly, rough and outgoing.” The Egalia preschool is supposed to give children a chance to find their own sexuality, without the reinforcement of stereotypes. Some also commented that they have no problem with stereotypical behavior exhibited in children, as long as their actions are treated with equality.
But what do you think? Do you believe Egalia is setting children up for real-life or has this school gone too far?