I have a faded time-worn photograph of me in my father’s arms on my second birthday. In the picture I am swathed in what can only be described as a candyfloss gauzy confection of a white dress. Next to us is my male cousin, three months older. In his hands is a plastic truck and he’s eyeing the cake with intent.
It’s an adorable picture. A slice of nostalgia. What’s interesting is how timeless and yet transcendent that image is. Fast-forward three decades and it could be of a child celebrating her birthday today. It’s a piece of history that is still relevant; the telltale signs of gender norms prevalent in the dress and props.
Who among us doesn’t have a picture or memory of ourselves in a pink girly dress? Or a fluffy toy we play-acted with while our brothers made engine noises and ran around with a toy truck? After all, aren’t little girls made of sugar and spice and all things nice? While boys are rough and tough and loud?
Maybe not for long though…
Bending the genders
In 2011, a Canadian couple made headlines when they refused to identify their baby as a boy or a girl. In an email to their friends and family, the couple revealed that their unorthodox decision was a “tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a standup to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place?)…”
Progressiveness; that which forms the basis for gender-neutral parenting (GNP). GNP is the move from traditional to modern, the heeding of a clarion call to veto typical social mores associated with raising boys and girls, especially in their formative years of development. The reasoning is to allow children to create their own identities, pick their own toys and defy convention and gender bias.
Which begs the question: does this mean that we have up until now been raising children ‘wrong’?
A lot of people seem to think so. In his book Playful Parenting, author Lawrence Cohen notes that, while inherent biological differences exist between boys and girls, these are in fact, negligible and are exacerbated by parenting styles. “The small difference that does exist is that boys are slightly more likely to seek out power while girls thrive on connection – and then society takes over and reinforces these differences rather than minimising them.”
Many psychologists and neurologists agree, pointing to studies that show how we begin to treat babies differently according to their sex from the moment they are born: research published last year in Paediatrics online found that mothers talk more to girl infants than to boy infants, while Lise Eliot, neuroscientist at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, cites a study in which mothers estimated how steep a slope their 11-month-olds could crawl down – the mums of boys got it right to within one degree, while the mums of girls underestimated what their daughters could do by nine degrees.
While there are numerous studies that show how boys and girls are ‘wired’ differently, in Eliot’s book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, she analysed hundreds of papers on gender neurology and concluded that assertions of innate sex differences in the brain are either “blatantly false,” “cherry-picked from single studies,” or “extrapolated from rodent research” without being confirmed in people. Although she accepts that there are differences in adult male and female brains, she puts these down to the different ways in which we raise our male and female children from infancy.
So, be it biology, genetics, parenting, socialisation, are we just confusing kids further?
Commenting on the case of the Canadian parents, clinical psychologist, Dr Valeria Risoli from the Dubai Physiotherapy & Family Medicine Clinic, says that children could be at risk of confusion. “Let’s remember that gender-sex is not only a social classification but it is a fact, a specific aspect of our identity. I think that as individuals we first define ourselves upon a name, age and sex. I can understand the point of some parents in letting an individual decide how he or she wants to live their life, but any decision that this individual will make will not change the fact that he was born as a male and she was born as a female. Society is changing but is the whole world ready to give up its basic values that help us define who we are?”
In other words, while it’s OK to dress a little girl in pink, we don’t need to paint her room in rainbow colours, crown her with a tiara and nickname her “Princess”.
But being less judgemental and less rigid in traditional opinions is a sign of progress, concedes Dr Risoli. And it certainly seems as if the smart money is on uniformity.
Beyond the pink
The move towards GNP is a timely one. Nothing, after all, exists in a vacuum, least of all parenting. Call it the Jenner effect. When Bruce Jenner, stepfather to the Kardashian clan and former Olympic gold medallist, publicly transitioned into a woman, everyone took notice. It was difficult not to. He had always identified as a woman, said Bruce, and it had been a lifelong challenge to exist as a man in what he believed was meant to be a woman’s body. Goodbye Bruce, hello Caitlyn.
The media coverage was staggering and widespread, launching a thousand narratives, opinions and discourses.
Two years ago, Sweden introduced a new personal pronoun; “hen” – which is used to replace han (he) or hon (she). In France, schools have introduced sex-equality lessons in primary school and gender-equality training for all student teachers. In Ireland, policymakers have recommended an update to the primary school rulebook, which explicitly dictates that cooking, laundry and domestic economy are girls’ subjects.
Sweden-based games manufacturer Toca Boca makes gender-neutral games apps for kids and at last count it clocked in at 70 million downloads in 169 countries, including across the Middle East. The manufacturer, based in Stockholm, is quoted as saying that when the team members create a new game, they ask themselves, “Are characters of different genders able to perform the same actions in the app?”
On their apps, you’d be hard-pressed to find wholly stereotyped images or traditionally associated colours. There’s no pink for girls, blue for boys – it’s all about a clear lack of gender bias in colour schemes. Sweden certainly seems to be leading the global fight for busting typecasts. A few years ago, toy company Leklust saw huge engagement around its catalogue image of Spider-Man pushing a baby pram.
One better, Toy Toy Group, in 2012 featured overt images of gender-neutral roles. In its Christmas catalogue, little boys and girls were both doing domestic chores, playing with plastic guns, tools and crafts.
Elsewhere across the world, others have picked up the baton. Clothes that work for both genders, toys that defy gender clichés, decor that speaks to a homogenous identity; and a deliberate parenting style that focuses on freedom from labels.
In America, the mega brand Target just this year announced that they would stop labelling toys for girls or boys and even remove coloured paper from shelves – nothing at all to indicate a typically associated colour with a boy or girl.
Also consider Lego, which in 2014 introduced the Research Institute play set. The set includes females in the role of chemist, astronomer and palaeontologist.
Still, traditional roles remain the norm in many settings. In a 2014 study by Zayed University – published in the report Parent-Child Relationships in the United Arab Emirates – researchers surveyed 122 Emirati parents about the role of family and, on the question of role orientation, 59.8 per cent of respondents agreed that women should stay home and take care of the children. Over 36 per cent said that mothers who work are harming their children and 49 per cent felt that a father’s major responsibility is to provide financially for the family. The report also highlights that as children mature and especially by puberty, a more authoritarian style seems to be adopted, especially “for girls, who are expected to be more obedient and subordinate. In fact, being a traditional patriarchal society, gender roles between husbands and wives, sons and daughters are very well defined.”
But Dr Risoli believes that the gender-bias battle is still in its infancy, and that it is should be fought with subtlety and sensitivity.“ In my opinion letting a child be in confusion and ignorance of who he or she is – as in the extreme cases of neutral parenting – is not a sign of progress,” she says. “It is a very complicated subject and I think we are just at the beginning of the real social changes.” As with any parenting choice, it comes down to what’s best for your child.
Will GNP harm your child’s development in any way? “Not necessarily,” says Dr Risoli. “As long as parents are careful to not go to extremes. There is danger in imposing traditional stereotypes and equally as much damage as imposing a deliberate ignorance in regards to a child’s gender. Neutral parenting should be based on respect of who the child chooses to be, or gradually discovers. A better choice and discovery can be only made if the child is fully aware of who he or she is an individual.”