When grandparents understand the reasons behind gender-neutral parenting, it’s easy to support it.
The growing popularity of gender-reveal parties lies in sharp contrast to another growing trend: gender neutrality. While some parents are celebrating the discovery of their baby’s gender and going all in on pink or blue, others are fighting against pigeon-holing their child based on their gender. Like all parenting methods that are new to us, it can be confusing to grandparents as we try to figure out how to respect our adult children’s wishes. Here’s a quick look at what gender-neutral parenting is.
What is gender neutrality?
The goal of gender-neutral parenting is to raise children without enforcing traditional gender roles on them. Note the words “gender roles”. Although there are cases where parents believe a child should be free to choose their gender identity, these are the exception rather than the norm. For most parents who want to raise their child in a gender-neutral environment, it’s an attempt to cast off gender stereotypes and focus on the individual.
Gender-neutral parenting doesn’t deny that there are differences between genders. It doesn’t insist that boys who love trucks have to play with dolls, or that girls who want to wear nothing but sparkly pink dresses have to be forces into jeans and t-shirts. The goal is not to raise a genderless child, but one who has the freedom to develop the skills and traits that will best serve them as an individual.
What are gender stereotypes?
Girls are more nurturing. Boys are more energetic. These are not facts, simply stereotypes that are perpetuated from one generation to the next. Here are some more stereotypes:
Parents want their children to learn the skills that will most help them in the world: problem solving, communication, creativity and getting along with others. They want them to be able to learn and adapt throughout their lives, without being constrained by stereotypes based on gender or appearance. Gender-neutral parenting helps focus on those skills and traits that are important in any individual.
How gender stereotypes are reinforced
Walk down the toy aisle in any store: girl’s toys are generally focused on keeping house and taking care of others, while boys toys encourage movement and engineering. Check out the choice of clothe in the newborn section. Onesies marketed for boys say “Always seek adventure” and “Be a little wild” while those on the pink side of the store say “Cuddly and cute” and “Daddy’s little princess”.
Even more impactful, however are the ways those messages are reinforced. Girls are praised for the traits society traditionally places a value on for women, and boys for the values associated with men. When they get approval for those traits, they start absorbing the stereotypes. This happens by the age of 3, and according to research, by the time children are age ten, the choices girls see as open to them have been reduced.
Think about it: A baby girl is placed in your arms in a tiny pink onesie, her little face working in her sleep. What is the likelihood you’ll say, “Oh, she’s so sweet!” or some variation thereof?
Now, the baby is a boy in a onesie that says “little monster”. He’s making faces just as she did. Most people will respond with a comment like, “Look at him thinking big thoughts!”
Already, we are assigning very different traits based solely on gender. Gender specific clothing influences our expectations and how we interact. If the baby were wearing a gender-neutral outfit, the observer would respond to the child as an individual, not a boy or girl.
As babies get older, the influence of playthings begins to exert an even stronger division between genders. Toy recommendations are typically divided into girl and boy sections, with the girls’ toys heavily focused on dolls, dress-ups and “keeping house”. The boys’ section, however, is filled with things that go, things to build and sports equipment.
How grandparents can support gender-neutral parenting
Everything we buy for our grandchild has the power to influence how they will develop as a person. Each piece of clothing can either reinforce or disrupt the stereotypes. Each toy we buy as a grandparent has the power to shape our grandchildren’s skills and view of themselves. Each comment we make can shift their beliefs about themselves and their abilities.
When you buy clothing
Try to choose clothing that either has no message, or one that breaks the stereotypes. Get your granddaughter the shirt that says “Seek adventure”. Get your grandson the one with the giant smiley face. Buy the pink button-down shirt for your grandson, and the overalls for your granddaughter.
When you buy toys
Look for toy recommendations that aren’t based on gender, but on developmentally appropriate skills. See some of our favorites here.
Watch what you say
This is the hardest part for most of us. It’s hard not to say the first thing that comes to mind, and it’s often something that will reinforce the very stereotypes we are trying to disrupt. When you find yourself praising your granddaughter for the care she’s taking of her baby doll, make a note to later praise her for her persistence in figuring out how to unlatch the gate. When you find yourself commenting on your grandson’s athletic ability, make sure you follow up with a comment about how much you admire his care for his teammates. Look for opportunities to reinforce the traits that will serve them best as adults, like problem solving and resilience.
We all want our grandchildren to grow up with the ability to make their way in the world. Gender-neutral parenting is an effort to make sure they have the skills and traits that will help them in whatever path they take. When grandparents understand the reasons behind this parenting choice, it’s easy to support it.
Read more about what grandparents need to know: