November 8, 2017
“It’s a boy!” For most people, gender is one of the first labels we ever receive. But the increasingly popular movement of gender-neutral parenting aims to change that. Those who take the idea to its extreme refuse to impose gender of any kind onto their child. Most followers, however, simply aim to bring up their children in an environment free from gender stereotypes.
The movement has its fair share of celebrity endorsers, including Paloma Faith and Russell Brand, but it has also caught the attention of major stores like Target and John Lewis, who have removed gender labels from their clothes and toys. A recent documentary from the BBC followed a school class in which gendered toys, activities and language was avoided — with the result that behavior and self-esteem improved significantly among boys and girls.
It seems like a worthy endeavor: rigidly held gender stereotypes have been shown to have a wide range of negative effects on adults and children. But just how much science is there to support it? And how does a busy parent go about attempting to protect their children from an environment full of gender bias? I asked experts from around the world for their top tips on how to traverse the rocky road of gender-neutral parenting. This is what I learned:
1. Make gender less important …
“I don’t typically use the label ‘gender neutral,’” says Christia Spears Brown, a professor at the Centre for Equality and Social Justice at the University of Kentucky. “But I do focus on how kids can be free of restrictions based on gender norms.” We all fall foul of imposing stereotypes on children. Think about how often adults comment on girls’ physical appearance before other characteristics, for instance. To avoid this, try removing gender labels from your language. “Instead of saying, ‘What a smart girl you are!’ say, ‘What a smart kid you are!'” says Brown.
2. … but point out sexism in the world around them.
“At the same time, and just as importantly, gender must be talked about more,” says Brown. Parents must teach their children about sexism and stereotypes, she says. “Help kids recognize stereotypes whenever you spot them and know how sexism shapes the world we live in. Those conversations should start from the beginning. This is the only way children know that the gender divisions we see are not due to innate differences in abilities, but a result of a stereotyped culture.”
“Help kids recognize stereotypes whenever you spot them and know how sexism shapes the world we live in. Those conversations should start from the beginning. This is the only way children know that the gender divisions we see are not due to innate differences in abilities, but a result of a stereotyped culture.”
3. Remember that toys do not have a gender.
Studies suggest that girls and boys show preference for playing with toys that are typed to their own gender by as early as nine months — a behavior that is likely influenced as much by adults initiating and rewarding stereotypical play as biology.
The kinds of toys your child plays with are vital for their development — they can have a serious impact on their cognitive abilities, career interests and many aspects of their physical and psychological development. “Toys teach kids skills,” says Lisa Dinella, associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University, New Jersey, and principal investigator of the Gender Development Laboratory. “Blocks and board games teach counting and spatial skills, dolls let children role play nurturing.”
Studies also show that children remember more information about toys they deem suitable for their own gender, than those for the opposite sex. “When we gender stereotype certain toys as ‘boy toys’ or ‘girl toys’, we limit the skills they develop,” says Dinella.
So how do we go about encouraging a variety of play? Colour and labelling affect the choice of toys that children interact with — this is particularly evident in girls. But it can be used to our advantage: “Our research on pink and blue toys shows that just changing the color of a toy changed the kids’ interest in the very same toy,” says Dinella. Shops are starting to catch on: In 2015, Target eliminated its pink and blue aisles, and just under half of British toy shops recently surveyed segregate their toys by gender.
4. Protect your children from the “pink and blue tsunami” as early as possible.
“We are only just becoming aware of how plastic and mouldable our brains are, and how they can be changed by experiences, but also by attitudes such as stereotypes,” says Gina Rippon, professor emeritus of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University, UK. She tells parents to watch out for the “pink and blue tsunami,” in which the constant stressing of differences between boys and girls will change their brain and their behavior.
The brain has a life-long capacity to change and rewire itself, but it is at its most malleable up until around the age of seven. “This is why gender neutrality matters,” says Rippon. The things we learn during this critical period can dramatically shape our development — so the earlier you can open your child up to a world in which all opportunities are equally available to them, the better.
The goal is not to erase gender, but to reduce the impact of gender stereotypes that accompany gender labels, says Dinella. For some parents, the importance of gender neutrality is connected to their child’s gender identity, she says, but for others, the goal is about allowing all children to explore all interests, hobbies and career paths.
“It is probably better to emphasise the irrelevance of gender,” says Rippon, “by making sure choices and opportunities aren’t restricted by gender.”
“The goal is not to erase gender, but to reduce the impact of gender stereotypes that accompany gender labels”
6. Encourage boys and girls to play together.
“It is important for kids to be comfortable playing with all people, even if they are different from them in one way or another,” says Dinella. “Think about all the times in life when working together with others would benefit them — in school, in the work place, in personal relationships.”
Brown agrees: “Have [children] play in mixed-gender play groups, sports activities and birthday parties.”
7. Let them express themselves — and feel safe in doing so.
“My top tip would be to support diversity in relation to gender identity and gender expression. Keep possibilities open for young people, despite the tendency to want to think about gender in concrete and categorical terms,” says Angeline Dharmaindra, a clinical psychologist who works at the NHS Gender Identity Development Service, London. “Children and young people do and should be able to explore how they express their gender from an early age. Dressing up and role play activities may involve choices which don’t always conform to gender stereotypes and may appear unconventional, but it is important for children to be able to explore and experiment in a safe environment.”
8. Make difference a positive attribute.
“It is important to see exploration around gender as something which is positive and for adults around children to convey that it is OK to be different,” says Dharmaindra. “Highlight the idea that there are lots of different ways to be male and female.”
“Highlight the idea that there are lots of different ways to be male and female.”
9. Introduce them to “Purple Rain.”
Expose children to a wide variety of role models. “This may include individuals who challenge stereotypes in terms of their careers — male nurses and dancers, female mechanics and engineers, for instance,” says Dharmaindra. “This may also include individuals who express their gender identity in a more gender fluid or gender-neutral way, such as Eddie Izzard, Prince or Jeffree Star.”
10. Focus on your child as an individual.
Studies suggest that there is no such thing as a “male brain” or a “female brain”. Brain scans show that sex differences in brain anatomy do exist, but on an individual level, most of us have a mix of features that are characteristic of both. So while there may be some biological differences between genders, we need to think more carefully about how much weight we give this — and when gender is simply irrelevant. “We need to focus on people as individuals,” says Rippon, “rather than pirates, princesses, Martians or Venutians”.
Helen Thomson is a science journalist and author of “UNTHINKABLE: An Extraordinary Journey through the World’s Strangest Brains” (published in Feb 2018). Helen has a BSc in Neuroscience, a MSc in Science Communication and has worked as a health journalist for over a decade. Helen has spent most of her career as a journalist and editor at New Scientist magazine, where she exclusively revealed plans for the world’s first head transplant, spent time in treatment with five psychopathic mass murderers, and watched a paralyzed man control an exoskeleton for the first time using only his mind. Helen is now a consultant for the magazine, and work for a variety of organisations including The BBC, The Guardian and The Daily Mail. You can contact Helen at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on twitter @hvthomson
Tags: Angeline Dharmaindra, breaking down stereotypes for kids, children, Christia Spears-Brown, female brain, gender, gender binary, gender neutral parenting, gender roles, gender stereotypes, gendered marketing, Gina Rippon, Lisa Dinella, male brain, pink and blue
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