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Parenting in the 21st century

Parenting is a huge responsibility. Not only do you have to ensure your child's safety and help them learn, you also need to impart values and prepare them to be an active and accepting member of society. In today's world, parents have an even bigger responsibility to teach their children about equality both in terms of race and in gender.

It is no surprise that the world is changing. It is out with the old and in with the new. In many cases, it happens in the blink of an eye, accepted as law and everyone moves on. In other cases, there is resistance, debate and wistful longing for the "good old days". Gender is a concept that fits into both camps; it is changing quickly and causing a lot of debate at the same time.

So what is gender?

Fifty years ago, the answer was black and white — you're either a male or a female, but today there are a lot of different components to take into account. In the 1950s, John Money questioned gender and highlighted the difference between biological sex (genitalia) and gender as a social role (expectations of what is "appropriate" for a woman or man). The debate of what gender means gained momentum during the feminist movement in the 1970s and has since expanded to include psychological gender (e.g. a male may feel more comfortable expressing himself as a female).

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The debate to define gender continues in political and social circles and has far-reaching implications. The heart of the matter though, is a fight against discrimination and bullying towards people who don't fit the male and female stereotypes, particularly where homosexual and transgender people are concerned.

In the news

A family in Canada made headlines in 2011 by refusing to reveal whether their baby was a boy or a girl. Mother Kathy Witterick told the Huffington Post that her 4-month-old baby, Storm, should be able to develop its own sexual identity without having to conform to social stereotypes or bow to pre-determined expectations associated with gender.

Australia hasn't shied away from the discussion of gender either, with online forums and Twitter feeds alight with opinions after Australian pre-teen and transgender girl, Emma, was recently featured on television program, 60 Minutes.

Towards gender neutrality

In a lot of ways, our society is already becoming more gender-neutral. We refer to policemen and women as police officers and some traditional gender roles are starting to be broken down through media and marketing as well as in the workplace and families.

Sweden is working towards the goal of becoming a gender-neutral country. They have recently introduced a new pronoun, hen, to replace he/she and the implications are already starting to filter into society, with advertising and retail outlets working to defy gender norms.

An increasing number of families are taking a stand in this gender debate by becoming advocates for "Gender-Neutral Parenting" (GNP). According to Paige Lucas-Stannard of Everyday Feminist, "The whole point of GNP is that sex — the assignment at birth based on external genitalia — should not dictate 'allowable' behaviours. If you like pink tutus, you should be able to like them with acceptance regardless of your sex."

How to raise a gender-neutral child

When extreme cases like the aforementioned Canadian family make the news, it makes their parenting look like a social experiment or political statement rather than making the best decisions for their child. While parents at the other extreme worry that gender-neutral parenting will make your child gay or anti-masculine, there are points we can take from the GNP philosophy when it comes to raising our kids:

  1. Be a role model. Be confident in your own skin and accepting of others who are different. Interact with a wide variety of people so your child doesn't have a narrow view of the people that make up society. Help your child understand that their identity includes their gender but is not defined by it.
  2. Steer clear of stereotypes. While some stereotypes can help us feel like we belong in the world, others discriminate and promote closed-mindedness.
  3. Stay away from specifically-gendered toys. If you have a girl, you don't have to paint a pink room and fill it with Barbies and makeup. There are still plenty of options, including blocks, toy animals and a variety of book characters as well as both cars and dolls.
  4. Let your child have a say. Let them help you pick out clothes and toys when you are shopping and discuss decisions rather than simply prohibiting things.
  5. To infinity and beyond. When your child talks about what they want to be when they grow up, encourage them and support them. Help them make decisions based on their interests and skills rather than their sex.

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In her article about raising gender-neutral kids, Genevra Reid summed it up perfectly, "If I parent [my daughter] well, she will be a woman who doesn't feel limited by her gender, who knows that the deeper aspects of identity are between the ears, not the legs."

More parenting tips

Be a hands-on parent
Carving out time with your kids
How to align parenting opinions

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