This showed up in my Facebook feed this morning http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/26/gender-bias-egalia-preschool_n_884866.html It's about a preschool in Sweden where the kids are placed in a strict gender neutral environment. It's an interesting concept. Gender roles and how to raise gender neutral kids has been on my mind since I started thinking about having kids and even more so now that I'm pregnant.
I think I was well prepared on how to deal with gender stereotypes if I was having a girl. After all, I'm a girl and I was raised with a lot of boyish influence. My dad raised me as a single father. He taught me to ride a bike, tolerated me building very dangerous and unstable forts in the backyard, enrolled me in softball year after year, sent me to summer camp and never yelled at me for getting dirty. I also had pink carpeting in my bedroom, got Barbies for my birthday when I asked for Ninja Turtles and X-Men action figures, was encouraged by my mother to dress to "show off my figure" and never had anyone properly explain my aunt who wore her hair in a duck tail and always had a female "friend" with her when she visited during holidays. (I figured that out when my aunt and her friend adopted a child together.) My parents made no deliberate attempt to shelter me from gender stereotypes, but they didn't strictly adhere to them either. It's a foundation that I could easily build on if I was having a daughter. Something I looked forward to, even. (As if buying her all the Ninja Turtles would somehow make up for my bitterness over only receiving April O'Neil. Good thing I had a brother who got the rest of the figures and didn't mind a playmate. What does one do with a single yellow-jump suited April figure? Collect expose stories on Barbie and Ken?)
But, as fate would have it, I am not having a girl. The genetic screening revealed XY chromosomes and hopefully, when we have our 20 week ultrasound, we'll locate his penis. People love to tell you that boys are easier than girls. I'm not sure I believe that. For some reason, this makes the whole gender neutrality issue much different in my mind. I had no qualms about giving a toddler girl dinosaurs or Legos or Nerf guns, but I don't see myself buying a little boy a baby doll or fake makeup. If only he had a sister that he could guiltlessly borrow those toys from! Perhaps part of my hesitation is that desire to protect your child from the judgement of others. I was teased in grade school for a lot of things, but wearing Ninja Turtle shoes was among them. I can only imagine what a boy with a Barbie would face when walking into a Kindergarten classroom. Then again, conformity is not how you prevent bullying. That's not a lesson I want to teach my kid at all! Dammit, there is so much to think about with this parenting crap. No wonder everyone screws it up at least a little bit.
Perhaps part of my bias is just because boy toys are cool. Dinosaurs and robots and action figures and trucks and projectiles... I want to play with those! I don't want to play with baby dolls and change fake diapers. I am already projecting my personal toy bias on my child when I eye up the Imaginext toys at Target and look forward to buying armored dinosaurs with human riders.
And so, I think the best way to approach this is to let my kid make his own decisions. If he wants a play kitchen so he can pretend to cook like his daddy (he does not want to cook like his mommy, that's for sure) then I'll hook him up. If he wants to decorate his room with sports balls, then he can do that too. He can watch My Little Pony or Batman, either is fine. If he wants to wear pink socks and carry a satchel, I'll support that. He will already be given a strong example with parents who don't conform to gender roles. His mom will be the primary wage earner, albeit in a gender stereotypical role, and his dad will be his stay at home caregiver. He'll grow up seeing our poly lifestyle, which is empowering for all genders and orientations. He will be raised around our friends, some of whom are gay many are bisexual. He'll watch football games with his grandpa and play fantasy themed board games with his grandma. He will be surrounded by influence. I think the most important thing will be to foster a sense of independence of gender and of societal roles in general. This would be no different for a boy or a girl.
Conclusion: I need to get over my gender biases and focus on letting my kid pick what he wants to wear and what he wants to play with. Gender neutrality is not determined by toys. Personality is not determined by gender. I still wanted the rest of the X-men, even if they only bought me Storm. Not having them didn't make me enjoy the show any less. I was genuinely confused as to why they didn't just get me the toys I asked for. Why have a box of Barbies in closet and leave me to sneak off to my brother's room to play with the rest of the X-men? If my boy wants to play with a baby doll that wets itself, then his desire won't change and whatever it is in his personality that lead him to make that choice isn't going anywhere either. That piece of his personality might leave him open to ridicule from other kids, but so might a speech impediment or a liking for books or being bad at sports. Gender really isn't the issue at all. It's about letting my kid be who he wants to be and properly preparing him for a world that may or may not accept him for who he is. It's about arming him with confidence and conflict resolution skills and emotional intelligence, not about keeping him safe from the opinion of others. These are the more important lessons and gender roles will fall in line behind those lessons however they need to.