Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Adventures in Attempting Gender Neutral Parenting

Just like with most other aspects of parenting, I can compare myself to some people and think I’m doing a great job raising my kids as gender neutral as possible or I can compare myself to some other people and think I still have a lot of work I can do. And just like with every other aspect of parenting, it all seemed like it was going to be so much easier before I actually had kids.

When I was in college, I worked for a while at a chain children’s shoe store at the mall. We were trained to not only bring out the shoe the parent asked for but a few others as well. I once brought a pair of predominately white sneakers with some dark purple and red accent colors to show a little boy. He seemed interested but his parents deemed them too girly.

Maybe I was a little naïve at the time but I really had no idea there were still people (it was around 1994) that thought dark purple and red were too girly. I knew that when I had kids they’d be allowed to wear whatever colors they wanted to wear.

Of course I somehow believed I’d only have girls and if you haven’t noticed, it’s much more acceptable for girls to blur gender lines than boys. Girls playing with trucks or wearing “boy colors” is allowed and even celebrated. Oh and I knew my girls would be wearing all of the colors and playing with all of the toys. When my first baby was born a girl, it came as no surprise to me. I delighted in her gender-neutral infant wardrobe while my older sister (mother of three boys) would cringe and buy her frilly pink things to wear.

Second baby was, to my shock, a boy. At first it was just as easy as before: after all, he got his sister’s hand-me-downs. But as time progressed I realized more and more that it’s not quite as easy for boys to blur those same gender lines.

In most circles, little boys (age 5 and younger) playing with dolls and toy kitchens is generally accepted. While those same boys wearing princess costumes or nail polish is merely tolerated (by some more than others).  Once they get older than that, eyebrows are raised. I grew up singing along to “William Wants a Doll” and all of the other songs on “Free to Be You and Me” so of course I was going to let my children dress and play how they wanted to. I was sure to talk to them about how all toys and all colors are for all people. If one of the kids every tried to tell me otherwise—“this pink bucket is a girl toy”—I’d ask them to show me its vagina. They got the point.

Of course those conversations also led my young children to inform strangers who would refer to longhaired boy G as a girl, “He has a penis.” (That usually shut them up.) When his picture ran in the paper at a local pancake breakfast and the caption also referred to him as a girl, it bothered him. So I helped him write a letter to the paper and to our delight they reran the photo with his letter and an apology.
"Flapjack Flop"
 Then one time when he was about three years old, he decided he’d wear one of his sister’s red bathing suits out to the lake. I don’t know what came over me, I heard myself starting to tell him he couldn’t—it was just a gut reaction to not allow that to happen even though I was fine with him wearing it around the house. Luckily he challenged me on why he couldn’t and I realized there was no reason. He was happy, he was comfortable and if people made fun of him he’d either defend himself or decide he didn’t want to do that again.

So off we went. I was surprised that he wasn’t getting any stares from adults or comments from kids they began playing with. His hair was still on the long side at the time so I guessed people assumed he was a girl again. As a matter of fact, it was long enough that every time he went under water, he’d come up and have to brush his hair out of his eyes. It looked like it was getting annoying so I asked him if he’d like me to put a pony tail on the top of his head to stop that from happening.

He got very serious and leaned in to me and whispered, “But Mommy. People might think I’m weird.” Suppressing my laughter, I talked to him to him about being physically comfortable in spite of what other people might think but apparently the hair thing wasn’t worth it to him. He continued having a great time swimming with his hair in his eyes and his sister’s bathing suit on his body.

I will admit there was one time I strongly encouraged my younger boys to keep the nail polish on their toes (where it could be hidden) only. At that point they were adopted but their sister wasn't so we still had a lot of State involvement in our lives. We had a visit with their Birth Parents that afternoon and I just wasn't sure how they or even the state workers would feel about the boys wearing nail polish.

I felt really conflicted about telling the boys "no" to fingernail polish that day so I did what parents have been doing since the dawn of creation: I told a little white lie and said that we only had time for toes. Maybe everyone would have been fine with it but I guess that day I didn't feel like rocking the boat.
Since that day the boys have had painted fingernails plenty of times. Only once did E come home from school telling me that some kids said it was only for girls. I had the same conversation with him I'd been having for years, about it being for whomever wanted to color their nails and if he really wanted to do it he shouldn't mind what other people think. At first he resisted, but then he decided that red was manly enough by his standards. 
This is my tiny muscular man at age 7, a brawny pirate with red nails. Nobody said he looked too girly that day at all.
As my kids grow, so far, they are naturally leaning towards conforming with what the other kids do. But I am hoping that all the discussions we have had at home and the acceptance we display provides them with the confidence to continue to express themselves however they want to. Each morning they line up to get on the bus and I have the usual worries all parents have as they send kids off to school, from "Did they pack lunch/snack/water/homework/library books?" to "Will they be kind? Will they be bullied? Will they be well-liked/happy/confident?" 
And then I take a look at my crew. Five year old Z wears a mohawk dreadlock to kindergarten. He might have a temporary tattoo on his face. Seven year old E is wearing the sportiest looking outfit he can muster and may be pairing it with a necklace, bracelet or nail polish. Eleven year old G currently has short hair but with a long Padawan braid and has been wearing a top hat lately. Nearly thirteen year old B always has on a funky outfit along with her crew cut. I'm pretty sure I can stop worrying about their confidence and get back to worrying about who left their lunch in the fridge.


  1. Awesome.
    BTW, Not rocking the boat (something we do too) is definitely a delicate, yet important balance & worth every little white lie- especially if the other side might decide to pursue action stemming from their uncomfortable-ness/anger.

  2. Excellent post, Gina. My son wore nail polish all summer long. My mom saw his pictures and asked, "Why?" I said, "Why Not?" She replied "I meant, why those color choices?" Yes, sadly, my son will only wear "boy color" nail polish :)

    BTW, my son looks just like yours - same ripped muscles that reveal there is no way his genes are mine!