Gender is a Spectrum: Gender Neutrality in Child Development


gender spectrum

Understanding Gender: Beyond Biological Aspects

Gender is a Spectrum. I want to talk about gender, I hope you do too. It has become a topic of interest to many people, often parents. It is worth talking about, especially as so much new information is becoming available to us. Before getting into the nitty gritty of it all, it is important to point out that sex and gender are completely different things. While sex refers to biological aspects like genetalia, gender is a concept constructed by society. To be brief about it: gender defines what behaviours are masculine and which are feminine. Unfortunately, this notion is extremely limiting to everyone. Self expression comes in many forms for males and females, however the male ballerina may be bullied through high school while the businesswoman is underestimated. Why?

Exploring Gender Neutral Parenting

First, let’s get back to the early years of life. You may remember baby Storm, whose parents Kathy and David started a conversation two years back about gender expression. When Storm was born, Kathy and David chose not to disclose the gender of the child. Their reasoning? To paraphrase their thoughts, they wanted to lessen the many messages and restrictions that gender would have brought into the child’s life. What they did is called gender neutral parenting, and is widely accepted and supported in other countries. Gender has the power to influence our behaviours, appearance and life choices. Often this is not by personal choice but rather societal pressure and judgement from others. It can influence so much of our lives from how people communicate with us to what job we choose and how much money we make. In a small yet common example, it is the reason we may refer to a girl as a ‘beautiful princess’ and a boy as a ‘strong warrior’ for no apparent reason. In another example, it is the reason stores design toys with focus on girl and boy sections, making the assumption a boy would not want an Easy Bake Oven and a girl wouldn’t desire a police uniform. These notions can stick with us, and become emotionally crippling right into our adult lives (women chasing beauty standards, men refusing to shed a tear… ring a bell?). Through removing gender pressures Kathy and David hoped Storm could develop from within, not influenced by the pressure to adapt preconceived notions about a girl or a boy. Other parents can do similar things to help their child too, and keeping the sex private doesn’t have to be the way to go about it.

WARNING: this next paragraph involves some very necessary ranting.

The Reality of Gender Neutral Parenting

The response to Storm’s story was intense, with many people confused and questioning the family’s choice. Confusion is understandable, as gender roles have been imposed on many people since birth and become a normal part of life. Author James Delingpole appears to think gender neutral parenting is meant to make boys feminine and girls masculine, but the key word he seemed to miss is neutral. He explains he doesn’t want his daughter to be sueded by “some trendy teacher steering her towards a traditionally male profession” and would rather she “follow her true nature”. Ahem.. sorry Mr. Delingpole but your generalizations suggest ‘feminine professions’ and motherhood are the ‘true nature’ of all girls. For many girls it is not, and you cannot change that no matter how strongly you believe that girls do and should like pink. When individuals like Delingpole say things like “boys (are) hardwired into being obsessive, aggressive show-offs and risk-takers” and “girls have those dollyhugging instincts” please remember that such statements are based on opinion. This is only a projection of someone’s personal beliefs and experiences. No one can be described in such general statements as he used, and we should give children more credit than that. In no way, shape or form does gender neutral parenting involving ‘steering’ boys away from cars or girls away from dresses, it means letting them choosefor themselves. ‘Steering’ would defeat the entire purpose!

Embracing the Diversity of Childhood Play

Allow me to state clearly that even though many people are comfortable in their assigned gender and the assumptions that go along with it, others are not. It is important to debunk any misconceptions about the topic. One of the biggest misconceptions is that gender neutral parenting is only for homosexual or transgendered children, and this is untrue. Boys and girls equally need to develop qualities like compassion, love, strength, wisdom, wits, cleanliness, independence and power. The issue is that often when children (as well as young adults, and ourselves) play or behave in ways that do not correspond with their gender, we scold or correct them. Before correcting a child, we must stop and think “what is wrong here?” because often the answer is.. nothing. As adults, we need to realize that the boy rocking a baby-doll may be a father one day, just as the girl karate chopping the air may become a martial artist. To put it simply: play is a child’s work. During play children are practising skills that will help them navigate through life. When the roles of gender creep into our adult brains we are tempted to say “Your trucks are here, put that doll down” or “That is not very lady-like” but we must resist. Children have the ability and wisdom to move and act in ways appropriate for their development, and we simply need to follow their lead. When we interrupt a child’s genuine play for frivolous reasons (like their gender), we are only inhibiting their learning.Young children take in our words and internalize what we teach them, so the next time we will say to the boy “That baby looks happy in your arms” and the girl, “You are very strong”. Just remember, the fact that your child may behave differently than the majority of their gender category is trivial in comparison to the amazing skills and interests they are developing. Humans of either sex are complex and emotional beings. Overcoming the restrictions of gender roles is healthy for everyone, of any sexuality, and as adults (especially parents) we can help children do just that.

Let’s face it, the widely accepted ideas of gender have power to restrict individuals based on their sex. It is wonderful that more people are speaking out about how gender is not black and white, masculine or feminine. If you or your children have struggled with pressures of gender conformity, I urge you to speak out and assure you you’re not alone. As more people tell their stories it is becoming more clear to everyone that gender is a spectrum, and both masculinity and femininity belong to either sex. Where each person lands on the spectrum is completely up to them, that is the beauty of individuality and self-expression.

Hello, my name is Michelle Peart, and as I type it is my 2nd day interning at bebo mia. I am a student at Ryerson University and have arranged to work shadowing Heather, Natasha and Bianca three days a week for my 4th year placement.

My program is Early Childhood Studies, and I am passionate about working with families and children. When I first began postsecondary my goal was to be a teacher in elementary school, and that quickly changed. Through my studies, placements and volunteer work I realized my desire is not to teach a set curriculum in a classroom. Instead I discovered the amazing world of family support embedded in my community.


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