For most parents, finding out that a new baby is on the way is one of the most exciting moments in life. Who is this new person? Who will my baby look like? And the biggest question of all—is it a boy or a girl?
Before ever receiving a name or being held by mother, a child is assigned their gender. It is their first identity given at birth. It is based on their physical characteristics and stamped on a legal document that will follow them for life. But does the infant know their gender at birth? Or is this taught?
I raised all three of my children in a diverse environment. My daughter was given tools and played sports. My sons were given dolls and took dance. I didn’t do this because I wanted them to become something they weren’t. I did this because I believe that humans are multi-faceted beings with the ability to have an array of interests, capacities and skills. See, I don’t think that girls should not fix a car or a sink. So, of course I want my daughter to know how to use a tool. And it only makes sense to me that boys would play house because someday they may be fathers. My sons played kitchen when they were toddlers but now they can cook real meals. And they are delicious meals! I don’t see these particular activities as gender-related. So, in my mind, I was exposing them to the world and freeing them to explore their own, unique interests, without any pre-conceived, cultural biases. I just don’t see what cooking has to do with girls or what dinosaurs have to do with boys. It seems completely arbitrary. If my children chose those toys, that was fine. But I saw no reason to teach them they must choose what their culture has decided for them in order to establish a healthy sense of self.
So what is a gender neutral environment? Some people think of this as pushing boys to act like girls or girls to act like boys. I vehemently disagree with that. To me, a gender neutral environment is much like a classroom. There are toys of every variety. The children are not forbidden to play with any of them. They are not instructed, by adults, what to play and what not to play. I believe this is a healthy and appropriate environment for a young child, who is learning through play.
It is only later in childhood that children being to think conceptually about what it means to be a man or a woman. That is when parents begin to teach their values and ideals directly to the child regarding their gender. This is no longer about activities or make-believe, this is about embracing the cultural and personal values of their gender. What does a man do? How does he behave? How does a woman act? What is her role? These are ideologies that are closely associated with growing up and into an adult as the child refines the sense of self. These questions are unavoidable and must be answered.
With my children, I always had a vision for the adults I wanted them to be. I want them to be flexible when it comes to gender roles but they still have roles. I still have to teach them something.
I wanted my daughter to be strong, self-sufficient and educated. I wanted to make sure she could always provide for herself, and never rely on a partner for income. I wanted her to know how to care for herself and her home. How to take care of anything she owned, from a car to a kitchen. And yes, I wanted her to know how to defend herself physically. She is a woman now and she is all of these things. I am so grateful and so proud. And for my boys, I want all the same things. I want them to be kind and considerate men. I want them to be responsible and to contribute to the world. I want them to stand up with and for women. I want them to know how to be independent, self-sufficient and connect with others.
I’m not an expert on gender identity. Even the experts don’t really have any answers. As long as we allow our children the freedom to explore their interests and discover their own identities, I don’t know that it truly matters how gender identity is formed. I can say that normalizing culturally “typical” female behaviors for boys and doing the same for girls can only be good for our culture overall. Expanding our views on gender and gender roles doesn’t mean we are confused about who we are. It just means we have bigger and broader definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman. When we expand the definition, we expand our acceptance and our understanding of each other. More sensitive men who cook and clean? More women who run corporations and teach boxing? Who could have a problem with that?
Your thoughts, comments and suggestions are always welcome!