Taking the gender-neutral parenting approach is one way to help your child discover their own identity, says Alix O'Neill
When I tell people I’m raising my five-month-old, William, gender-neutral, many still assume he spends his days in dresses and is referred to as ‘it’. Granted, he wears pink sleepsuits on occasion (I’ll gratefully accept hand-me-downs, whatever the colour). But at its most basic, gender-neutral parenting doesn’t deny the fundamental biological differences between male and female – it’s simply about breaking away from gender stereotypes and allowing your kids to discover their own identity. Here’s how to do it…
Embrace a unisex nursery
Our brains grow most rapidly in the first three months of life, so we shouldn’t squander this opportunity to open our kids’ minds. Instead of a pink or blue nursery that signals the differences between the sexes right off the bat, consider gender-defying decor. I opted for jungle prints and stuffed animals in bright colours. It’s an introduction to the natural world and can be recycled if you have another child – whatever their sex.
Mix up 'girls' and 'boys' toys
My son only has eyes for his Sophie The Giraffe teether, but when he’s old enough, he’ll be given a range of toys, from Lego to dolls, because what our kids play with impacts their cognitive abilities and career interests. In a recent BBC documentary, researchers conducted an experiment on a classroom of seven-year-olds. When tested on skills such as spatial awareness, the boys excelled because they had been encouraged to play with building blocks, which makes them better at problem solving. It’s hardly surprising, then, that just 21% of those working in science, maths, tech and engineering are women.
Pink is not just for girls
I have no idea what style my son will embrace when he’s older, but for now, it’s up to me to ensure his identity isn’t restricted by what he wears. The good news is that a number of retailers have removed their ‘boy/girl’ labels and launched unisex clothing ranges. I tend to go for gender-neutral colours and prints, but am happy to stick him in a car-design playsuit if it’s a gift.
Call out sexism when you hear it
I was in the car the other day with my sister-in-law and my three-year-old niece while pirate songs about boys having great adventures played on the radio. ‘It’s so silly,’ my niece declared. ‘Girls can be pirates, too.’ Gently highlighting examples of gender inequality from an early age helps children recognise stereotypes. Already, my niece realises she can be anything she wants. (Hopefully, her piracy ambitions are just a phase.)
Talk more to boys
Research shows that mums interact more vocally with newborn girls than boys. And women tend to use more emotive language when talking to baby girls. This unintentionally helps perpetuate the idea that masculinity means bottling up your emotions, so I chat and sing to my son all day long.
Show them good role models
When I was pregnant, I bought a children’s book that celebrates amazing women such as Marie Curie. I didn’t know what sex my baby was, but I knew I wanted him or her to be exposed to role models that subvert expectations. In the same BBC documentary that looked at gender-specific toys, kids were introduced to people who had jobs they might not expect, from a female mechanic to a male dancer. They didn’t realise their gender need not limit their ambitions. (Though talent probably does – with the lack of rhythm in our house, I doubt we’ll have a budding Billy Elliot on our hands.)