Pink or blue?

As a growing number of millennial parents across the globe attempt to raise their children outside of gender-binary norms, Jisha Krishnan probes whether we are ready to let go of our gendered ideas about how kids should look, play and behave...

While an increasing number of schools in the UK are adopting gender-neutral uniforms, Sweden is experimenting with gender-neutral schools.

Picture this: you have a five-year-old son who wants to dress like Elsa, the ice princess from Disney’s Frozen. Would you let him? “Perhaps at home. Not outside,” responds Amrita Sharma, a Mumbai-based media professional and the mother of two young boys. “I don’t think my sons care about princesses, but if they did, I would have to ensure that they can have their way without getting ridiculed,” she reasons.

Interestingly, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s three-year-old son wore a pink dress at Halloween the year before last, the buzz on social media was something else. “I think it is rad as hell Trudeau made zero fuss about his son’s pink princess dress,” read a tweet that kick-started many online debates. “He insisted on being Skye (a cartoon character from PAW Patrol). And that’s fine with us,” the Canadian prime minister wrote on Twitter.

Now trending

Globally, parenting is moving into a more gender-neutral space. Not only in terms of what mom does and dad does, but also vis-à-vis what children are allowed to wear, play with, and simply be, irrespective of whether they are boys or girls. The rationale is to allow kids to develop, without the social imposition of gender-specific stereotypes, in non-judgmental and gender-fluid environments.

While an increasing number of schools in the UK are adopting gender-neutral uniforms, Sweden is experimenting with gender-neutral schools. Recently, the European country even added a gender-neutral personal pronoun “hen” to its vocabulary.

In the US, several states allow parents to choose “X” rather than male or female as their child’s gender on the birth certificate. ‘Theybies’ — babies without a known sex — have the freedom to choose their gender at a later stage. Not surprisingly, conventional baby names are making way for genderless choices.

The fashion industry is embracing unisex designs too, with international designers dropping the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ labels on their kidswear collections. And then, there are campaigns like ‘Let Toys be Toys’ that are challenging the toy industry to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting certain toys as suitable only for one sex.

The ground reality

Times are changing, but are we ready to let go of our gendered lens? Aparna Vivek, a Bengaluru-based teacher, admits that she hasn’t heard of gender-neutral parenting. However, Aparna is as enthusiastic about getting her six-year-old daughter enrolled for football coaching as she is about getting the little girl trained in kathak and playing the keyboard. “It’s her choice. I can’t say no to football just because there are no other girls on the football field,” explains the spunky mother.

In teaching our daughters to be good girls and sons to be brave boys, are we doing more harm than we realise? Actor and comedian Robert Webb, in his much-loved book How Not To Be A Boy, drives home the message that sons and daughters learn different lessons growing up. And both suffer as a result of gender stereotyping and deeply ingrained societal expectations.

sons and daughters learn different lessons growing up. And both suffer as a result of gender stereotyping and deeply ingrained societal expectations.
Our sons and daughters learn different lessons growing up. And both suffer as a result of gender stereotyping and deeply ingrained societal expectations.

“My son’s favourite colour is pink,” says Karan Shetty, an entrepreneur from Mumbai, who has no qualms about riding a pink scooter. “He loves to dance, just as he loves to play cricket,” adds the visibly proud hands-on dad. As a parent, all he wants is to ensure that his seven-year-old is able to express himself freely, and be the person that he is.

The tribe of parents like Aparna and Karan may be growing in India, at least in the cities. Yet gendered parenting is still very much the norm. “Theoretically, I may agree with you, but look at the world we live in. Also, people may question children’s sexual orientation,” argues a friend, who has a very different set of rules for his teenage son and daughter.

More harm than good

From explicit parental messages, such as ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘good girls don’t stay out late at night’, to implicit practices, such as expecting daughters to learn to cook and sons to fix the car, parents shape the identities of children in enduring ways. “There’s more to gender than one’s biological sex, and cultural influences play a huge role in developing a child’s gender identity,” says Shweta Shah, a Mumbai-based psychologist, who stresses that “homosexuality is not a choice.”

A thought-provoking BBC documentary — No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? — found that seven-year-old children had very ingrained, polarised notions of what men and women’s roles were. The girls called themselves pretty, but had lower self-esteem than the boys, while boys had a limited vocabulary when describing their emotions.

“There are quite a few studies that have looked at the effect of culturally enforced gender stereotypes on children,” informs Shweta. For instance, according to a recent study, gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge in children even before the age of six. Young girls were more likely to label boys as smarter and steer themselves away from games that demand a high intellect — say, chess.

One study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health has found a strong correlation between children subject to strict gender expectations and increased risk for mental and physical health problems, especially during and after adolescence. On the other hand, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that kids enrolled in Sweden’s gender-neutral kindergarten were less likely to gender stereotype. By ignoring culturally enforced gender norms, the researchers argue, pre-schoolers have access to more opportunities, which could translate to more success as adults.

The bottom line

“While there are critics of extreme gender-neutral parenting — not revealing the sex of the child to the world, for instance — the fact remains that there are different degrees of gender-neutral parenting. At its core, the idea is to encourage children to pursue all their interests, without being burdened by societal expectations based on gender,” says Shweta.

We need to treat children as individuals. Irrespective of their gender, kids must be encouraged to become their own person in an environment that is not too prescriptive. “In a country like India, that’s easier said than done though,” rues Aparna. “We have to ensure that the grandparents and the extended family are on the same page. Also, how do we protect kids from bullying?” she asks.

Change is often painful. There’s more to gender equality than “allowing” girls to study and boys to choose “feminine” pursuits like baking. Perhaps, taking away the lens of gender from parenting will pave the way for a more equal world, where young boys won’t be ridiculed for being a princess. And who knows, the gender pay gap may become a thing of the past, too!

Small steps first

* Teach children to recognise gender stereotypes and challenge them. Be more aware of how adults — often unknowingly — reinforce them. Why can’t boys cry?

* Create a gender-fluid atmosphere at home. Once you begin to break 
traditional gender roles in the family, children are likely to embrace it, too. Why can’t mummy get the car fixed, while daddy gets the lunch ready?

* Give children the right to decide. Instead of assuming that all girls ought to wear princess dresses, give them options. Why can’t the birthday girl wear jeans and a tee?

* Stop categorising toys as masculine and feminine. Let children play with a wide variety of toys, irrespective of their colour. Why can’t boys play with Barbies?

* Encourage children to play with kids of the opposite sex. It lays the foundation for healthy relationships in school, at home, and at work in the future. Why should girls not play cricket with boys?

* Try not to address children by their gender every time. “Pretty girl” or “smart boy” can very well be replaced by “pretty child” and “smart kid”. Why should it matter whether the child is a boy or a girl?

* Swap the characters’ genders around in traditionally gendered stories to make them more relevant to current times. It’s a lot more fun! Why can’t the princess save the prince?

* Inculcate positive self-esteem and confidence in children through everyday language and action, arming them with the strength to deal with bullying.

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