Written by Game Of Twins Blog
What do you do when gender neutral parenting fails?
I was converted to feminism as an A-level Sociology student. In my exams, I wrote adoringly about the work of Ann Oakley on the ways boys and girls are parented differently. Looking at the lives of me and my sister, her theory seemed so obviously true. Whilst my most memorable Christmas present was an enormous Transformer, hers was a pink Barbie car; I played sport four nights a week, whilst she had piano and dance lessons. Though we were both encouraged to do well in school and given everything we reasonable wanted, it was clear our genders were taking us down different paths.
Many years later, my wife and I decided we wanted to parent gender neutrally. This became essential when we were lucky enough to add fraternal boy-girl twins to our family. Both of them, we reasoned, should have equal opportunities and (hopefully) grow up to be resilient, independent people. Our daughter Saoirse, we were adamant, would have just as many opportunities as her brother Cillian. If she wanted to play football, that would be fine. And if he wanted to do ballet, that would be fine as well.
We are now seventeen months into parenthood and our attempts to behave gender neutrally have faced both plain sailing and rough seas.
Toy selection, which can be tricky when gender-neutrally parenting one child, has not been a problem for us. Having twins makes toy mixing unavoidable. Whilst parents of a singleton may have to seek out specifically non-stereotypical toys, it does not matter to us if relatives buy toys that are marketed towards boys or girls: they all get thrown in the same messy, over-flowing toy box.
We have also had great success in the careful use of compliments, which Oakley describes as a major influence on gender roles. Whilst we regularly and stereotypically call Cillian ‘brave’, we also apply the same term to Saoirse. We similarly do not shy away from describing our little boy as ‘beautiful’ and ‘cute’. The most regular term we use though is ‘little monkey’, which applies to them both equally.
When it comes to clothes, however, any attempts to behave in a gender neutral way have failed miserably. Having received some large, gender-labelled bags of beautiful second-hand clothes from friends and colleagues we have given into temptation and dressed them in typical girl/boy colours. I do sometimes feel bad about this, but could not bring myself to throw away anything from Baby GAP.
Sometimes the clothing issue has not been our fault. We recently struggled to source a padded winter coat for Saoirse. Despite trying three reasonably priced major stores we could not find anything warm enough that was not pink. Not being prepared to buy a boy’s coat to make a point or have our daughter freeze, she now proudly toddles around like a small, pink Eskimo.
About three months ago, however, all our good work started to come undone. With the onset of walking, Cillian, who had always been the quieter, more obviously premature twin, started to engage in increasingly “laddish” behaviour. No more the reserved baby whose favourite song was Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’, he emerged into toddlerhood throwing balls, scrambling up furniture and generally causing havoc. His choice of toy is a noisy guitar, which he wields more like an axe than a musical instrument.
Saoirse meanwhile, has become fixated on a new-born doll which had lain ignored at the bottom of the toy box since we were given it as a present. The imaginatively named ‘Baby’ now goes everywhere with her and is subject to much hugging, feeding and being put to bed.
If we attend a playgroup, Saoirse immediately seeks out a space to sit down and look after her dolly. Cillian, on the other hand, follows the older boys about or looks for ways to escape. Despite our best efforts, we seem to have produced a “typical boy” and a “typical girl”.
So where do we go from here? The aim of gender-neutral parenting is not to produce genderless children. It is to create children who are free to be boys and girls in the way they choose, rather than in a way dictated to them. If Saoirse chooses to be a typical girl, we will celebrate that rather than try to change her. In playing with that dolly she is learning to be empathetic and caring and these are skills which will help her in later life. In this sense, our approach to parenting has not failed at all.
At Christmas, we will guiltlessly bought Saoirse two new dolls and accessories such as a crib and highchair. However, after the initial unwrapping and excitement, they were thrown into the toy box with everything else. They are not be labelled as ‘hers’ but simply as ‘toys’. Nevertheless, it was clear Saoirse loved them very much.
Last week, something quite wonderful happened. Cillian, without prompting or pushing, started to help Saoirse to feed the dolls and place them in their buggies. He even tried to put them to sleep by tossing them head first into their crib. Our girly-girl and her gender specific toys had taught our little boy to be caring. Girls need to be told it’s ok to like superheroes and aspire to be physicists, but boys need to learn empathy as well. Perhaps we had not failed after all.
Written by Game Of Twins Blog
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