Why Don’t Feminists Have Gender-Neutral Kids?

Gender equalitySome parents believe in gender equality but conclude that boys and girls are just naturally different.

After all, they tried raising their sons and daughters the same way, yet their girls still liked frilly pink dresses and their boys still played with guns.

But do they raise boys and girls the same?

Ideas affect behavior 

Sociologist, Emily Kane, asked parents of preschoolers why they thought their kids behaved in sex-typed ways.

About one-third thought biology explained it.

Yet here’s what the parents said when she asked if they had wanted a girl or a boy, and why:

Dad and son playing ball

Dad and son playing ball

Why did you want a son?

  • Dad (who usually wanted sons): teach him to play sports
  • Mom: so hubby will have a companion to play sports with

Why did you want a daughter?

  • Mom: dress her up, buy her dolls, give her dance classes, emotional intimacy

If you have these kinds of ideas about boys and girls, would you really treat them the same?

Boys seem stronger, girls seem sweeter

Or, when moms talked about what their babies were like in the last three months of pregnancy, everyone said “active.” But mothers of boys thought they were more active. And moms who didn’t know their child’s sex didn’t detect a difference:

What was your baby like in the 3 months before birth?

  • Boy: Vigorous, strong
  • Girl: Active but not violent; Active but not terribly active
  • Sex unknown: no pattern

Even feminists find boys stronger and girls sweeter

Kara Smith had a background in women’s studies. So she was surprised that how she perceived her baby changed when ultrasound revealed he was a boy:

  • He suddenly seemed stronger than he had the minute before I learned the sex
  • My light, fluffy language  (“Little one”) disappeared
  • My voice lowered, and lost its tenderness

I can relate. I haven’t given birth, but I have raised kittens. (Ha, ha, I know…)

Sweet baby girl

Sweet baby girl

One of my neighbors caught some kittens that were in her yard, and I adopted two of them. I named the boy Felix and the girl Lexy.

Weeks later I found out that Felix was a girl and Lexy was a boy.

Suddenly, Felix seemed sweeter and softer. And Lexy seemed less sweet and less elegant — but only slightly so (he exuded both sweetness and elegance).

And then there was my two-year-old nephew, who I once bopped on the head with a soft beachball — before realizing that I wouldn’t have done it if he had been my little niece.

Neither Kara nor I see ourselves as sexist. And yet there we were, finding ourselves being so.

Proud of boys, delighted by daughters

Meanwhile, birth announcements in Canadian newspapers show a pattern: Parents are “proud” of their boys — who appear to enhance family status.

But they are “delighted” by their “lovely” daughters — who seem to evoke warm, fuzzy feelings of emotional intimacy and greater happiness.

Gender-neutral parents?

Do parents raise their kids gender-neutrally?

Probably not.

Now add an environment that is far from gender-neutral, with children who tease boys and girls who don’t conform, and television that portrays girls one and boys another… and much more. Then mix. More on that later…

Source: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on July 1, 2015, in feminism, gender, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 47 Comments.

  1. Just as one can take sex-typing too far, I think the opposite is also true – one could become obsessed with gender neutrality. As with many things, going overboard either way strikes me as unwise. Embrace gender difference while at the same time being aware of over-sex-typing.

    • I teach this in my classes and I noticed that I always have students who share your concern. What I wonder about is why?

      Gender puts us in boxes and limits us: Girls can’t do math, women aren’t good leaders, men shouldn’t show their emotions, unless it’s anger, Man can’t show weakness … These gendered notions can be very damaging to our opportunities and our physical and mental health.

      But I am curious to hear why you are concerned to keep gendered dichotomies.

  2. I have a Master of Arts with a specialization in Women Studies. I was raised with two sisters, and we would all agree we were tomboys. Our parents believed we should be strong and independent. I have two boys, and I’m raising them the same way . . .. but I guess that means I’m falling prey to gender roles as well. Man! It’s a catch isn’t it! Think I’ll just focus on the concept of respect for all and make sure my boys understand its importance to their lives and the lives of others. Great piece.

  3. The title of your post caught my eye! I’m a feminist, and I am trying to raise my three daughters in a gender neutral way. Of course, I have no idea how I would raise a son, but I don’t see how it would be different. My kids like all colors, so-called boy toys (like actual Legos/building toys and not pastel Goldieblox), and they are free to dress themselves however they want. The problem, though, is the environment outside of our home. So far, one of my girls has responded to those outside influences by becoming even more of a tomboy, while one of my other daughters has become more stereotypically girly. It goes back and forth. They’re defining who they are. I am both delighted by them and proud of them.

    • That’s right. Kids get teased when they don’t conform to prescribed gender roles. Television and movies and billboards bombard us with our gender roles. Teachers teach gender roles, whether they mean to or not…

  4. The “boxes” you cited in your reply to my first comment are examples of the notions I would consider “going overboard,” so perhaps the only difference in our positions is where to draw the line….if one is to be drawn at all, which may be your position. What is my line? Off hand, I don’t think I could tell you. My comment was probably more the reaction of someone who has a gut aversion to rigid ideological stances of the left or right.

    • Okay. So which gender roles aren’t going overboard?

      • Fortunately, I’m not one of your students, so I’m not obliged to answer that question!

        In any case, as I indicated before, I can’t tell you specifically where (if at all) I’d draw a line on gender roles, simply because I’m not fixated on the subject — I just have a general aversion to ideologically rigid stances. Even when my two daughters were young girls, my wife & I didn’t think in those terms — we felt (as does Shrewed Up) that children should be raised to be strong and independent, and I think our daughters (now in their 40s) would tell you that’s how they’ve turned out.

        Actually, now that I take another look at the title question of your posting, perhaps I shouldn’t have ‘butted in’ with a comment in the first place, as I can neither speak for feminists, nor as a feminist. Interesting piece, though.

      • I’m glad that you asked the question. I’m just curious about the widespread feeling you expressed and was hoping you could help bring light to something I hear a lot.

        So glad you are raising strong, independent girls!

        Cheers 🙂

  5. As a single mom of a soon to be three-year-old boy, I found this article to more slightly more anecdotal than scholarly. I consider myself a moderate feminist trying to raise a healthy caring boy. My sons toy chest consist of one play kitchen, one doll with baby sling, a bunch of trucks and cars, and two bikes. He likes the color pink if given a choice of color, he cares for his baby doll and cooks on his play kitchen for me and his grandparents. He also loves to play with trains, trucks and dirt. I am so delighted I have a son, I’m proud of my son for his achievements and milestones and for being a loving, caring kid. I dress my son in “boy” clothes-no frills, dresses or pink- but I paint his nails if he wants me to and let him play with hair clips and make up. I do however encourage him to play hard and get dirty.

    When my son behaves in ‘male’ ways, I think some of it comes from his biology and some must come from society. I don’t encourage my son to be either more ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’, I praise him when he’s tough and when he’s gentle and caring. As children they are all supposed to learn how to pick themselves up and how to care for others no matter their biological sex. I think its easier for a single mother to raise a child in a sort of neutral way than with a man who may not like his boy to have dolls and brooms.

    • Thanks for the anecdote.

      Social science is pursued in a variety of ways. The post included an archival survey of birth announcements, a survey of reasons feminist parents gave her for wanting a son or daughter — people who said they had been trying to raise their children in gender neutral ways, a survey of parents’ perceptions of their fetuses — showing how perceptions varied depending on whether the fetus was a girl, boy, or unknown.

      And a couple of anecdotes were added, which are quite revealing considering they come from a couple of strong feminists, including myself, who became aware of their invisible, internalized sexism. And thanks again for the anecdote that you provided.

      As another commentor pointed out, children do not grow up in hermetically sealed environments, either. As I mentioned in my response, Kids get teased when they don’t conform to prescribed gender roles. Television and movies and billboards bombard us with our gender roles. Teachers teach gender roles, whether they mean to or not… etc.

      And none of us, including parents, tend to be aware of the extent to which we have internalized gender and re-create it in our perceptions and interactions.

  6. I think your articles on transgenderism touches upon this subject. I tried to raise both my children according to their personalities (both biological boys). Neither was the “traditional male type”. My youngest was the one people took for being a girl. Part of my makeup is needing to let my children have that freedom of expression. Now she has chosen that route on a more permanent basis. I cannot help but wonder what a difference it would have made if her being so-called girlish in her behavior had been accepted as being A-OK for a biological boy to express? I expect she would have been bullied much less. This has been my beef with patri/matriarchal societies. Setting one above the other only encourages difference, in my opinion.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. The bullying is something my students have wondered about. Of course, if we didn’t insist that boys were one-way and girls were another, we wouldn’t have the bullying issue.

      And you are right, you can’t have a sense of gender superiority unless you have a sense of difference.

  7. The story of a boy who was raised as a girl
    http://www.bbc.com/news/health-11814300

    • First, this post isn’t about convincing boys that they are girls or convincing girls that they are boys. David is part of the gender binary. This post is trying to move us out of it. This post is saying that we shouldn’t think that girls can’t do math or be leaders and that man can’t be emotional. It’s not about gender identity (I’m a girl, I’m a boy). It’s about what we believe girls can do and what we believe boys can do.

      Otherwise, I talk about this case in my classes. And I will be writing about this on my blog when I do my series on transgender issues.

      Here’s some text from one of my lectures:

      Male: David Reimer
      Genes Hormones
      XY Normal

      0-17 mo 17 mo Castrated/–>girl (Older: learns truth)
      Appear: Male No penis Male via surgery
      Socialization: Male Female
      Identity: Male ?? Male

      Conclusion: Gender learning starts at birth. Having a twin brother made transition less likely as they’d been raised together for 17 months and kept playing together. David thought it was weird to be given meds and go to the doctor to be told how great it was to be a girl, when his brother didn’t do these type of things things. His parents may not have treated him completely “normally” as a girl after treating him as a boy for a year and a half.

      Can’t be a girl because he hates dresses, he says?
      • A lot of girls hate dresses. At least for a while, including me.
      • Men in some cultures wear dresses, skirts

      Sex reassignment should be up to individual.

      Other “normal genes/hormones” raised as girls: Around half develop male identity
      • Age of reassignment? (more likely to see oneself as the “other gender” if transitioned at younger age)
      • Parental interaction? Difficulties switching to see a boy as a girl?
      • ??Strong masculine* personalities? High androgens?

      *Masculine, as defined by our culture
      Despite gene/ hormone/brain differences:
      • There is more overlap than difference between males and females
      • Can rarely predict personality, behavior, interests, aptitude based on sex

  8. Gender-neutral parents are hard to find. Even when they try, friends and other family members keep on saying that they are raising the boy in a girly manner and vice-versa….

    It’s important to make the boys aware of feminine qualities and soft skills from the childhood….. I think that help them to become balanced human beings in future and they also learn to respect women.. 🙂

    • It is interesting to see how two strong feminists, including me, realized how much sexism we had internalized unconsciously when something (baby, kitty) we thought was one sex turned out to be the other.

  9. Parents and homes are never gender-neutral, but I hope we keep moving toward these good intentions, because mindfulness helps.

  10. It would be great to raise gender-neutral kids- on top of everything else. I am not a mother but if I were to ever be one, I think I’d have my hands full learning how to just do the job well enough and raise kids that are emotionally healthy and whole to begin with. I’d love to be able to not box them into stereotypes and allow them to be whoever they are- and hopefully that will allow for some gender-neutrality in the mix.

    • And really, the whole culture needs to change for to really work. But the whole culture changes by each person’s individual actions, too. So there is a back-and-forth to all this.

  11. Young at Heart

    Curious about the study behind the blog. What were your conclusions? Who were the participants? Age, education, socio-economic? Thanks, I’m of the 70s years and things were oh so different (or the same?) back then.

    • Several studies are behind this blog post. They are all contained in the book, “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine, who is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She specializes in psychology and neuroscience research.

  12. Yes, it’s tricky, and even more complicated than you think. Still, I think that being aware of gender bias and stereotypes as a parent is a good start.

  13. Even when parents try to think to be neutral, there are a few who pass comments on how they are treating a boy as a girl and vice versa. In such cases, some parents may get influenced by the comments passed at them and treat their child as per the norms made by the society “how one must treat a boy and a girl!” .

  14. This issue sure does run deep, doesn’t it? I have noticed the same thing in how I talk about my cats! I’m aware of it, which is important — and, of course, being cats, they are not.

    Has probably helped their psycho-social development…

    • My last two kittens had personalities that ran completely opposite our gendered notions of their sex. Now I have two kittens – male and female again – who have very similar personalities. But she’s more fearful so I am gentler with her. Just as I had once been gentler with my boy, Lexy. But Bella is even more scared than Lexy was, and I use a super-gentle voice with her. I’m wondering if I would have used as gentle a voice if Rafa had been as scared as her?

      • I understand questioning yourself like that! My Nathan joined the family when he was only about a year old — and already fairly traumatized by multiple abandonments and a winter spent living on the streets. My then-husband worked really hard to socialize him, but after the divorce, I struggled to maintain that sense of safety for him. (Nathan and I seemed to keep triggering each other’s PTSD.) Occurred to me about 6 months ago: I have been responding to his behavior as if it was just aggression, rather than based in fear. Acting on a new framework, I’ve gotten him significantly calmer. He’s even asked to cuddle in my lap once or twice!

        Good thing cats don’t seem to fret *too* much about the gendered boxes we put them in, as long as the kibbles and ear skritches keep coming…

      • Yeah! It’s more self-revelatory than affecting them.

        I got my kittens when they were only four month old and they haven’t been traumatized but their mom seems to have taught them to be afraid of people. Since they’re so little, and little kittens feel safer in a smaller space, I put them in an extra bedroom with cat trees and toys and just a day bed, and stuck some Feliway in there. They are getting more comfortable with me now. I sat next to Bella and she didn’t run away today, which is a big improvement. She even tried getting on my lap but would only stay for a few seconds. Her brother lets me cuddle him more.

  15. Happy july 4th weekend. And perfect timing for the patriotic holiday, women’s US soccer team beat japan today and won women’s world cup. It’s been 16 years since women’s US team has won it all, since 1999.

    ‘Merica

  16. Raising your children to be gender neutral is only going to hamper them. Boys and girls are inherently different from the moment they’re born. We should embrace our differences rather than pretend they don’t exist. We should also be careful not to assume anything either though even if it’s based on facts (that girls won’t be as good at math for example).

    Science has proven that there are observable sex differences in brain structure, chemistry, and design. Women, for example, have a larger limbic system which is why we are both more emotional and more in control of our emotions. Men have better visual spatial ability. Women have better language capabilities. Different hormones (testosterone vs. estrogen) have different effects on our bodies AND our minds. Men and women literally think differently (often different areas of our brains light up even when solving the same problem!)

    These are all generalizations of course but they are also facts. There is obvious overlap, yes, but to assert that boys and girls are blank slates who are 100% the same and only made different by culture and society is objectively and scientifically false (not saying you’re saying this… at least I hope you’re not?)

    I agree that we need to embrace whatever talents our children have regardless of gender but we also need to be able to accept the fact that there is never, ever going to be a 50/50 split of males/females pursuing every job/passion/hobby/etc. in life.

    Men and women are different. Always have been. Always will be. Blame biology.

    • You are citing old data, which isn’t very good. The new data is contained in my blog post. Read “Delusions of Gender” which is written by a psychologist to specializes in neuroscience research.

      Here’s some other old data which isn’t very good:

      . Education shrinks a woman’s womb

      No. The fundamental attribution error raises its ugly head again. Actually, women who are educated are more likely to put off getting married and having children.

      . Men have bigger brains, and that explains why men are smarter

      So why aren’t basketball players all rocket scientists? And why are rocket scientists not the tallest people in the world?

      But it must be said that nurture affects nature. There’s a nature-nurture dance such that our experiences affect our brain wiring. If girls are taught to express and modulate their emotions, the wiring will be affected with some average differences, but still plenty of overlap.

      There are average gender differences in behavior and brain. Yet tremendous overlap. What’s remarkable is how similar men and women are despite the differences in socialization. Humanity is apparently most important.

      “Raising your children to be gender neutral is only going to hamper them. Boys and girls are inherently different from the moment they’re born.”

      That doesn’t make any sense. If children are innately different and can’t be affected by socialization, then how could raising them to be gender-neutral hamper them? It could have no effect.

      Since you believe gender is innate, I’m wondering:

      .How would you be different if you were a man?
      .Or if you are a man using a woman’s name, how would you be different if you were a woman?

      But since you don’t pay attention to the things I write, and just want to believe what you want to believe, I don’t see any point in continuing to respond to you. It’s just a waste of my time.

  17. I think it is somewhat ingrained in us to hold these stereotypes. Interestingly enough, research shows that Neandertal skeletons of women were robustly built very similarly to their male counterparts. Many researchers believe that both sexes went out on dangerous hunts. They were not considered “sweet” or “Gentle”, they were naturally fierce and tough. So where did this deeply embedded idea start? Most likely around the time when physically, women started to change. It is difficult not to place judgment based off of one’s appearance. If you looked at two individuals attempting to fight each other and one was generally smaller, odds are you would place your bet on the individual that “looked” stronger and powerful. Now clearly this is flawed logic and there are a vast array of things that prove value and worth over size and apparent strength but in a labor intensive society, it is clear why some may value evident size and strength. I think those values just continued to strengthen as society went on and eventually those same judgments became oppressive and skewed into other fascists of sexism.

    • Interesting. I haven’t read much about Neanderthals.

      And male dominance isn’t inevitable, As I’ve written before:
      A World Before Male Dominance
      https://broadblogs.com/2015/04/17/a-world-before-male-dominance/

      When Gods Were Mothers
      https://broadblogs.com/2015/05/07/when-gods-were-mothers/

      I’ll write more on how patriarchy seems to have arisen, Later. A couple of Quick examples: 1) hunting societies (As opposed to plant-based societies) tended to value strength and to flatter the men who usually did the hunting because they were bigger and stronger but also because you don’t want to risk killing the people who give birth. 2) when societies started figuring out that inbreeding is bad they began exchanging women, buying and selling women — Women were bought more than men, maybe because their potential children were wanted — making to try bigger and stronger. But then women become property.

  18. Vanessa Solorzano

    I am one daughter of a household of two, I also have an older brother and a younger one. I also have a cousin who I consider my brother because we all grew up together. My sister and I are the closest in age, there’s a 2 1/2 year age difference between us, and we couldn’t be more different from each other. Growing up I was very “girlish”, I absolutely loved anything pink and glittery. My sister on the other hand was very tomboyish. She loved to play sports and get dirty with the guys while I was inside (or outside) with my barbies trying to get her to play with me. My little brother, who is 6 years younger than I am, is very sensitive but masculine at the same time. I did cheerleading as a 4th grader and my little brother was so interested in the sport, he wanted so badly to join a team. Being too young at that time of course my mom had to say no. But my mother was very very supportive of him wanting to learn along side with me. My mother has always been very equal with all of us, always stressing that everyone in the world i equal as a person no matter what. If you put all my siblings in a line you would definitely see that being boy or girl doesn’t matter for us. Cutting out the gender stereotypes probably are really hard for parents, but it is definitely something I am seeing becoming more and more common now days.

  19. This was a very good article because it was so true. i consider myself a feminist, and yet when I had my first child and learned she was a girl I couldn’t help but buy an enormous amount of pink, and dream of taking her shopping and the excitement she would feel at prom and on her wedding day. It was only when I had my son that I realized what a mistake I was making. My son and daughter are only a year apart, and as a young couple my husband and I had gone crazy with the baby gear and then subsequently didn’t see the need to re purchase items like toys and carseats again just because we had a boy, we were on a budget. However my husband comes from Central America, a culture known for its emphasis on masculinity, and though this decision did not bother him it did aggravate his father and uncles, who would constantly make comments about our son playing with pink toys and being carried around in a purple baby carrier. They would ask if we were trying to make a statement and it was that remark that made me decide yes, I am. My children can be who they are and my son playing with girls toys or my daughter playing with boys toys would not change who they were or how we felt about them. I subsequently decided to make a conscious decision to let my children be who they are, (my son wants to play with dolls, who cares, my daughter likes to get dirty and play soccer, you go girl) but that was the difference, I chose to change the way I thought about raising them. I don’t know if I would have made the same decision had I not felt the rage and passion that resulted from my husbands familial criticism, but I am glad that I did. I don’t want to be the mom who tells my daughters they cant do something because its a typical boy activity, or the kind that tells their son not to cry because emotion is feminine. I want my children to thrive, to be different and just be happy. Perhaps Im not always gender neutral and do allow society to influence some of my decisions, but I try, I make an effort to treat my children equally and don’t assign expectations based on gender but on potential, personality and need.

  20. Claudia Robinson

    I firmly agree with this entire blog post and truly enjoyed reading it. Male/Female stereotypes have been around from the beginning of time and it is this fact that makes it so difficult for people to break out of it and raise their kids the same regardless of sex. Although, I do believe it is possible if you look back at the history of gender differences throughout the world so much has changed already. At one point in time, women didn’t even have the same right as men and the only career they had was to please their men, take care of the house and raise the children. Today, women are CEO’s of large companies and more women today work full time and raise families. At one point, women’s sports weren’t even deemed respectable and today thousands of fans enjoyed watching the United States Women’s soccer team win the world cup. Things have already changed so much in terms of gender differences that I believe that these stereotypes that exist when raising children will no longer be applicable. All it takes is one person to stand up and defy the norm, which will thus cause a chain reaction of change.

  21. Catalina Becker

    One day not too long ago, I was just sitting there thinking: “What if gender was 100% a social/cultural construct and is really more reflective of taste and personality, rather than what’s between our legs?” and that’s when I had my big breakthrough. There are girls who prefer to play in the dirt and sports and they call them “tomboys” and boys who prefer arts/what have you, are deemed effeminate, but I believe it all comes down to a personality type. Just as there are funny men and women, serious men and women, and bubbly men and women, there are also “feminine” and “masculine” men and women, but assigning a gender to these traits is where we get in trouble. A child’s. or anyone’s, hobbies and interests do not stem from any orientation or physical sex, even just thinking about that, for me, seems so odd. I believe that if we didn’t force gender on our children that we would find an equal amount of children being interested in various activities, no matter their sex. Separating them into these two groups so early on creates a feeling of distance from the opposite sex that, since we are raised with, is almost impossible to get rid of. The only solution is to drive it out by raising gender-neutral children, but that would obviously take not only a lot of time but also a great deal of cooperation. The trouble is, once you have been alive long enough, the ideas you are raised with become harder and harder to undo, which is why we inflict gender-roles on non-human creatures and sometimes even objects, and which is also why it’s important to teach our children from the start that gender, in a way, almost doesn’t even really exist. It’s just the language we have been using for so many years, I really wish we had different, non-gendered words for some of these things! It would make it so much easier to talk about.

    • We are all a mix of three things: our biology/natural personality + social interactions + culture. And so you find cultural differences in how people “Do gender.” In some cultures men wear dresses or skirts (Or both), A lot of jewelry and makeup, And act very gracefully. That is all cultural influence. But due to personality differences, different men will have different levels of interest in these things.

  22. This is an interesting post. I was surprised to realize myself have internalized sexism which unconsciously effect on my behaviors. However, it is good for me now that I am more sensitive with gender bias in daily activities. According to your post and many comments above, it is not easy to raise a child with gender neutral. I think that we should consider that not only male and female but all of us are different. Someone said that no children have the same parents because we treat each children differently. Different child needs different support to thrive their best, no matter of their sex.

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