LAST week, I spoke to the Sunday Times Education Editor about a story she was planning on ‘gender neutral parenting’. The phrase itself – which I think we can all agree sounds rather PC – is enough to strike fear into anyone’s hearts and has become something of a buzzword for those seeking to explain – at the most basic level – why girls should not automatically be put in pink and boys in blue from babyhood!
Not surprising then that the accompanying headline ‘Let boys wear dresses, Head tells parents’ received some attention. I hope that anyone who read the headline actually read the story to understand the full gist of what I was saying! As Head of a girls’ school, I clearly would not have been telling my own school’s parents to let their sons – if they have them – wear dresses or in fact telling anyone to actually do anything rather I was suggesting to all parents that they should let their children – boy or girl – express themselves freely!
The story had arisen because British pop superstar Adele had started a debate by taking her three year old son to Disneyland dressed as his favourite Frozen character Anna: a little boy dressed as a girl shock horror!
In the same week, a survey revealed that more and more mums, particularly in the under 30 age group – so-called ‘millennial mums’ were bringing up their children in a ‘gender neutral’ way. The survey of more than 2,000 mothers for the parenting website Channelmum.com revealed two out of five under the age of 30 parent in a gender neutral manner compared with just one in four older mothers.
Another survey revealed that three out of five parents back the removal of gender labels from clothes and toys by retailers and a quarter want gender neutral school uniforms.
As for Adele, despite receiving criticism in some quarters, she was widely praised for ‘smashing gender norms’ by allowing her young son to wear what he wanted.
Personally, I believe that all young children should be allowed to play with whatever they want from the dressing-up box and with whatever toys they want – whether that means a little boy pushing a stroller or a little girl dressing up as Superman. So what? They are little kids having fun.
This is not a question of sexuality. It is laughable to suggest that by saying that little boys should be able to wear dresses from the dressing up box, I am paving the way for them to be confused about their own gender!
The issue of transgender and body dysphoric children is a totally different and very serious issue which has to be addressed sensitively. Recently, for example, Brighton College became the first school to scrap its uniform code to accommodate boys who identify as girls outside school and vice versa.
As a child of the 70s and 80s, what really bemuses me is that by saying what I said – effectively that children should be allowed to play as they wish – I am saying anything at all revolutionary.
When I was growing up, the norms were that girls and boys played together – usually in their messy dungarees, one indistinguishable from the other, with whatever came to hand. The ‘pinkification’ of toys had barely started, thank goodness. We all played with proper Lego – none of your Lego Friends patronising nonsense – and it wasn’t considered odd for a girl to ask Father Christmas for a Meccano set or a chemistry set and get one. We were free to play.
Fast forward a couple of decades and the boom in marketing meant that greedy marketeers spotted the opportunity to split genders from cradle to the grave and start to market ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ options to parents and then to their children when they were old enough. Men daring to wear a pink shirt or any kind of pastel colour these days might be told they are ‘in touch with their feminine side’!
It has been suggested that I have asked for a ‘revolution in parenting’ by suggesting that children are allowed to play freely and forget whether they are a boy or girl when they are doing that.
Hardly! I am just calling for parents to reclaim their children from the marketeers who have tried to make it normal for girls only to want to play with their Baby Annabels or Chou Chous and for boys to need to show their machismo virtually from birth by playing with a train set or blue truck.
Whether so-called ‘gender-neutral parenting’ gives parents the freedom to think it’s OK to do something simple like paint their nursery pink, yellow or blue or rainbow coloured – whatever the gender of their child – or being careful of not imposing gender stereotypes and roles in their language – ‘be a man’, ‘don’t be a girly’ etc – or, ultimately, the freedom to encourage their daughter to pursue a career as an engineer without being put off by the stereotype that it is a ‘male’ career – then it is to be applauded surely.
Imposing restrictions on children and stereotyped gender behaviours from birth is just the sort of behaviour that does confuse children because they are not free to explore and create.
Gender neutral parenting means giving children this freedom – the freedom, ironically, not to be neutral!
While many will hate the label, any parent who wants to give their child the opportunity to be who they are, fulfil their potential and not be held back by stereotypes will be surprised to hear that they too, in the 21st Century, are a gender neutral parent – like the term or loathe it!