Friday, May 20, 2011

Gender Neutral Kids and the Early Parent

I recently responded to a blog post about attempts to raise children in more gender neutral homes.  In this particular post the author was concerned about the influence her step-daughter's mother was having over her step-daughter.  Her step-daughter, not so incidentally, lives primarily with her and her husband.

One thing that struck me in the post was that the step-mother was both very well-meaning AND very new at parenting.  She and her husband also have one 18 month old daughter together.  The reason this interested me is because I am a very different parent now than I was when my kids first came home and certainly than I was BEFORE I had kids.  I assumed so much about kids and parenting back then, things I would never automatically assume now (I was such a good mom before I had kids.  And my kids were so well-behaved.  Sigh.).  Mostly, I assumed that all kids would respond in the same way to each method of parenting and that all kids could and should be parented in the same manner. (that being the way I thought was correct).

Anyway, the blogger makes a lot of assumptions in her post about why children are drawn to gender-specific products, assumptions based upon a limited amount of experience raising children.***  My comment sent me on a little jaunt down memory lane.  It also re-enforced some of the lessons I have learned about gendered products and the kids who love them -- lessons I never ever thought I would believe prior to having my own kids.  I thought I would share those lessons here.  This is my exact, word-for-word response:

I think it is difficult to know why a child makes a lot of their choices.
My 2 eldest children, a girl and boy, spent the first 3 and 2 years respectively of their life in an orphanage. There were no toys. There were no assigned clothes. Each child wore what fit. My son was “delivered” to us at the hotel in a pink outfit, my daughter in tennis shoes with trucks. All children were crammed into a room together, with no gender divisions. They never saw television, never saw a billboard, never saw a magazine, never listened to music (aside from drumming), never saw or read a book.
Despite the hardships of that life, the one benefit, I thought, was that we were already starting in a gender neutral home despite their older ages.
We did not separate clothes or toys in any way. They shared a room that was decorated in a neutral manner.
The day we brought them home, my son dug through the toys and found all the trucks. My daughter dug through and found all the dolls. My daughter chose the pink clothes. My son chose the ones with animals and cars (gifts). My son pointed out all the machines in the world. My daughter pointed out the flowers and kittens.
We were stunned.
However, my daughter is the stronger of the two; my son the most sensitive.
What we learned is that children often come with preferences that we cannot explain. We can’t always find a reason for those preferences. We have to ask questions and suspend judgement.
When my daughter could speak English, I asked her why she loved dolls so much. She told me that she loved when the babies came to the orphanage because they made the caregivers act nicer. And that they reminded her of when her brother came to the orphanage as a baby and she had a brother with which to share her misery. Now, at 11, she dreams of being a mid-wife. She loves babies and is very good with them. She expressed that as a 3 year old by being drawn to dolls, having nothing to do with gender stereotypes.
Why pink? Pink was the color of the one treat they occasionally got at the orphanage — pink punch (according to her).
Why is my son drawn to cars and trucks and machines? Because he finds them beautiful works of art. He has expressed this many many times and now draws the most gorgeous pictures of the machines in his head. They truly are works of art.
One final note, despite the many dolls possessed by my eldest and all the ways she tried to get her younger sister, 4 years her junior and a child by birth, to take to dolls, the youngest has never had any desire to play with dolls beyond cutting them open to perform pretend surgeries on them. No amount of pushing on the eldest’s part has pushed her into the world of dolls because she just isn’t interested.
Now, I do believe that dolls like those awful Bratz dolls can send terrible messages. I HATE those things. I also think it is our jobs as parents to find out why our children are drawn to whatever attracts them and figure out how to guide them to healthy versions of their choices. Perhaps they sing that sexual song because they really like the beat. So find them songs with similar beats. Maybe what they love about those short shorts is that they give them more freedom to move. Try leggings. Could it be that she likes the Bratz dolls because the heads are big enough for her to work the hair and that’s all she has available to her?
You sound quite conscientious. I am sure you have lots of talks with your step-daughter. I encourage you to keep digging to learn her reasoning behind her preferences.

***I should add that I, of course, still make probably the equal number of parenting mistakes I made back then -- they are just different mistakes now!!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post. Even for some of us not so new parents, these are great suggestions. Sometimes the first response is to just be frustrated by preferences because you as the parent have "done everything right." Stepping back and asking the why is huge. Thanks for this.


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