Did you watch the BBC 2 series no more boys and girls? In the two-part programme, Dr Javid Abdelmoneim tried to discover is the way parents and teachers treat boys and girls differently the reason we still haven’t achieved equality between men and women and asked what would happen to a classroom of seven-year-olds if they weren’t treated as boys and girls?
Year 3 Class teacher Graham Andre, from Lanesend Primary School on the Isle of Wight, said that feedback from parents of the children who took part in the social experiment had been very positive and that it had, “A huge impact on his class”. He explained: “Being gender neutral means giving boys and girls the same opportunities. It is about not limiting them in their choices of what they can do. It’s about improving confidence in girls and allowing boys to better express their feelings.” In support of a move towards becoming gender neutral, Sweden has added a personal pronoun “hen” to the country’s vocabulary and here in the UK, many children’s clothing companies now produce gender neutral clothing – no more labels as to who the item is for. So, are steps like these enabling our children to grow up free from old-fashioned limitations that were placed around gender – or is it just unrealistic to think that boys and girls will act, think and feel the same way? We wanted to know what parents really think about gender neutral parenting and took the debate to our readers to find out!
Many parents, like Savo Scarnduff, believe that being gender neutral is just about being more inclusive. She comments: “It’s not about abolishing calling them boys and girls, it’s about reassuring our children that it’s okay for a boy to choose a pink duvet, or dress up like a princess, and it’s okay for girls to like video games and Nerf guns.” Mum Vikkie Patterson reveals that she’s always been a fan of gender neutral parenting, but just never called it that, preferring to buy clothes that could be passed down between siblings and Susan Burrows applauds Sweden for addressing this and asks: “How many of us women go to work nine to five every day, yet still come home to do the washing and cooking because it is expected of us? It is totally naïve to say that labelling of any kind doesn’t feed into the mind-set of a child.” Alana McIlwaine is also in agreement wishing, “Let kids be themselves and wear gender-neutral clothing. It’ll help stamp out the stereotypical roles that we have drummed into our children from no age.” Mum Melissa Magee observes, “From the minute children are born we are telling them what it means to be a boy or girl instead of just letting them discover who they are themselves. I think this has been pushed on to us by big manufacturers who can then sell more products if we don’t feel we can pass boys’ things onto girls and vice versa.” Rosa Thompson states, ‘Gender stereotypes harm so many people. Sweden is clever. We should follow them!” Emma Hegarty urges, “If a male child wants to wear a skirt, let him. But if a girl wants to wear a big pink frilly dress let her. Just let kids be who they want to be!” And Dad Ryan Camlin points out that labels such as ‘daughter’ and ‘son’ are purely for the avoidance of confusion and that his kids are, “Free to play with whatever they like, regardless of how they are marketed.”
However, an equally large number of the parents who responded to us aren’t convinced. Lesa Martin believes that encouraging children to think ‘gender neutral’ is just adding to confusion in their teens. She says, “I’m not for the stereotyping of roles, but male is male and female is female. Diversity is good.” Johanne Jefferson agrees commenting: “The only way to get rid of old fashioned gender limitations is by teaching our children to respect each other and treat everyone equally. Taking gender neutrality to the extreme like this removes the opportunity to celebrate the wonderful diversity and complementarity of males and females.That said, we do need to fight the everyday sexism that is upheld in popular culture that beauty is to be prized above all else for girls.”
Ceara Dunlop answered our question with this response: “Boys and girls ARE different!” The world is going to be a very dull place if everyone is the same, all wearing the same type of clothes, all playing the same games, all being called by the same name (hen) etc. is totally ridiculous. As a teacher and a mother I value the fact that the children in my care are all different. We need to love and nurture these differences in our children.” And Andrea Johnston thinks: “It is impossible to be completely gender neutral. You can allow your children to have free choice and be a supportive parent who respects and encourages a child’s right to make their own choices, but being gender neutral is a step too far. Children aren’t born with stereotypes… they are learned behaviours. But at the end of the day they are still boys and girls.”
The majority of parents who responded to our debate question this issue agree that children should be free to make their own choices about who they are and what they like and never be expected to fit into stereotypical behaviour of – boys like cars / girls like dolls – and we couldn’t agree more. Ultimately, we believe the move towards becoming more gender neutral shouldn’t really be about thinking in terms of ‘No more boys or girls’ but instead thinking more about the way we speak to and behave towards our children about what it means to be a boy or a girl e.g. not boys need to toughen up more and shouldn’t be comforted when they cry, or only girls should enjoy dressing up and playing house. Gender-neutral clothing also arguably just makes economic sense as more items can be passed down between siblings. It’s not so much that blue and pink should be banished – it’s more that they are both up for grabs.