Boys will be boys ... or will they? Gender-neutral parenting is on the rise

Niharika Mandhana / Columbia News Service Published May 6, 2011 at 05:00AM

NEW YORK — There isn’t much about 11-week-old Piper Monosoff that says she’s a girl. Her nursery is painted brown, yellow and orange; she travels around in a green stroller; her wardrobe is an assortment of stripes and polka dots.

“I want people to see her as a baby, not a baby girl,” said her mother, Sara Steinbach, of Portland. “I don’t want people to expect things from her or treat her a certain way because of their preconceived notions of what girls are like.”

Steinbach often faces the question: How old is your son? But that is a small inconvenience toward the greater goal. Many couples like Steinbach and her husband have sidestepped an all-pink lace and frills wardrobe for girls and are steering clear of monster trucks for boys in an attempt to avoid gender stereotypes in the formative years of a child’s development.

Averse to pigeonholing children into society’s “blue boy boxes” and “pink girl boxes,” they’re practicing gender-neutral parenting, a philosophy designed to give kids the freedom to express their own likes, dislikes and interests, and ultimately, to determine their own identities.

This process now starts even before the baby is born.

At their recent 20-week ultrasound, New York parents-to-be Joey Drucker and Debra Flashenberg sat with their faces turned away from the sonogram screen.

“If we found out we were having a boy, we would be flooded with cars and sports stuff; and if we were having a girl, it would be pink bows and princess dresses,” said 34-year-old Drucker, who persuaded his wife to wait until birth to find out whether they were having a girl or a boy. “I want my child to be able to choose for himself or herself what is fun, what is interesting, what is creative.”

The gender spectrum

Drucker, a master’s student in social work, developed his parenting ideology after a class in human sexuality, where he learned the difference between sex and gender, the former determined at birth and the latter, socially learned.

Sex is binary in nature, he explained, divided in a “black-and-white way” into male and female, but gender is not.

“Gender is certainly a spectrum,” said Judith Stacey, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. “What is masculine and feminine differs from society to society and culture to culture, and even historically.”

She believes that while men and women have some innately different predilections, “gender-enforcing” parenting magnifies these differences in ways that can be oppressive.

A boy with a nurturing side, for instance, might be deprived of the opportunity to explore and develop it if he is surrounded by balls to bounce and soldiers to assemble, but can’t play with his sister’s dolls, Stacey said.

Dr. Lise Eliot, a professor in the department of neuroscience at Chicago Medical School and the author of “Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It,” says gender-specific parenting has the effect of “reducing the palette” of a child’s skills.

She draws a cause-and-effect connection between the low writing and reading levels of boys and the fact that they tend to spend more time with cars than with people and books.

“What you do with your time is what your brain becomes good at,” said Eliot. “So what we call our children, how we talk to them, what they wear, what they do, wires up their circuits in a specific way.”

She suggests deliberate “cross-training” of children, a practice that involves talking to boys, singing to them, reading to them, and making eye contact with them; and getting girls to be more active by encouraging them to build, hop, skip and run.

Eliot concedes that a completely gender-neutral upbringing is a “fantasy,” given parents’ limited sphere of influence once the child begins to interact with peers and the outside world.

“But remember that the child is learning from birth,” she added. “Early influences can have a lasting impact.”

Beyond stereotypes

Ariel Meadow Stallings, 35, who runs a blog called offbeatmama.com, has observed that gender-neutral parenting has become a hot topic of discussion in the parenting community.

In February, a reader posed a question about whether or not to wait to find out the sex of her baby. In just two days, over 150 comments poured in, many favoring a stereotype-free environment.

Stallings, who has a 17-month-old boy named Octavian Setz Stallings, has strong feelings against “handing down an identity” to children, in her case shaped partially by the fact that her mother and mother-in-law are both in same-sex relationships. Determined to give her son a “gender-neutral start-off,” Stallings keeps her distance from trucks, balls and blues.

“So many assumptions about gender roles are just entrenched in our culture,” said Stallings. “Being gender-neutral encourages people to pause and think about their perceptions.”

It was by way of a backlash against these perceptions that Marianne Mullen started Polkadot Patch, an online boutique that specializes in gender-neutral clothing.

When Mullen was pregnant, she chose not to learn the sex of her baby, a decision that changed dramatically the topic of conversation at her baby shower. Her friends and family complained about being “stuck,” not knowing what to buy without knowing if it was a boy or a girl.

That stirred something in Mullen and led to the birth of Polkadot Patch.

“We purposely challenge those gender stereotypes,” said Mullen, 42. “We want to make a statement that it’s OK for boys to like rainbows and girls to like monkeys.”

Small online stores aside, finding gender-neutral merchandise in mainstream markets can be a challenge.

Cassandra Snider had found that the world of shopping for infants is divided between aisles of pink and aisles of blue; the soccer ball clothes on one side and the Barbie doll clothes on the other.

She tends to shop in the boys’ section, which she finds has more gender-neutral colors and accessories. Her daughter, Medea Snider, 7 months old, has a nature-themed room — blue, green and brown.

“If she chooses to play with dolls when she grows up, I’ll happily buy her dolls,” Snider said. “But I don’t want to tell her to like dolls.”

Drucker, who has decided against finding out the sex of his baby for just this reason, is often faced with incredulous expressions and the inevitable question — How will you prepare if you don’t know?

“I know the baby will eat, sleep and poop,” Drucker says. “I don’t need to know anything beyond that.”

17-month-old Octavian Setz Stallings has few blue garments in his wardrobe. Octavian's mom, Ariel Meadow Stallings, says she has strong feelings against “handing down an identity” to children.