Gender-neutral parenting: blurring the line between boys and girls

Meet the mums and dads sweeping aside limitations society has placed on children based on their gender, allowing them instead to blossom outside the confines of an outdated category

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 12:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 February, 2016, 3:19pm

Christina Kotsamidis-Ventouras didn’t bat an eyelid when her younger son picked out a top with a pink motif from the girls’ section of a store during a recent shopping excursion in Hong Kong. She immediately bought it for him.

An early childhood educator, Kotsamidis-Ventouras takes a gender-neutral approach to raising her sons, Dimitri and Leonidas. They are encouraged to explore and celebrate all aspects of their personalities, not just what is expected by society.

“For my sons, no toys, colours, interests or activities are off-limits. Gender-neutral parenting – or gender-inclusive parenting, which is the term that I tend to use – is not about the avoidance of all things hyper boyish or hyper girlish in order to live a life of neutrality. It’s about destroying the senseless limitations society has placed around our children based on their gender and allowing them to develop and thrive without having to be squeezed into a box or category,” says Kotsamidis-Ventouras, who implemented numerous gender-neutral ideas in her classrooms before taking a career break to care for her children.

According to Sophie Dunstone, a clinical psychologist at Southside Family Health Centre, the best kind of child-raising encourages exploration, imaginative play, positive self-regard and resilience that is not limited by gender.

“Gender is a part of identity. It contributes to a person’s sense of belonging and sense of self. Throughout child and adolescent development there is a continual process of both finding your individual self and how you belong to the group,” Dunstone says. “Difficulties arise when a parent is rigid, authoritarian and unresponsive to a child’s needs.”

More liberal parents try to let children find their own comfort level on the gender spectrum although it’s hard to shield youngsters entirely from societal messages about typical gender behaviour.

Refusing to acknowledge gender at all is unrealistic, however, and possibly unhelpful in bringing up a child, Dunstone adds.

All the same, “If one was to look at the ubiquitous mass marketing of toys to children, gender roles are fairly apparent in packaging and messages to consumers. This is how toy manufacturers maximise making money,” says Timothy Stuart, founder of UnitBricks, a company making construction toys.

Having spent the past 15 years researching how boys and girls play, Stuart reckons young girls traditionally spend more time in dramatic play and areas of socialisation while boys spend more time in construction areas. Much of these patterns derive from peer play, he notes.

“The problem is that gender-specific toys and experiences tend to limit a child to one specific role rather than allowing them to see the world is their playground. Multi-intelligent experiences enable children to see the world through their own lens rather than the one prescribed to them. I firmly believe children should be allowed to be anything they want to be.”

Amy Wong’s eight-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, have always had a variety of toys to share. From a very early age, her son gravitated toward toy cars while her daughter preferred princesses.

Although she feels it’s unnecessary to steer her children from stereotypical interests, Wong takes issue with the powerful influence that society and media have played in recent years in shaping children’s perception of gender boundaries.

In particular, she recalls how her daughter refused to play with a Lego set because it didn’t come in a purple box and was meant for boys.

“I totally blame the media and society for this. Everything around us separates things into gender specific categories,” she says, citing items from toys to toiletries.

Sabrina Cruz, founder of Rainbows at Play HK, a supportive community of parents and children who want to enjoy gender-neutral play, argues that thinking of gender as strictly a two-option category is behind the times.

“This outdated view can be compared to trying to view the world in distinct racial categories without understanding that a growing percentage of the population is beautifully multi-ethnic. The same can be said for gender,” says Cruz, a mother of three, including a five-year-old son who enjoys toys marketed at girls.

Social pressures can make parenting outside the boy/girl dichotomy a challenging task, says primary school teacher Karen Teoh.

She, too, faced a dilemma when her son Micah wanted to dress up as his favourite movie character, Queen Elsa from Frozen, for his fifth birthday party.

Micah likes many activities associated with boys, playing with buses and trains and shooting make-believe enemies with his friends, but he also has interests outside the prescribed gender roles, she says.

So when Micah decided to be Elsa, Teoh worried that other kids would tease him. “I explained to him that teasing was a possibility but that it was his birthday and he could be anything he wanted to be. He was hesitant at first but decided to fulfil his dream of being Queen Elsa,” she recalls.

Some of Teoh’s relatives, however, were horrified by her decision, suggesting that this would encourage the boy to be gay.

Dunstone refutes such thinking: “There is a considerable amount of research showing that sexuality is inbuilt and a separate issue to gender identity,” she says.

Still, societal pressures can cause children to feel isolated when they don’t conform to gender norms, says Jason Lau, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, age nine and five.

“My eldest daughter is often teased by other girls because she likes to play tag and soccer with boys at school. The girls taunt her because she wants to be a pilot when she’s older. They tell her she’s not pretty and her voice is not ‘girly’,” Lau says.

Parents often organise gender-specific play dates and parties, which means her daughter to be excluded from social events with boys she is friends with.

“She often cries and says she hates herself. Boys and girls are biologically different so I get that divide. But the gender divide is nothing more than soul-destroying ignorance,” says Lau.

Kotsamidis-Ventouras is careful to help her children process the constant bombardment of messages delivered by media and society.

“When my son comes from school and says that the other boys make fun of him for playing with Shopkins [a toy line initially produced for girls] and stuffed animals, we have conversations about this,” she says.

“We engage in discussions which aim to empower, not conform. It’s not about avoiding situations where gender conformity or sexism is present; it's talking about it when you see it – challenging and questioning things we see in society so that you raise children who are critical thinkers. A phrase that we often use in our home is that there are many different ways to be a boy or a girl.”