Growing up, I had short hair or what was called ‘boy cut’ back then. I used to love wearing shirts and pants, instead of the frocks my relatives would gift me each birthday. On TV, I’d watch Sachin Tendulkar hitting sixes rather than play with dolls. Hence, I was termed a “tomboy”.
For a lot of us, gendered appearances, behaviours, and norms were defined at a young age. While shopping, for instance, there would be two sections in each toy shop: one for boys and one for girls. The former would have plastic guns, bats, balls and action figures. For girls, there’d be dolls, glittery miniature accessories and of course, kitchen sets. All of them wrapped up in shiny pink paper.
However, things are changing today slowly.
As the realization regarding the constructed nature of gender roles and norms becomes more widespread, more and more parents across the world are adopting a gender-neutral style of parenting. So what is gender-neutral parenting?
Gender-neutral parenting is simply a style of parenting that moves away from the restricted and boxed notions of gender and allows children to make choices and discover their identity on their own.
This involves adopting gender-neutral language, norms, clothing, toys and in some cases, names and prefixes as well. These range from small measures adopted in daily life to extreme ones which have widespread consequences for the child. For instance, a number of countries are also pushing for gender-neutral prefixes.
In fact, several states across the world are now allowing parents to choose “X” rather than male or female as their child’s gender on their birth certificate. Sweden recently took a huge step in this regard by adding “hen” as a gender-neutral personal pronoun.
In India too, parents in urban cities are adopting gender-neutral parenting. Deepika K, a Bengaluru-based marketer, started a movement last year to promote gender-neutral parenting through a hashtag: #AGenerationWithoutGenderBias.
“A kid not exposed to gender biases, roles and stereotypes will look at the world differently from us,” she wrote in an Instagram post. Indeed, gender often forms the lens we’re given early on that shapes our outlook towards the world, and that of the world towards us.
The first and foremost step in the direction is to use gender-neutral language. The tone, words, and actions that parents use with their children impacts them in numerous ways and shapes their idea of right and wrong. Saying something like “boys will be boys” or “don’t cry like a girl” or “girls mature faster than boys” tend to reinforce the idea that the accepted norms of behavior for a boy and a girl are different.
Equally importantly, parents are trying to lead by example, dividing domestic chores equally among themselves so that children can learn that there are no gender-specific roles at home. These parents are open to letting their children choose the kind of toys they want and the clothes they want to wear. A number of them are opting for room decor in neutral colours, normalising it for a boy to like pink or any other colour under the sun.
The corporates are falling in place gradually as well. Lego and Mattel, for example, have introduced male dolls and female action figures. The rising popularity if female superheroes like Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and the warriors of Wakanda have led to a surge in demand for female action figures.
A few years ago, the clothing brand Banana Republic launched a collection of genderless baby clothing.
The stories being narrated to children are changing too. Boys are being told about sensitive, empathetic and non-aggressive characters, while fairytales are being redefined for girls. “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls”, a crowdfunded children’s book comprising bedtime stories about the life of hundred extraordinary women from the past and the present is an example to consider.
Illustrated by 60 female artists from all over the world, the stories are written in the style of a fairy tale, but move away from the portrayals of ‘damsel in distress’.
Gender neutral parenting is seen as a great way to encourage a child to embrace his or her true identity, and explore possibilities in order to make choices on their own. However, several misinformation and apprehensions remain about raising children in a gender-neutral manner in India.
Prevalence of homophobia means that a number of parents see such a parenting style as a trigger for homosexuality or their children turning out different from others.
Child counselors say that such fears lead parents to believe that gender-neutral parenting will confuse the child and alienate him socially, leading to bullying and ostracisation amongst his/her peers. Gendered work division at home and norms which have been passed on from generation to generation are too obstacles in the way. Further, the immense rural-urban divide and non-proliferation of gender-neutral discourses into several pockets of the country prove to be a hindrance too.
The challenges in India are many but small yet significant steps in the direction are being taken. It remains to be seen whether or not gender-neutral parenting will pick up in India, and how far will it reach.
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