There’s no doubt about it. Helping kids to grow up with healthy ideas of what it means to be a girl or a boy has become a lot tougher in recent years. Even if you manage to limit screen time and monitor your kids’ TV and Internet usage at home, you can’t protect them from larger-than-life images of beer commercial girls or body-spray guys on billboard-sized screens in public spaces as well as images downloaded into iPods and cellphones.
Feel like you have a lot less control over the cultural diet that is being fed to your child than parents in generations past? You’ve certainly got that right. “Even a decade ago, parents could act as the cultural gatekeepers to childhood in ways that are simply impossible now,” says Andrea O’Reilly, director of the Association for Research in Mothering at York University. The landscape of parenting is changing, and it’s changing fast.
YESTERDAY AND TODAY
The extreme political correctness that made much of the 1990s feel like a painfully long parenting exam has been banished. And parents are seeking sensible middle ground between gender denial and gender obsession.
“Aidan has dolls. He has a tea set. He also has lots of trucks, trains, dinkies and LEGO. He tends towards the more traditional ‘boy’ toys, but I don’t think we push him in that direction,” says Anthony Floyd, a Vancouver father of two young boys.
“We like treating Maeve like a girl, but if she picks up her brother’s Buzz Lightyear toy or wants to join him when he’s playing hockey or golf outside, that’s fine, too,” says Dan Kernohan, an Uxbridge, ON, father of two.
Because we live in a society that tends to think the most fascinating thing about babies – or humans in general – is their gender, gender often takes credit for behaviours that have far more to do with personality or stages of development.
“Boys are boys and girls are girls,” says Simon Milberry, a Toronto father of four. “We gave our oldest son a baby doll and he would drive it around making truck noises.” “I was one of those parents who firmly believed that kids would play with whatever types of toys you exposed them to,” adds Julie Cole of Burlington, who is expecting her sixth child. “I now believe that kids’ personalities are hard-wired.”
Of course, sometimes what’s most noticeable about our child is the fact that he or she steers clear of the gender stereotype for a boy or girl.
“Cameron is not a ‘typical boy’,” says Cathy Empey, a Langley, BC, mother of six. “He’s more crafty. He doesn’t play sports. I’ve learned to just follow his lead.” “My son didn’t like playing hockey and I didn’t force it,” adds Brad Ross, a Toronto father of four. “I don’t parent my kids based on whether they are a son or a daughter. I deal with them based on what they need from me as a parent.”
How parents respond to a child who isn’t following the gender-stereotypical path is critically important, stresses Sam Leeson, a Toronto mother of two who also teaches childbirth and parent preparation classes.
“In my childbirth classes, I meet lots of men who talk about their boys and the things they wouldn’t feel comfortable with them doing. We talk about this and I try to make the point that it doesn’t matter what other parents think. Those parents have parented different children. What matters is what they themselves think – and how they express that to their child.”
Your child is, after all, looking to you for clues in decoding the gender identity puzzle. “Kids want to make sense of all the different rules and roles,” explains Psychology Today blogger Susan Newman, PhD. How and what kids learn about gender roles varies from family to family. It’s determined by such factors as parenting style, personality (yours and theirs), and your attitudes towards various gender-related issues. It helps if you’re honest with yourself about your own feelings: how you feel, for example, about raising sons versus raising daughters.
“I know some parents who would have a hard time raising boys and some who would have a hard time raising girls,” says Alyson Schafer, author of Honey I Wrecked the Kids (Wiley).
WANTING WHAT YOU GET
It could be that you had your heart set on having a boy, only to find yourself welcoming girl after girl after girl.
Here’s Rod Bolton, a Mississauga, ON, father of four grown daughters on that subject: how he learned to stop pining for the boy that might have been and love the daughters he ended up with.
“There was something of that feeling of wanting a boy early on, but it didn’t last. I decided that it was actually easier to raise girls than boys. Boys are more competitive, more likely to turn to blows to settle things, to push the possibilities in terms of speed and daringness.
“Girls seem to become part of a sisterhood. And after you’ve had one or two girls, you’re kind of into the girl routine. You’d have to learn all over with boys. And daughters can be fun.” Kim Plumley, a Vancouver Island, BC, mother of two girls, always hoped to have daughters, but she doesn’t focus on the gender issue as she goes about raising them: “I talk to my girls the exact same way I would talk to a boy.”
It’s an approach O’Reilly of the Association of Research on Mothering applauds. Her advice to parents of both boys and girls is simple and direct: “Turn down the volume on the gender coding. Respond to the child’s personality. Let your child be who he or she is.”
That describes Floyd’s parenting game plan to a tee. “In terms of role models, obviously I want them to learn from the example that I set, which hopefully reflects a respectful and tolerant attitude. I’m quite happy to let them find their way in the world, observing what they will, answering whatever questions they may have, as long as they keep an open mind and show respect and tolerance for others.”
According to Leeson, this approach to parenting can reap unexpected dividends. “My oldest son has taught me a lot about not having preconceived ideas about who he should be: just letting him take the lead.”