“Traditional gender roles are under attack! We must protect them at all costs!”
This is the message being spread through mainstream Christianity and it has been effective. High profile pastors keep decrying the “feminization of the Church.” Books have been written, conferences held and whole organizations formed all based on defending traditional gender roles. Masculinity and femininity have become all-important dichotomies.
And in the midst of this, we’re trying to give our son a gender-neutral childhood.
If you are a regular reader of my blog, this might not surprise you. I have said openly that I am a Christian, a feminist and an egalitarian. But I haven’t written about how this affects my parenting until now.
A Clarification on Terms
Giving my son a gender-neutral childhood does not mean that I am denying that he was born a male or denying that gender exists. When I use the term gender-neutral, I am saying that I don’t want my son to be restricted or limited based on the societal norms for his gender. Rather I want my son’s interests and personality to guide his life.
Depending on your own views, you may think that our views are too extreme or that they are far too passive. Raising a child gender-neutrally looks different to different people. But my husband and I hope that we have chosen a middle-ground that works within our family and our faith.
Gender Norms are Societal
Christians aren’t the only ones pushing gender roles. Walk through any toy section or children’s clothing store and you’ll see the great divide of pink versus blue. Never the twain shall meet.
These types of gender roles weren’t mandated in the Bible and they aren’t even all that traditional. Just 100 years ago, pink was a color for boy and blue for girls.
Gender Roles are Limiting
From the moment they are born, children are stereotyped because of their gender. Boys are dressed in sports-themed clothing and called “champ.” Girls are called “princess” and wearing all pink. Furthermore many clothing options for children (and even babies) are appallingly sexist. Newborn boys wear onesies that joke about them being future “players”. Girls are dressed in clothes that focus on their appearance.
It is worrisome to me that we pigeon-hole our children’s gender so early in their lives. What will our children become? We are raising girls who will be obsessed with their looks and boys who are obsessed with their dating/sex life. Dangerous.
Even if we remove the blatantly sexist clothing options available for children, the remaining clothes are still heavily stereotyped. Girls shirts feature unicorns, sparkles, and butterflies. Boys are given shirts with dinosaurs, vehicles, sports, and superheroes. (Thankfully there is beginning to be a pushback against such heavily gendered clothing)
What is ludicrous is that we are putting these clothes on babies who cannot talk and have given us no indication as to their preferences. Our sons might like unicorns and our daughters might like planes.
By giving my son gender-neutral options, I am fighting against gender stereotypes and giving him the freedom to pursue his interests and express his personality.
Gender Stereotypes Stick With Us
Much has been made over the gender divide in STEM careers. Research shows that this gulf begins at a young age. The difference isn’t in the math and science ability of boys over girls, but in their “perceived competence”:
There is also a widely held stereotype that boys possess more innate STEM ability than girls, which has been found to impact children’s performance. Girls as young as seven have been shown to underperform on math tasks when their gender has been made salient. Furthermore, several studies have found that children are socialized differently regarding mathematics based on gender. Boys tend to receive more encouragement in math from parents and teachers, and mothers overestimate boys’ abilities compared to girls’. When discussing an interactive exhibit at a science museum, parents have been found to explain scientific concepts three times more often to boys than girls. And even at very young ages, children tend to receive gender-specific toys that may promote STEM skills such as building or spatial reasoning more to boys. (emphasis mine)
By making a conscious effort to raise my son gender-neutrally, I hope that he will be a balanced, multifaceted adult.
Following Christ Looks The Same Regardless of Gender
Regardless of what mainstream Christianity is teaching, I believe this sincerely: The crux of Christianity, Christ and the cross, is the exact same truth for women and for men.
Both men and women are called to the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), to humility, gentleness, and unity (Ephesians 4:1-3), to submit (Ephesian 5:21), to rejoice in the Lord (Philippians 3:1), to teach and admonish (Colossians 3:16), to pray unceasingly (I Thessalonians 5:17).
Even if you are a complementarian, believing that verses addresses women directly hold true today, you must acknowledge that there are far more verses that address Christians as a whole than there are gender-specific verses. Virtues that traditional Christians consider to be feminine, like submission, are commanded throughout Scripture for both women AND men (Ephesians 5:21, Philippians 2:5-7, Hebrews 13:17, Romans 13:1, Titus 3:1, I Peter 2:13-14, I Peter 5:5).
We believe that there is room in the Church for men who are thoughtful and sensitive and women who are leaders and teachers.
So…What Does A Gender-Neutral Childhood Look Like In Our Family?
To start, here’s what it doesn’t look like:
- It doesn’t look like denying that our child was born male
- It doesn’t meant that we are angry or disappointed if our child conforms to gender normative behavior
- It doesn’t mean that we attire our son in dresses
Here are the practical steps we’ve taken to give our child a gender-neutral childhood:
We would be happy if our son grew up to be a fighter pilot or an engineer, but equally happy if he grew up to be a stay-at-home dad or to be a ballet dancer.
We are careful with the words we use around our son. Often people see how active he is and say, “He’s such a boy!” But he isn’t busy because he’s a boy – he’s busy because he’s a toddler. Both boys and girls can be busy and both boys and girls can taught to sit still.
It might be true that in general boys are more physically active than girls are, but we don’t want his gender to be an excuse for misbehavior and we don’t want him (or anyone else) to feel shameful for not fitting into gender normative behavior.
We want our son to see men and women working in a variety of roles. We want him to know male nurses and female pastors. We also want him to be exposed to both “boy” and “girl” things. When we go to the library, I get him several books about trucks and dogs because I know he likes those, but I’ll also grab one about ballet. If he’s not interested in the ballet book, that’s fine with me. But I want it to be an option for him.
Most of our son’s clothes come from the “blue section” as I call it, but we stay away from anything highly gendered. Part of this is from a practical standpoint – we plan on having more children and would like to reuse as much clothing as we can. But part of it is to keep him away from negative gender stereotypes.
Our home has plenty of traditionally “boy” toys – airplanes, trains, and balls. But our son also has several dolls, a baby stroller, and butterfly toys (he happens to be obsessed with butterflies right now).
It takes extremely decisive choices to raise a child gender-neutrally in this society. Some people may not think it is worth the trouble and others may think that I am misaligning Scripture. But our goal is that our child grows up to honor God with his actions, his talents, and his personality and that his sex be an empowerment instead of a limitation.