The new word for he is ne and the new word for she is ne, too. Because we should not assume gender identification just from looking at someone.

This was my introduction to the idea of raising kids in a gender-neutral environment. My first instinct would have been to write this idea off as completely stupid.  After all, I have seen experiments where parents didn’t let girls play with dolls. And I read about a boy who was raised as a girl. And experiments like those are always colossal failures—the kids are messed up.

But the person I was talking with is a professor of gender studies at Butler University, so I decided she is too smart to be saying stupid stuff; I need to understand better.

I read selections from her syllabus in The Radical Reader and Psychoanalytic Politics. And I learned new words like Lysistrata Protest. I end up pretty convinced that masculine and feminine are a spectrum rather than binary.

It’s an interesting idea to assume nothing about gender. And it’s very similar to not assuming anything about learning.  Sometimes this is as simple as not painting a pretend-oven pink. Or giving kids shirts to tie-dye without gendered instructions. Other times it’s more complicated. But not assuming anything about gender is, at the core, about respecting the child’s ability to discover what’s best for the child.

See? I could have used him or her, but I didn’t. It’s tiring to think that way, but it’s probably like unlearning anything, which is what we do all the time as homeschoolers. You get used to it.

The core conundrum to all these issues is language. Once you call a kid a boy instead of a kid, then the kid starts thinking about what boy means. And then the kid thinks about social expectations instead of what the kid wants.

I am becoming more aware of ways we tell kids what we expect of them, based on their gender.  Toddler tops could be neutral, or not, but dresses are gender determinant. Why do girls need to dress up in dresses? And why can’t boys wear skirts? These questions are becoming more common, because GQ has declared gender-neutral fashion the new norm.

The more I read, the more gender-neutral makes sense to me. Which is a little scary because this is how I felt about homeschooling—at first it was absurd to me, but the more I read the more it made complete sense. Gender-neutral living and homeschooling are both ways to give kids control over their lives.

I’ve been tracking the arguments about what kids can go to which bathrooms in school, and I’ve always thought it was sort of  absurd that schools have become the focal point of gender rights in the US. But now that I understand more about gender it makes total sense: School is the place where parents have surrendered their authority to the adults running the school, and those adults are the most invested in not letting kids control their own lives.

44 replies
  1. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    “But not assuming anything about gender is, at the core, about respecting the child’s ability to discover what’s best for the child.”

    I think this is the crux of feminism – it’s not about whether a man or woman should get to the top of the corporate ladder or take care of kids at home, because there are no shoulds. It’s about everyone having the agency to choose the best life for themselves without being shackled by unnecessary social constructs. It’s important for kids to learn that yes, unfortunately these constructs still exist, there’s no way around it. But they shouldn’t stop you from choosing your own path to fulfillment. Be creative, bend and work around them, and you’ll succeed.

  2. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I certainly haven’t studied this anywhere near as much as the professor at Butler (which, by the way, is about three miles down the road from me). But it seems to me anyway that the problem is not calling a child a boy or a girl, but saying or modeling things in front of them that suddenly cause them to question who they are.

    The first time my dad said something to the effect that I needed to toughen up and be a man was the day I started to wonder what it meant to be a man — to wonder if I was truly a man. It’s taken me 40 years to untie those knots.

  3. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Pushing rigid gender roles on kids really bugs me. One day we were looking at a school and our guide threw out one of those “all boys are like _this_ and all girls are like _that_” statements, and I crossed it right off the list. Sorry, not my kids.

    I’ve met folks who literally don’t tell people what gender their kid is, and dress their kids in all the same hand-me-downs. I’m happy for them, but that’s just a little too twee for me. Also, my son prefers to wear chinos and my girl wants pink every day. Sartorially, they’re right in line. The difference is inside.

    I have a sweet, kind, sincere, deliberate, empathetic boy, and a fiery, rambunctious, belligerent, competitive girl. One should not expect children who follow gender norms from a father who happily stays with the kids all day and a mother who is a corporate executive.

    It’s a simple argument, really: yes, there is a difference between men and women, but it’s a statistical difference, not a black and white difference. The means, modes, and medians for gender-linked traits may differ, but the ranges overlap greatly. For any trait which can be generalized as different for the genders – say, belligerence or emotionality – you can find individuals where the difference is reversed (and it’s likely my kids).

    A woman just qualified as an Army Ranger. I’m pretty big, but I have to face it, she’s tougher than I am and tougher than 99% of other guys too. There’s no way in heck my boy would ever pass that training. My girl? Might do.

    It’s a waste of potential and a hindrance to happiness to tell kids that all girls are like _this_ and all boys are like _that_. Some boys are going to find their happiness – and their best life – in a traditionally female role, like caregiving, and some girls are going to find their best fit in a traditionally male role. If we discourage that, we reduce the total possible happiness. I want my kids to be happy, and I can’t maximize that by insisting on preconceptions about gender any better than I can do by mandating a specific one-size-fits-all scholastic curriculum.

    • Cáit
      Cáit says:

      I actually don’t believe there are any women physically stronger than any men. I mean any statistically significant number. I would like to see hard facts, hard numbers about male vs. female strength. Not pc driven perceptions.,
      It’s funny to me that people are generally willing to accept that we are animals. Except when it comes to sex. How many female gorillas do you think are stronger than male gorillas?

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        I don’t know so much about gorillas, nor do I know how much it would be relevant. About human female vs male strength, I know a little. I can post some links that, if you understand statistics reasonably well, can demonstrate the overlap.

        It is absolutely true that the average man is stronger than the average woman, in both upper body and lower body strength, though less so in lower body strength. A representative estimate of relative muscular strength for women vs men would be Miller et. al, 1993, showing that women on average have 52% of men’s upper-body strength and 66% of lower-body strength.
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8477683

        Every study done with large numbers of randomly selected men and women has shown a difference in average strength and in distribution of strength to the degree that the average female strength would fall well below the average of the males selected. The divergence is far greater for upper body strength.

        A study of hand grip:
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17186303

        In this study, the entire female distribution was below the average for the male distribution, and vice versa. The top 75% of females were found to be below the bottom 25% for men. This is a severe dimorphism. There is overlap, but not much; only about the top ten percent of the female distribution was stronger in hand grip than the bottom ten percent of men. This means that arm wrestling would be a very unequal competition between virtually any woman and any man.

        The overlap is far greater for lower body strength.

        A study of knee extension:
        http://jap.physiology.org/content/83/5/1581

        In this data set, the overlap was substantial – the strongest female individuals were above the average for the males, and the weakest male individuals were well below the average for females.

        In simpler terms, it would be a very unusual woman who could beat an average male in handgrip strength, but it would not be so terribly unusual for a woman to beat an average male in a knee extension contest.

        In such studies, one thing remained constant: No significant gender difference was found in the strength to cross-sectional muscle area ratio. In other words, the strength increase comes entirely from the larger amount of muscle in the men, not from any difference in the muscle itself. “The greater gender difference in upper body strength can probably be attributed to the fact that women tend to have a lower proportion of their lean tissue distributed in the upper body.” (Miller).

        One of the things this latter indicates is that if women have the same amount of muscle as men, they will be equally strong. This is borne out in comparison of individuals with similar muscle mass. For example, if you compare weight-class results for weightlifting in men and women, you find that the lifting records of women are around 80% of the mens’ records competing at the same weight, e.g. Clean and Jerk, men’s 152 pound record 435.6, women’s 152 pound record 347.6. That’s a big change from the hand-grip study.

        When we talk about women like Captain Kristen Griest and First Lieutenant Shaye Haver, we are talking about very unusual women. They are stronger than the vast majority of men, in both lower body and upper body strength, not to mention in resolve and stamina, and they trained hard and long for that. The Army Ranger training they passed was not ‘dumbed down’ for women; they passed the same training as the men, a training less than half of the men invited will pass.

        So when you say you do not believe that there are any women stronger than any man, this is correct in the sense that there is no woman on the planet who is stronger than all men on the planet (the converse is true). But in the sense that there are not appreciable numbers of women who can be stronger than the majority of men if they train for it, that does not appear to be correct.

        Based on the experience of foreign militaries that have incorporated women into front-line combat roles for decades, we could expect these roles to become 8-10% female over the next decades. This would represent a significant population of women who are stronger than most men.

        • Cáit
          Cáit says:

          I guess it depends on the definition of “appreciable numbers”.
          No way almost 10%of women are as strong as typical man.
          A lot of gender neutrality is about seeing little value in traditional femininity.
          This discussion of overcoming nature makes me think of CS Lewis Abolition of Man

          • Bostonian
            Bostonian says:

            I don’t think anybody here is discussing overcoming nature. Just overcoming social conditioning.

            Competitive female athletes are now 80% as strong and 90% as fast as competitive male athletes, across a range of sports. This is nature, in the form of potential realized.

            The reason the average woman is much less than 80% as strong and 90% as fast as the average man is not natural, but social. Society makes a larger difference than nature, in encouraging women not to reach their natural potential.

            Go ahead, be weak, and teach your daughters to be weak, if you think that’s so important. I think that’s a bad idea, and I won’t.

          • Hg
            Hg says:

            No one on this board is gender fluid. But it’s good for everyone else. They’ll wait to conform. Till then they’ll raze everything to the ground in the name of diversity.

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    My soon to be 7 yo dd asked for SpiderMan armor for her birthday. I love that my kids are being raised in a way that allows them to authentically be who they are without judgement. Toys should be for KIDS, not boys or girls.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Totally! I have got some very valuable Spidey comicbooks in my collection!

    • Hg
      Hg says:

      So why do your girls wear makeup? Isn’t that girlie? Why don’t they wait for gender neutral makeup. Why is your hair not short? Your appearance looks like it takes an effort. Much more than the average man puts in. Sigh

  5. Cáit
    Cáit says:

    To me a world without sex is grey flat and ugly. There is something vaguely Stalinist about gender neutral movement. Sexual archetypes are art we live,

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Gender roles are largely a social construct. Do children really need to be told by caretakers that they need to be masculine or feminine? When you remove the social construct, and allow kids to be authentically who they are, isn’t that beautiful? It doesn’t have to be gray, flat, or ugly.

      • Sarabeth
        Sarabeth says:

        You also look like you spend time grooming. Why do you wear makeup? To attract geese?

    • Sarabeth
      Sarabeth says:

      Totally agree. But the communists were nuts in a different way. The analog is the groupthink and that everyone who doesn’t fall in is illiberal

    • Sarabeth
      Sarabeth says:

      Totally agree. Analog here is anyone not in this groupthink is illiberal. Facebook peddles this but in the meantime vanilla gender roles for all the execs. It’s amazing how active people are in telling others to live a way they don’t or never would. I don’t worry too much because you won’t erase gender and the advocates including the impressionable mercurial Penelope will act along the lines of the most anti feminist gender roles like using beauty to achieve. I support that. But let’s get you know, real. Men don’t trade off on their looks

    • Sarabeth
      Sarabeth says:

      I posted reply in wrong place but the number of gender confused is small and we can sympathize without advocating this confusion for kids en masse.

    • Erin Wetzel
      Erin Wetzel says:

      Cáit –

      I totally get your vibe here. Erasing gender feels odd. But what I see in young adults today (and here I’m talking teens and young teenties mostly) is not LESS gender but MORE. There is a whole gender spectrum and YAs self identify and place themselves on that spectrum, all on their own.

      – Erin

        • Au
          Au says:

          Bio degree here. In biology, there is no validity given to gender at all because gender is a social construct and not a biology topic.

          Humans invented gender as a way to help us understand sexual dimorphism, much like humans invented other myths to help us understand our natural world.

          Because gender is our own invention, humans get to reinvent and redefine it as we go along. I’d say this is a healthy and growth-oriented approach. It requires deep self knowledge and a secure point of view.

  6. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    Methinks that just like how Penelope has made comments about the feminist movement and its impact on womens’ needs, I believe she’ll have a very different opinion on this matter a few years from now.

    My opinion – this is going to create a whole lot of confusion esp in family life. Give it a decade or so to bloom into the disaster I’m predicting.

    • Leonie
      Leonie says:

      That opinions will change in time is a given, but whenever I hear someone predict disaster for the next generation I am reminded of this quote and I can’t help but smile.

      “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”
      Cicero 60 BC

    • Sarabeth
      Sarabeth says:

      Not disaster for anything but kids morals. They wouldn’t condemn s transgender serial killer. But most kids are comfortable in their gender. I don’t see Penelope stopping her female from grooming routines which she seems to stress

  7. Sarabeth
    Sarabeth says:

    I think this is all bunk. A poorly educated generation and decadent adults confusing not hurting kids with rigid behaviors which happens in plenty of areas other than gender and far more commonly and advocating gender confusion. All of these professors are products of the system tenured and foolish with either a giant political agenda or no experience in actual science. They think capitalism is evil gende should be abolished everyone is equal which is nice on fantasy island. No thanks. Not raising my kids this nonsensical way. It’s easy to see how conformist everyone is to this new worldview

  8. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    If anyone is getting truly upset about this then they are missing the point. It’s not stomping anything out or saying that being feminine is being less than equal. It’s about not taking part in social conditioning and allowing kids the freedom to be authentic.

    I’m raising three girls. They are hard-wired with their personalities, likes, and dislikes. What my spouse and I are removing from the equation is the social conditioning that says they can only play with toys that enable the caretaker aspect, we let them choose their interests and encourage them. They like playing with toy weapons, dressing like male superheros/villains, star wars, dinosaurs, legos, programming, and video games. Those are things that they like! We let them choose and think their choices are awesome. But they also like My Little Pony, Frozen, singing, dancing, acting, and wearing makeup sometimes.

    My oldest daughter is 9 and has normally rejected anything that is seemingly domestic in nature, despite having a stay at home mother her entire life. Yet, she wants to learn to sew so that she can create a line of dog clothes and sell them. Does anyone really think that I would or should tell her no? No one is saying that!

    Regarding the strength argument. That’s really grabbing for straws here. My 6’4″ 225lb spouse who is very athletic and wouldn’t hesitate to pummel someone if they got aggressive towards me, would get his A handed to him if he got in the ring with Ronda Rousey, and I’m just going to say that I am 100% certain that she could beat *any* average male hands down in both fighting skills, upper body strength, and lower body strength.

    Try to get rid of the preconceived notions that arise when you hear gender neutral.

    • Hg
      Hg says:

      So boys aren’t stronger than girls on average. This is starting to get really bizarre. The decline of western civ on this board. And the enlightenment.

  9. Leticia
    Leticia says:

    This is a weird post from the usual stuff. I wish we’d leave politics out of it. I’m old school. I believe gender exists. Ha!

  10. JML
    JML says:

    This seems a little off topic, but maybe not. I have boys. And my boys are boys. But with long hair. I only cut it if they ask.

    I recently brought my four year old to a bday party. I dressed him in his blue cords and sweater vest. He looked so charming and handsome. How I like my men, I suppose. The other boy at the party was wearing a dress. And as a mom, my heart sank. My initial reaction? Guilt! Why am I not open-minded enough to raise a gender fluid child? And then to fully support my guilt I dug back through my memories to the time I said no to the pink sparkly shoes. And then I stopped and thought, Really? This is what I’m beating myself up about right now? I have so many things to feel guilty about. I can’t add gender fluidity to the list. I just can’t!

    I just want my kids to be happy. Of course I do. And yes, I said no to the pink sparkly shoes. And what was once just one of the many ‘no’s that I have to say for practical reasons has turned into a shitty parenting moment. Darn!

  11. TheElephantInTheRoom
    TheElephantInTheRoom says:

    I agree that in a world where people are awake and enlightened about their position on this planet, maybe sometime in the near future, gender will be more equal. But biologically, you can’t stop males from knowing they are different than females. So just like any other subject in life they are curious about, children can research and find out for themselves how the world perceives gender. Being gender neutral just sounds like too much work when in the end, kids are going to do and act how they want.

    Maybe one day when I learn how to sew, I will make neutral clothes for my kids. I don’t know if they would like the clothes or wear them, but the choice is there. In the meantime, if I find a pink shirt at the thrift store, that fits my daughter, I’m going to buy it because it’s cheap clothing and she likes pink.

    That being said, I do put my son’s hair in a bun and people say he looks like a girl. But I’m not going to cut his hair until he wants it cut and I’m just trying to stop all the brusies on his head from running into the wall because he can’t see with all of his hair in his face. If he wants to wear high heals and a dress, that’s fine with me. I know a lot of boys who did this and grew out of it and are totally functioning adults now. Or made a career out of it.

    All I’m saying is that I think people are drawing too much attention to something that doesn’t need much attention.

  12. Hg
    Hg says:

    Actually I think plenty of college profs are too stupid to be saying smart stuff as this article well illustrates. I doubt Penelope’s boys will be in skirts and heels tomorrow because they’re yknow gender biased. And oh how these profs love the homeschooling movement.

  13. Pat Sommer
    Pat Sommer says:

    Wow. Very American most of above comments.
    Baby clothes in Europe are mostly gender neutral. Result: Americans said boy without any hesitation when remarking on Baby Ellie. She wore her favorite browns and dark blues in wetsuit/rashguards as a preschooler and even after stripping naked on the beach, little kids still said He.
    For 8 I searched online for Xmas toys: must identify gender first. Boys’ toys outnumbered girls’ by hundreds.
    We are so wrapped up in gender appropriate roles here that I could gag. So much more relaxed in Northern Europe or even Australia (macho land).
    Let’s lighten up and give kids room to breathe.

    So, my 14yr old loves painting her nails, doesn’t care about hair or make-up, loves wood shop and architecture.
    Gender neutral? How about expanded gender expectations.

  14. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    A good article in The Washington Post ( https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2015/07/28/are-you-holding-your-daughter-back-a-harvard-psychologist-gives-5-ways-to-raise-girls-to-be-leaders/ ) which discusses gender bias. It links to and discusses research ( http://sites.gse.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/making-caring-common/files/mcc_leaning_out_for_web.pdf ) from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and its Making Caring Common project.
    A quote from the WP article – “(Richard) Weissbourd, (a Harvard psychologist who runs the Making Caring Common project), decided to look at bias as part of the larger goal of helping children learn to be kind. “We were concerned that biases get in the way of people caring about and respecting other people, so our initial study was just looking at biases,” he said. “And one of the striking findings that emerged was gender bias.”

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