beyond pink and blue

Can you raise children in a gender-free zone?

When I became a mother, I vowed to raise my children beyond the confines of gender. I banned toy guns, gave my son dolls and never called him “my little man.” I gave my daughter trucks and building toys and tried to not gush about her beauty. I conscientiously exposed both children to women in authority roles, to Mr. Moms and to gender-neutral language (“here comes the mail deliverer”). So what happened? My son, now 5, regularly mows down the entire family with guns made of Legos, while my daughter, at 2, is fixated on caring for her three “babies.”

Sometimes I consider giving up. In a culture dominated by stereotypes (thank you, Madison Avenue and Hollywood), children cannot be raised completely outside of traditional sex roles. For that matter, we are learning that babies start out life with certain sex-determined brain differences. But at the same time, we’re also discovering that what parents do — or don’t do — can either amplify or diminish those influences.

Is biology destiny?

Sex differences start in utero, when testosterone surges in male fetuses create several enduring structural and chemical differences in the brain. While it isn’t clear how brain-structure differences affect behavior, girls’ relatively high levels of serotonin (an aggression inhibitor) and boys’ relatively low levels of serotonin and high levels of testosterone (an agent of aggression) likely explain most girls’ aversion to aggressive activity and boys’ proclivity for rough play.

But biology is only part of the story. After birth, when social environment becomes more important, parents and caregivers often unconsciously treat boy and girl babies differently. They tend to cuddle and talk to girls more than boys, according to child psychologist Lynda Madison, Ph.D., director of Family Support and Psychological Services at Children’s Hospital in Omaha, Neb., and author of Parenting With Purpose (Andrews McMeel, 1998). Parents also tend to use more diminutives with girls (“blankie,” “juicie”) and gentler dialogue. Girl babies are described as “sweet” and “pretty” and encouraged to be submissive and responsive.

Boys hear more firm “nos,” while girls are more often diverted or answered indirectly. Boys are encouraged to be more active, assertive and autonomous and are described as “sturdy” and “vigorous.” Parents tend to focus on sadness and emotions related to interpersonal relationships when talking with little girls, while conversations with little boys center on anger, frustration and retaliation. “We socialize the emotion out of boys and then ask how they got to be that way,” says William Pollack, Ph.D., author of Real Boys (Henry Holt, 1999) and a clinical psychologist at Harvard School of Medicine/McLean Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. “And somehow we also feminize loving gestures.”

Parent, observe thyself

So what can parents do to free their children from the emotional straitjacket of gender? Pollack and Madison say that exposing babies to both “boy and girl toys” offers opportunities for different kinds of expression and play. (Just don’t be dismayed if little Chrissy still wants to wear only pink.)

But parents should also concentrate on their own behavior and language, with the goal of expanding both sexes’ emotional repertoires. This doesn’t mean that a baby girl’s parents should cuddle or talk to her less. However, you might want to use fewer diminutives (linguists say they reinforce stereotypical expectations), express pride in other things besides her gorgeousness (good practice for adolescence) and encourage independence (don’t rescue her from frustration prematurely).

Parents of boys should offer unlimited physical expressions of love and caring, according to Pollack, as well as assurances that it is OK to cry and express vulnerability. Avoid language that makes boys feel pushed toward independence too soon or that evokes shame, an emotion that boys are particularly sensitive to.

As for me, I’m not giving up. Granted, my children appear to have come into the world with hard-wired differences. Still, I hope that doing things like kissing and cuddling my son more, and complimenting my daughter more on her accomplishments and less on her beauty, will give each child the courage, permission and emotional vocabulary needed to live a full life — one in which no opportunity will be lost just because it may defy a gender stereotype.