I tried to raise gender-neutral children. Sorta. I’m a baby boomer, so we didn’t call it ‘gender-neutral’. I called it feminism, and, prior to actually having children, I believed fervently that gender roles were determined primarily by culture.
I was going to raise strong girls and sensitive boys. I would buy my daughter legos and my boys’ dolls. I would never dress my girls in dresses, and I’d let my boys dress however they wanted. (Sorta. I did worry about the boys being teased.)
It was more than just feminism with me. In the 50’s I was a tomboy. I wanted to play with trucks and Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. I spent an inordinate amount of time in trees. I loathed frilly dresses and still twitch when anyone tries to do anything with my hair. I’ve never worn makeup. Or anything pink.
I was going to spare my girl from all this. And I did. I dressed her in jeans and kept her hair short. I didn’t buy her dolls. (Spoiler Alert. SHE WAS NOT PLEASED.)
Until I had actual children, I believed that my boys and girls would be quite similar.
But, of course, they weren’t. Not at all.
I had my boy first. And I remember my husband explaining to me, over and over, that I should just “Tell him No!” whenever he started to climb the stairs, play with the electric socket, pour water on the floor, or color on the walls.
I remember wondering, “Has my husband ever met this child?”
To the extent that loudly shouting “NO!” had any effect, it just made my son hurry to do the naughty thing. Mostly, it had no effect. My boy lived in his own head. When my second child, my daughter, began to move, I discovered something very strange. When I yelled
“NO!” she would actually stop; look at me, and appear to think. Sometimes she even actually stopped what she was doing.
And there were other differences. She really wanted to wear ‘pretty’ things. Dresses. She wanted dolls. She wanted to hug them and dress them. She would have liked to have a mother who wanted to fix her hair. (…I would do anything for love but I won’t do that…)
Meanwhile, my son was very honest. When you asked him a question, he furrowed his brow, and did his best to remember each detail, and render it accurately. You could see the wheels moving. When my daughter answered a question, those wheels moved way too fast for anyone to see. And she answered with her eye solely on the goal. I was sure that she was too young to understand the concept of “lying” but she could suss out what I wanted to hear, and what I would do as a result. My son was a scientist, while my daughter was an expert at three-dimensional social chess.
Oh, yeah, I thought, abashed, there really is a difference between girls and boys. I was soooo wrong.
In the intervening years, I’ve backslid. Or maybe I’ve overgeneralized. Maybe the difference was always between my two kids, and I shouldn’t apply it so wholesale. I shouldn’t stereotype by gender. Or maybe she was just rebelling against me.
Then, after 4 grandsons, I had a granddaughter.
My granddaughter wants to wear dresses. Actually tutus. She mostly plays with dolls. She hugs them. She puts them to bed and tenderly places a blanket over them. She is not at all interested in legos, or any of the toys her brothers like.
And, like her mother, she plays 3-dimensional social chess. She understands everything that’s said. A “NO” slows her down. Sometimes it even stops her. When I come in, she is clearly displeased if I don’t acknowledge her, and pay appropriate homage. Her brothers, meanwhile, are busy with their own stuff, and I only exist when they notice me.
When I was raising my own children, and failing to get my girl to become a tom-boy like me, I thought, “Girls will be girls”. And I just threw in the towel. I concluded that my grand plan to change the world and raise boyish girls and girlish boys was not going to happen. Once again, reality stubbornly refused to conform to my expectations. Sad.
And, now with my grand-daughter, I am more convinced of this than ever. Girls really will be girls. Boys really will be boys. There are ingrained differences that can’t be overcome by any amount of maternal will. Despite what I want to believe, nature trumps nurture.
Now that I am thinking more about this, I have had third thoughts. With all of my children in their 30’s, I’m thinking that maybe my grand goal wasn’t such a failure.
I mean, my girl still wants to look good, wear makeup, and has long beautiful hair. But. She did rock climbing and traveled alone to India in college. And I would pit her courage and determination against that of her brothers, any day. She is also trying to raise gender-neutral children. She buys her boys’ high heels, and her girl gets to play in the mud. Meanwhile, my two boys aren’t afraid to cry; they’re wonderful with children, and they kinda like pink shirts…
Plus, I once read once that the happiest couples were those who were not highly masculine or feminine. The quarterback and the prom queen, I read, do not live happily ever after. But, the ’tom-boy’ and ‘the man who is not afraid to cry’, have long solid marriages. It’s because ‘feminine men’ and ‘masculine women’ have more in common with each other so it’s easier for them to stay good friends though-out the course of a long marriage.
So, while I have to concede that girls will be girls, and boys will be boys, I probably didn’t do wrong by pushing back against this. Even if it felt like I was failing, a mother’s success is measured over decades, not in months or even in years. Hopefully, my efforts to raise strong women and empathic boys will, in the long run, help my children to have happier marriages and lives.
Who knows? But, I’m sure it matters to raise children to be people. Kind people. Empathic people. People who are free to be themselves.
Even if they do stubbornly insist on wearing tutus and hugging dolls.