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Dads Have a Lot to Learn About Gender & Toys, So Let’s Stop the Cycle Now

With President Joe Biden’s recent executive order against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, as well as more transgender and nonbinary individuals present in the news and pop culture, many families are thinking about how parenting decisions related to gender stereotypes affect their children. As moms and dads who were ourselves raised among certain societal norms, our gendered ideas of what clothes, toys, and areas of interest are “meant for” boys and girls can be unintentionally passed along to our kids if we aren’t paying attention. Even the inventor of gender-reveal parties regrets starting the trend, saying, “That assigning focus on gender at birth leaves out so much of [a child’s] potential and talents that have nothing to do with what’s between their legs.”

If we subconsciously push our daughters toward more dolls instead of building blocks, are we nudging her away from a possible career in engineering? If we buy our sons more clothes with superheroes on them, are we sending the message he needs to bottle up his emotions and just be “tough”? In addition, the consequences of our actions could make a child who is unsure about their gender identity feel unsupported, misunderstood, and scared. And, are parents even talking to kids about gender in the “right” way?

To find out what American adults today think about gender identity and expression, marketing agency Bigeye conducted the 2021 National Study of Gender: Beyond The Binary. While the survey of more than 2,000 U.S. consumers aged 18 and over was designed to give marketers a better understanding of which consumers are most likely to support gender-neutral toys and education, and how identity and generation influence the purchase of gendered products, the study revealed some interesting information about parents and parenting.

So what do today’s parents think about raising kids with or without gender stereotypes? When asked to agree or disagree with the statement “As a Parent, I Encourage(d) My Child(ren) to Play with Any Toys and Games Play That Interest(ed) Them, Regardless of Traditional Associations with Girls or Boys,” 75 percent of cisgender female parents with college education encourage gender-neutral play for their children, while fewer than one-half of cisgender males without any college do so (48 percent). Broken down further by gender, 60 percent of cis females and 77 percent of cis males reported encouraging their sons to play with “boy” toys, while 56 percent of cis females and 71 percent of cis males did so with daughters and “girl” toys. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most likely group to encourage play with whichever toys or games interest their kids, regardless of gender association, are LGBTQIA+ parents, at 77 percent.

When they were children, 64 percent of cisgender females who participated in the study said they were encouraged to play with toys that interested them, regardless of traditional gender association, in contrast to only 48 percent of cis males. As children, fewer than 1 in 4 LGBTQIA+ respondents always identified with gendered toys designed for the sex they were assigned at birth.

The takeaway here? Women have made some progress towards encouraging their kids to play with what interests them, and girls are more likely to have been encouraged to play with what interests them. While there’s no data to confirm this, perhaps those two things are related, right? Men however, have a long way to go, and maybe we parents can help with that in the next generation by being less gendered in our parenting our sons.

Gender-neutral parenting is becoming a bit of a trend. Elon Musk and Grimes have said they plan to practice gender-neutral parenting with their child, X Æ A-12, who was born in May 2020. “I don’t want to gender them in case that’s not how they feel in their life,” Grimes has said. And last year’s New Yorker documentary, Raising Baby Grey, follows two Bronx parents raising their baby in a gender-neutral manner, with the intention of allowing their child to choose a gender whenever the child feels inclined to do so. Grey’s father is a trans man, and the suffering he experienced being treated as a girl while growing up led to his decision to parent this way.

A 2014 book, Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes by Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D., is a practical guide based on research to show parents how to avoid falling into girl vs. boy concepts. “My goal in this book isn’t to convert everyone to my exact way of parenting,” Brown writes in the prologue. “My goal is to help parents know what science really tells us about gender differences; to think about the ways parents understand and explain their children’s behavior; and to spend a few extra seconds before making a decision about what activities to enroll their children in; to think twice about believing that any difference between their son and daughter is due entirely to gender to not always say, ‘You know how boys are.’ Basically, I hope this book can help parents recognize and foster their children’s unique strengths, even in a culture obsessed with fitting everyone into a pink or blue box.”

Fostering our children’s unique strengths? Now that’s something all parents can get behind!

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