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Stop Writing My Kids Off Based on Gender

Photograph by AFP/Getty Images

I was at the park with my kids, drinking coffee and watching them play. My daughter, in a pink tutu and sparkly silver shoes, was dancing and singing a song about her heart. My son was sitting alone in the sandbox, covered in dirt, shrieking and tossing sand in the air.

My children are a walking billboard for gender stereotypes. My son is physically active; already at 14 months old, he tries to climb on the couch and jump off, he pushes himself on a bike and he makes lion and car noises. My daughter, at the age of 2, decided that she was a princess and has kept up the ruse ever since. She flounces into preschool wearing tulle and velvet, insisting her teachers call her Princess Ellis. She sobs when I forget to call our home a “castle.”

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On the surface, they are a typical boy and girl. But it grates me when I discuss them and people brush off my son’s near-death experience of jumping off a slide as “All boy!” Or when my daughter refused to take off her crown for school as “All girl!”

A study done by NYU showed that while both girls and boy babies had the same level of physical ability, parents vastly over-estimated their sons’ abilities and underestimated their girls’ abilities.

Because the truth is my kids are not different because of their genders, my kids are different because they are people. Humans are inherently different from one another.

Developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert in his new book "Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?" argues that women and men are inherently different and it has nothing to do with socialization. Gender stereotypes, he notes, are based in science.

An article in the Daily Mail reviewing Wolpert’s arguments runs down the list of gender stereotypes. Men think more about sex, even as children. Girls communicate more and don’t do science. And on and on.

But I have a hard time swallowing Wolpert’s arguments because gender bias begins the moment children are born. A study done by New York University asked parents to guess the incline of a slope that their 11-month-old babies could climb. The study showed that while both girls and boy babies had the same level of physical ability, parents vastly over-estimated their sons’ abilities and underestimated their girls’ abilities. While Wolpert argues that female babies are more communicative than their male counterparts, other studies show that parents engage their female children with more eye contact and communication than their boys, even as infants.

My son is different than my daughter, not because of his penis, but because he is his own unique person.

Like with so many controversial issues, you believe the science that supports your belief. I will never convince my mother-in-law that gender differences are sociological, she will never convince me they are biological. Truthfully, the answer is somewhere in between.

But ultimately where the source of these differences arise shouldn’t impact how we parent. Of course, different children have varying needs—boys are different than our girls because they are different humans. My son is different than my daughter, not because of his penis, but because he is his own unique person.

When my daughter was born, I was determined not to make her a princess. I dressed her as gender-neutral as possible with two doting grandmas, who think I’m nuts. She went to daycare with all boys. I bought her cars and her nursery was black and white and red. No princess books. No princess movies. Nothing. Yet, a week before her second birthday, she walked down the stairs draped in scarves from my closet. “Mom,” she announced. “I am a princess.”

It was all over after that. The only way I got her to potty train was by bribing her with princess dolls. She cried when I turned on the movie “Cars” because there were no princesses.

I am not going to parent based upon my preconceived ideas of who my children ought to be.

I still don’t want her to think her life is defined by these archetypes, but I am also not going to denigrate what she loves. I’m not going to withhold pink and sparkles and tell her that they are fundamentally not OK because they aren’t “boy” enough.

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This may be a phase. It may be that she was born wired to be royalty. Whatever the case may be, I learned that when it comes to parenting, I am not going to parent based upon my preconceived ideas of who my children ought to be. Rather, I need to parent the child right in front of me, whether he is eating sand or she is begging for dance lessons.

My children will be who they need to be, I just need to give them the space to discover who that is. And this means that no matter what the presiding theory on biology or sociology is, I expose them to all things and parent to their possibility.

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