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Gender Neutralizing Our Kids Can Go Too Far

As has become tradition over the last several Christmas Eves, my daughter and I are celebrating with some of our very best friends and their family. In attendance are three little boys who I love dearly, all just a year or two older than my girl. Each of the kids gets a toy gun from their uncle, these loud, light-up things that immediately annoy the heck out of every adult in the room. And off they run, chasing, shooting and having the time of their lives.

In this instance, they are all playing exactly the same way. In fact, my friend's mom comments on precisely that, noticing that my daughter is just one of the boys when it comes to playing with her buddies.

And so often, that is absolutely how it seems.

But it doesn't take long for her to tire of the rambunctious play. And before I know it, she is off quietly in a corner, pulling out a stuffed animal to declare her baby. She holds it against her, whispers softly in its ear and rocks gently to some music no one else can hear.

Meanwhile the boys continue to run and shoot and play.

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This is a pretty standard scene in our group of friends. Nobody ever directs the play these kids partake in (at least, not until things get too loud or rowdy and we have to intervene) and they genuinely love to play together. But it is often my little girl who finds herself on the outskirts at some point, growing overwhelmed by the noise and the energy the boys emit, wanting to settle down and do something a little more low-key.

Try to acknowledge the presence of those gender norms online, and you're sure to be ripped apart.

That same night, the topic of gender neutrality comes up, and one of my best friends starts discussing the differences she has seen not only between her own son and daughter, but also between her kids and the opposite sexed children in their daycare rooms.

No one in my group of friends enforces gender norms. We have little boys who carry around baby dolls and little girls who ram trucks. And yet there are plenty of examples of pervasive gender norms that we have all found difficult to ignore.

My daughter, for instance, is obsessed with jewelry and purses, two things I couldn't care less about. She routinely does fashion shows for me and demands her nails be painted at all times when I haven't had my nails painted in years.

My friends of boys marvel at her ability to sit still and work on coloring or painting for up to an hour at a time. They tell me tales of their boys who can't sit still and do the same for more than three minutes. I've witnessed the ants in the pants that keep those boys moving myself.

Talk to any parent of both boys and girls and they will likely comment on how their children differed from one another. More often than not, those differences will likely fall in line with some of the standard gender norms we've all come to know.

But try to acknowledge the presence of those gender norms online, and you're sure to be ripped apart.

I've experienced it myself, both when writing a salute to those friends of mine with rambunctious boys, and when discussing the reasons I love having a daughter. In sharing pieces I thought of as fairly innocuous (and maybe even humorous) in nature, I've received all kinds of backlash from those calling out for an end to gender stereotypes.

But are they really stereotypes? Or are we perhaps just getting a little too militant in our push for gender neutrality?

Look, I am all for the removal of gender-based labels in toy aisles and the encouragement of kids to pursue their own bliss, no matter what that bliss may be. I will stand up for any child looking to demolish those gender barriers, and you will never hear me saying, "But … that's a girl thing," or the other way around.

Acknowledging that sometimes there really are some noticeable differences between how boys and girls play and interact, at least on average? I fail to see the harm in that.

To that end, you better believe I will be encouraging my daughter in math and the sciences, because she will not grow up thinking that girls are just bad at numbers in the same way that I once did.

But acknowledging that sometimes there really are some noticeable differences between how boys and girls play and interact, at least on average? I fail to see the harm in that.

We've all known kids who have bucked those norms and flown in the face of them, and I would never for one second argue that there is anything wrong with that. Kids are individuals too, and they have their own minds. Their own wills. I am a big fan of encouraging that individuality.

But why are we so afraid of talking about the fact that sometimes, maybe even a lot of the times, these "norms" do apply?

Boys and girls, in general, are different: the way they play, the interests they have, the energy level they display. Our understanding of these "norms" has developed because for so many kids, they hold true.

And maybe that's a good thing. Or at least, not something we should be afraid of or try to shut down.

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Because maybe, just maybe, trying to force gender neutrality on our kids has the potential to be just as damaging as trying to force those gender norms on them. And maybe we should just let our kids be instead—without fear of what it might mean to acknowledge exactly what we observe when we do.

Photograph by: Leslie Meadow Photography

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