Saturday 1 October 2016

Goodbye Pink Princess and Little Boy Blue - how parents are opting for gender-neutral approach

Tired of pink for girls and blue for boys, many parents are opting for a gender-neutral approach to toys, clothes and even decor

Kate Gunn

Published 03/03/2016 | 02:30

Happy: Sadhbh Devlin with her twin girls Sábha and Lile (5) who is she’s raising gender neutral.
Happy: Sadhbh Devlin with her twin girls Sábha and Lile (5) who is she’s raising gender neutral.
Kids' choice: Sinead Fox allows her children Cathal, Ciaran and Laoise play with gender neutral toys. Photo: Patrick Browne

When pictures of Adele and her son - dressed as Princess Anna from Frozen - emerged recently, there was a surprising response. Instead of cries of 'How could she?' from the typically hard-to-please internet, there was instead a resounding 'Good for her!'

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But maybe it shouldn't have been so surprising, because it seems that young parents are spearheading a sea-change in attitudes to gender rules.

A recent survey of over 2,000 mothers carried out by Channel Mum in the UK showed that three-in-five young parents back retailers removing all gender labels from clothes, toys and other products, and 41pc of young mums now say they parent gender neutrally. That compares with just 25pc of older mothers.

Gender-neutral parenting - a movement which sees parents avoid male and female stereotypes in clothing, schooling and behaviour - is becoming more popular in Ireland too. Typically supporters shun traditional colour choices such as blue for boys and pink for girls when choosing clothes, toys and bedroom décor in the belief that by breaking down gender walls, their children will be free to express themselves without restriction and go on to become successful and confident adults in whatever field they choose.

There is research to back up these beliefs. Dr Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of California, whose studies focuses on gender and toys states: "Studies have found that gendered toys do shape children's play preferences and styles. Because gendered toys limit the range of skills and attributes that both boys and girls can explore through play, they may prevent children from developing their full range of interests, preferences, and talents."

Sinead Fox, a solicitor living in Wexford agrees. As a mother of two boys and a girl she says: "I've always based their toys on what they want to play with, not on what was considered by others to be gender appropriate. This has raised eyebrows at times, especially when one of my sons went through a "pink and sparkly" phase and shop assistants actually teased him about it when they saw him enthralled by shinier bikes with streamers.

"My sons had a toy kitchen and baby dolls and a buggy, and one even asked Santa to bring him a Barbie as he loved the ones at playschool. As he got older he became more self-conscious with liking what others called "girlie" toys, and this bothered me that I felt it wasn't okay any more."

But it's not just a one-way street, as Sinead explains.

"Gender neutrality goes both ways, I encourage my toddler daughter to play with whatever she wants the same as her brothers, she's a huge Star Wars fan already and a dab hand with a lightsabre, but still gravitates towards the tiaras and tutus.

"Gender labelling toys really irritates me. Why is a kitchen or a buggy for girls? In this day and age, when dads do so much at home I don't understand why the toy catalogues perpetuate old stereotypes. It does everyone a disservice."

Sadhbh Devlin from Co Wicklow is mum to five-year-old twin girls Sábha and Lile. She says she made a decision early not to fall into the gender trap. "I knew that I wanted to provide my girls with a range of playthings that would stimulate their imaginations and enhance their learning. I didn't give a second thought to only buying things marketed to girls and instead chose more traditional, open-ended play things such as wooden blocks, musical instruments, dolls, teddies, cars and play dough. I wanted them to explore their own potential without putting limits on their self-belief."

Now almost six, the twins have developed their own interests which are a healthy mix of everything. Sadhbh says: "Although plenty of their play things would be quite 'girlie' (think Monster High Dolls, Sylvanian Families and a million tiny, plastic 'pets') one of them loves her Hot Wheels cars and the other seems permanently attached to her toy sword."

Many of the big stores are starting to sit up and take notice of these parents. Hamleys and Marks & Spencer have already stopped labelling toys as being for 'boys' or 'girls'. Similarly Smyth's predominantly now segregate their aisles into categories such as 'cars and construction', 'fashion and dolls' and 'action and adventure' without mentioning gender. But parents want to see more stores follow their lead - and for retailers to go even further.

David Carey, a psychologist with over 40 years' experience in both clinical and educational settings, says of gender segregation: "We have been doing this for generations. Does it harm our children? I don't think so. But could we do better? Absolutely. The best way to help them is by giving free choice - allowing the child to develop in an inquisitive, exploratory and safe way. We should follow the child, not lead the child."

Adele's actions and the rise of the 'dress-up for all' trend supports this child-led way, with a third of young mums now encouraging children to try on outfits traditionally thought of as being for the opposite sex - think little boys as Princess Elsa and little girls donning Power Ranger suits.

Other items that young mums want to be gender neutral are clothes, uniforms, shoes and even home furnishings. Polarn O. Pyret, a Swedish brand stocked widely in Ireland, is one example of a range which markets itself as providing 'fun, functional and quality children's clothes' in a range of primary colours designed to be worn by both boys and girls. In recent years the likes of Clark's have come under increasing pressure to offer a wider selection of styles and colours for little girls. Its shoes now come in various options, in assorted shades from purple to black, to blue, red, grey or pink.

Similarly, gender neutral bedrooms and nurseries are becoming more popular, with the likes of Dulux and Eumom providing online guides on how to achieve the look by using neutral colours such as grey and cream and patterns such as stripes and chevron.

The trend goes beyond products. Actions, beliefs and interactions are all vital. When surveyed, almost a third of all parents say they actively ban certain phrases such as 'don't cry like a girl' or 'man up'. They believed that kids were getting the damaging message that society expected boys to be tough and girls to be weak.

"Creating gender divides in children can do nothing except hinder them and their outlook on the world," says Christian Hughes, stay-at-home dad to 18-month-old Beckett. "It's far more important to us that Beckett grows up with a sense that everyone is equal and nothing is out of bounds just because he's a boy.

"Phrases like 'hits like a girl' have no place in Beckett's development. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of men I know would wet themselves if put in a ring with Katie Taylor or Ronda Rousey. In fact, they'd all probably love to hit like those girls."

Last week Jo Heywood, the headmistress of a top UK boarding school, called for parents to encourage youngsters to experiment with traditionally 'male' and 'female' roles. Jo believes one of the benefits of gender-neutral parenting is that it would produce girls confident about entering careers such as science and engineering, traditionally regarded as 'male jobs'.

Letting children see every role as available to all is crucial - and it starts early. David Carey explains: "Gender roles are learned through the socialisation process. They are absorbed through parent interactions, play choices, and by watching the roles the parents play in society."

Helen O'Keefe from Dublin is an engineer and mother of two boys, Ruairí and Dathaí, aged 6 and nearly 2, and a girl Méabh, aged 4. "It's important to me that our kids see myself and my husband as equals," she says. "I think that fundamentally shapes their belief in themselves and others. Of course they know I carried and fed them, but they see their dad as an equal parent, and that's really great for them as future parents themselves.

"I honestly believe that my children's characters and abilities will have more influence over their lives and careers than their gender. That probably comes from my own background. My parents raised my sister, two brothers and I as equals and we all had the same access to education. I was good at maths and science and went on to study engineering in college.

"It's fair to say my education and career are in more male-dominated areas, but I know I have the career and qualifications that I have because I worked hard and am good at them."

Sinead sums up the feelings of the new generation of both mums and dads in a few words: "Toys are toys, clothes are clothes, kids are kids."

And really, you don't need to be a rocket scientist - male or female - to understand that.

Irish Independent

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