By Chelsea Jones
As a mom of three girls and one boy, seeing my son play with dolls and all things pink is no surprise. He’s outnumbered, so he’s frequently seen dragging a baby doll around in one hand and throwing a ball in the other. The children have a mix of dolls, building blocks, and toy cars to play with. We do not limit our children to gender stereotypes when it comes to toys or activities. As parents, we can celebrate the differences between the sexes without gender stereotypes.
While I encourage choice and avoid imposing gender stereotypes on my children’s activities, some parents today seek to eliminate gender differentiation entirely.
This approach called “gender-neutral parenting” seeks to raise “theybies” instead of “boys” or “girls”. Parents may disclose to close friends and family a child’s sex, but often hide it from the child. Children are not taught that they are boys or girls. Parents who do this are trying to avoid gender stereotypes. What happens when a child so misled hits puberty or sees the genitalia of the opposite sex for the first time?
In many countries and communities, this approach is widely accepted. Sweden and Switzerland, are implementing a gender-neutral approach in their elementary schools. Children are taught to use the word “hen” to replace male and female pronouns. The idea is to give children the option to explore various gender roles, especially ones that are not typically associated with their gender at birth. Parents who want to hide their child’s sex, request teachers not disclose their child’s sex to the child or the child’s classmates.
Some view the gender-neutral approach as abuse. The practice is still so new that the science has not caught up. However, that does not mean healthcare professionals aren’t concerned. Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters, explains: “As a family doctor with more than a quarter-century of clinical experience, I see the potential for significant harm.” One concern is that children will not be able to relate to either gender. Another is parents using their children to advance an agenda. Children will feel pressured to play with toys and participate in activities based on their parent’s wishes rather than their own desires. Stereotypes exist for a reason. Sax explains that at 18 months, boys have a strong preference for playing with trucks. Boys do not think they have to play with boy’s toys to fit a social schema. They choose those toys because they want to play with them.
It cannot be denied that men and women are biologically different. The brain size of males and females is also different. Men typically have a larger brain mass than women. There is a biological approach to psychology that studies the distinction between males and females. Those distinctions are determined based on the chromosomes and hormones that are found in a person’s DNA at conception. A 2010 study found that while some differences between men and women may be due to environmental factors, the majority of differences are deeply rooted in biology. For example, certain hormones released by the adrenal glands in times of stress affect men and women differently. The study found that male rats had a higher rate of impaired memory as a result of chronic physical stress. Males also contain an enzyme involved with dopamine synthesis and this enzyme is only found within the Y chromosome.
Certain chronic and terminal diseases also affect males and females differently. For this reason, in 2011, the National Institute of Mental Health recognized the need to add incorporate sex as a variable in clincial and experiemental studies. Sex hormones found within the brain can impact the same disorder between the two sexes in different ways. A common example is Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. Women typically have adult onset diagnosis while males are typically diagnosed in their youth. The chemical imbalance surfaces at different developmental phases for men and women.
Gender reassignment surgery may remove the body parts that produce sex hormones, but it cannot remove the biological differences found within the brains of men and women. When parents do not teach their children what gender they are, it goes against the child’s natural biological response and nature.
Can a balance be found within the gender-neutral movement? There must be. The benefits of offering our children a well-rounded environment that is fostered in love and acceptance is ideal. However, pretending that there is no biological foundation for gender norms harms children and their development. We can foster play and activity for our children that is not limited by stereotypes while still upholding the truth that biology is foundational to our identity as human beings. And it should be honored.
Chelsea is an intern from Brigham Young University-Idaho pursuing a Marriage and Families Studies degree. She has been married for six years and is the mother of four including 18-month triplets. Chelsea enjoys reading parenting and marriage books while applying all she learns from her studies in her family life.