When it comes to gender, how much of being a boy or girl is biological and how much of it is learned behavior?
While this debate still rages within academia, more parents are raising their children in a gender-neutral fashion in hopes of reducing the amount of gender stereotypes their children learn. Often, these stereotypes can be limiting, in the case of teaching and expecting young boys to become less emotional and discouraging young girls from rough play, which can escalate into larger problems later in life.
Associate sociology professor Bradley Nash is one parent who chose to raise his children gender-neutral. His children, now ages 22 and 26, one female and one male, were raised in what he calls an “egalitarian household.”
“[My wife and I] never sat down and had an actual conversation that we’d raise them in a gender-neutral fashion,” he said. “We had friends who were very concerned and intentional about doing it. They would take turns driving kids to soccer practice, making charts to equally distribute chores across gender lines to model that for their children. We weren’t that extreme.”
However, Nash ensured their children had exposure to typical masculine and feminine activities.
“At home, we never told them, ‘my daughter is a girl, so she can’t engage in sports,’” Nash said.
Junior accounting major Lily Henderson described an incident from elementary school in which she and her younger brother visited a community center to sign up for sports clubs.
“My brother and I both wanted to join the football team, but the ladies running the information table – as well as my mom – suggested that I joined cheerleading instead,” Henderson said. “I refused because I didn’t want to be a cheerleader, as I was a bit of a tomboy. I eventually joined the soccer team instead, since that was a more gender-neutral sport. My mom approved of this.”
Henderson, who later joined the wrestling team in high school and is currently a passionate rock climber, added, “I regret not pushing the matter on my mom.”
This is exactly the sort of situation that Nash and his wife intentionally avoided. His daughter became a long-time athlete, competing in lacrosse and cross-country.
Nash and his wife went a step further to treat their children fairly by enrolling them in a Montessori school, which is a “holistic, very progressive type of education.”
This led to instances in which his children sometimes acted off-script for their gender. For example, when his son would get hurt on a playground at school, he would run to the male teacher for aid. At the time, Nash was the primary caregiver, so his son did not automatically associate nurturing with women.
Nash said his family was not anomalistic in the college town in which they lived. The Blacksburg, Virginia community was diverse as well as more egalitarian than average Appalachian communities. As well as learning gender equality, they were exposed to a great deal of racial diversity.
“[My kids] never said ‘my black friend, my Asian friend.’ It was just ‘my friend.’”
While he and his wife tried to model their own behavior in non-stereotypical ways, they could not help their own socialization, which had not been gender-neutral. Nash tended to mow the lawn while his wife tended to cook.
After witnessing his own children’s development, Nash concluded that gender is likely “partially natural/inherent, but also socialized.”
Appalachian studies adjunct professor Dave Wood, who became a father three months ago, is well aware of the tenuousness of certain gender associations. He points out that in the late 1890s, now-feminine names like Elizabeth used to be male and the color pink, not blue, was associated with males.
His wife, and the mother of his newborn daughter, is assistant psychology professor Robyn Kondrad.
Though gender is highly studied in academia, different disciplines have come to different conclusions. For fear of over-generalizing, it is still the case that most social scientists tend to stress gender as a social construction while hard sciences such as psychology focus on gender as a biological construct.
Kondrad was able to strike a balance between these tendencies. She explained that most accurately, gender should be thought of as a dynamic process.
In order to dispute the claim often made by social scientists that gender is mostly socially constructed from infancy, she cited a study in a psychology journal that suggested a biological basis for gendered play with toys.
The researchers gave young male and female primates human toys to play with. Then, they studied what kinds of toys the monkeys were attracted to and how they played with them.
“Male monkeys were more attracted to toys like trucks. Girl monkeys were more attracted to toys like dolls,” she said. “Why might this be? It’s not that the girls didn’t play with trucks. They just played with them in different ways than the males. It’s not that boy monkeys didn’t play with dolls.”
However, Kondrad’s view of gender is not that its modern expression is completely rooted in biology.
“There are definitely social constructs at play,” she said. “We do socialize our kids to behave in gendered ways. But I don’t think it’s a question of the chicken or the egg. ”
In regards to gender-neutral child rearing, Kondrad thinks it is a good idea to try to avoid gendered stereotypes when raising children, but that it is nearly impossible to completely avoid due to internalized expectations of gender.
“I think there are lots of implicit biases that are a result of socialization that we cannot get away from,” she said. “We cannot get away from the fact that we’ve had only male presidents. There is a lot of data out there that influences the ways we behave that we aren’t even aware of.”
For Kondrad, these unconscious biases make the task virtually impossible and perhaps even ignorant of biological processes.
“Even if [our daughter] was in a girly-looking outfit, people often assume she’s a boy,” she said. “Even after they know her name, sometimes they still think she’s a boy. Part of that is cultural. In many cultures, boys are preferred.”
While Kondrad may not be raising her daughter in a gender-neutral fashion, she summarized her and her husband’s philosophy for raising her.
“The bottom line is we want our daughter to feel like she can achieve and succeed in whatever she wants to do. We want her to participate in gender a-typical things if that’s what she wants.”
Story: Julia Simcoe, Intern News Reporter
Photo: Courtesy of Dave Wood