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Should I Feel Bad That My Kids Love Gender Norms?

Advice from a child development specialist, a cartoon producer, parents of a transgender child and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

Maybe I’m overthinking this, but here goes: I have two kids, a boy and a girl, and both of them love the sort of “typical” things for a boy and a girl to love. My son loves trucks and superheroes; my daughter is really into princesses and tea parties. Living as I do in super-progressive L.A., I sometimes wonder if people are thinking that I’m the one upholding these 1950s archetypes, enforcing (or at least reinforcing) these classic gender roles.

For the record, I think my wife and I have done a pretty good job of letting them express themselves and be who they are. We both like to think of ourselves as open-minded, forward-thinking people, and we’re totally open to our kids liking whatever they like. It just so happens that both of them like classic gender stereotypes! But so long as they’re cool with it, does it matter?

Basically: Is it strange that, in 2018, my kids love gender norms?

The Expert Advice

Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: There’s a lot of discussion now about trying to raise more gender-neutral kids, and although much of society still hasn’t quite fallen into that, to some parents it’s very important. The advantage of raising your kids more gender neutral is that then, hopefully, they won’t have to deal with glass ceilings and there wouldn’t be professions that are defined as belonging to one sex or another. Also, without those stereotypes, ideally they would be free to express themselves however they pleased and be accepting of others who don’t fall into those norms.

It’s a real challenge to raise kids this way in the world we live in. While there’s a lot of speculation about what’s innate in males or females and what is learned, the truth is that while male and female brains do work a bit differently, it’s impossible to separate those things from what kids learn from us and from society. Parents, whether they realize it or not, may have biases about gender roles or they may be reinforcing those gender roles by what media they expose their children to, or what they are even just doing around the house. For example, if mom is always doing the cooking and cleaning and dad is doing all of the yard work, the message is that this is what girls do and this is what boys do.

There are things parents can do to be more gender neutral. By examining the media children are consuming, try to be mindful of what messages are being sent gender-wise. For young kids in preschool, they’re naturally at their cognitive learning level where they are categorizing things, like shapes, colors and gender, too. So it will be common to hear things like, “Boys don’t play with dolls,” and if you hear that, you can reply with, “Sometimes they do,” or simply as, “Why?” and explain that things aren’t quite so black and white.

Along with this, it helps to expose your children to a wide variety of experiences, so that they can explore and learn in many different ways. Eventually, a parent’s influence over their children’s interests will wane, but even if they begin to fall into what might be considered “typical,” you’ll want to continue to expose them to different things to keep them open-minded, be it art, music or museums, etc.

Wayne, whose son is really into dance: I have three children, two boys and a girl. My first son played Little League and basketball, but now he’s more into music and writing. With my daughter, before she was born, we made a point not to not give her pink everything, yet by the time she was 13 months, she was super into fashion and she was matching her socks to her outfits literally before she could speak. With our youngest, I don’t know where it came from, but he really wanted to do dance — my ex-wife and I have been encouraging and he excels in it.

For all of them, I never thought of anything in the sense of gender roles or gender norms, I just thought it was important to have my kids be well-rounded people. So if I had a son who was super into sports, I’d want him to be a well-rounded person, so I’d be pushing music or pushing the arts. I had my daughter do Little League for a couple of seasons until she didn’t want to do it anymore, and while my youngest son doesn’t have time for Little League with all of the dance he’s doing, we will go to the batting cages and hit a few balls because I believe, as a person, that’s something you should be able to do. Funny enough, everything that makes him a good dancer makes him a natural athlete, and he likes it, but not as much as dance.

You do a disservice to a child when you keep them in a bubble. You can let them take the lead, but I’d make sure they’re well-rounded people by exposing them to all different kinds of things. You have no control over what sticks — things like that just work out naturally.

Wanda, mother of a transgender child: When Peter was little, it was all long hair and pink clothes, and it was all traditional girly-girl stuff, but she (when she was still a she) loved to climb trees, get dirty and tear up her pink clothes. When Peter got to around eighth grade, the hair got shorter and shorter and shorter, and when they entered college is when they started discovering more. They oscillated over the years between a deep love of flanel and boys’ jeans and being more feminine at other times. Peter also liked mixing up people’s expectations of them so that no one boxed them in. Today, for example, whereas Peter usually dresses very butch, they went to work in heavy, beautiful makeup because no one would expect that.

It was almost two years ago now, after 19 years of being the daughter born to us named Peggy, that they decided to change their name and go by “Peter” and to be called “he.” Honestly, it felt like a bomb was being dropped on her dad and I, and we’re still adjusting to it. Then, about three months ago, Peter decided that they wanted to be more gender neutral and go by “they” instead. Imagine me, a former English major, trying to say “they” and “them” all of the time! It was, and is, a very difficult transition.

Throughout all of these changes there has been a lot of talking and a lot of crying and while it hasn’t always been easy, we’re just letting Peter be the person they want to be while also having mutual respect on both sides. For example, with the name change, Peter was originally very defensive every time someone called them “Peggy,” but now there’s a running gag in our house that Peter’s full name is “Peggy-Peter-Shit,” because I constantly end up saying “Peggy,” correcting myself to say “Peter,” then saying, “Shit!” afterwards.

Anyway, the point of all of this is that though it hasn’t been easy, her dad and I just believe in letting Peter be the person they want to be, no matter what gender they identify with or how they want to be addressed, as long as Peter is the one deciding.

Cindy, a gay parent: They’re going to fall into whatever role that they decide — a parent just needs to let them find themselves. I have a grandson who loves to dress up, but he plays baseball and football and is as boy as boy gets. My daughter loved to play in the mud and she also did dance and voice and I never pushed anything on her. She wanted to play soccer, she played it. She wanted me to sign her up for church, I did it. I’d just see what they gravitated toward. I didn’t push anything on anyone for my daughter or my grandkids. Society does enough of that already, I didn’t need to do it too.

Kevin Munroe, animation producer/director: Right up until I did the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, I was one of the people in the regular boys action cartoon rotation and I can tell you that everything is pretty gender specific in terms of marketing. For big productions, they might make sure there was something for the girls, but for the most part, they very much exploit the clichés. The thinking is that this gender likes action and this gender likes role play. It’s very bizarre that it’s stated so definitively.

There’s a poor truth to it too, unfortunately. So like, if you’re making a “boy’s cartoon” and you decide to make one character a female, inevitably the toy of that figure is going to be the lowest selling, and all of that gets factored into the marketing. Now, it’s a business, so I get why it’s going to be amplified, but I can say that from the perspective of a filmmaker and a parent, the entertainment that we’re giving our kids isn’t as varied as we are as human beings.

I myself was so locked into that thinking that when I was approached to work on My Little Pony, I wasn’t sure if I was the right guy for that, because I was a boys-action-guy, and they’re separate worlds. But what I found was that with My Little Pony, it wasn’t even like a “girl” property — not that it was a boy property either, it just had its own vibe, with fun stories and really strong characters who just happen to be girls.

I also brought that same approach to work on the Fingerlings series where, yeah, 70 percent of the demographic is female, but as long as we don’t turn off the core demographic, the marketing guys are satisfied. Then it’s up to guys like me to tell good stories and not reinforce those stereotypes. It’s still going to be part of the equation though — it’s hard to imagine a company like Hasbro is not going to take gender into account. It would probably be toy-industry suicide if they did.

That being said, there are some properties out there like Fingerlings and My Little Pony as well as shows like Steven Universe and Teen Titans Go! that aren’t quite so gender biased in that they don’t just spoonfeed the same old messages to boys and girls depending on what they would stereotypically like. As a parent, I think it’s our responsibility to seek out the things that don’t send those outdated messages and introduce our kids to stories that are more genuine. Outside of that, I really don’t know what the answer is.

James (Kevin’s eight-year-old son who overheard our conversation): Everybody can like anything they want!

Kevin: Ha! That’s probably a lot more profound than anything I had to say.