How to raise a child without imposing gender

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More parents are stripping nurseries of all gender cues, to create spaces where children can develop their own identities.

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Elliot Claire: What kind of baby name is that? A girl’s name? A boy’s name? Both?

Mission accomplished, said Elizabeth and Sean Scotten, of Oakland, California, who became parents to Elliot Claire almost a year ago. “We loved the juxtaposition of a name that’s more traditionally masculine and a name that’s more feminine,” Elizabeth Scotten, 35, explained. As the baby grows up (it’s a girl!), she can use any combination of the two.

“My husband went through the experience of having to change his name,” Scotten said. The couple started out as high school sweethearts, at age 14. “When we first met, he was living as a girl. He was my first girlfriend, and that’s changed.”

As for the nursery, the Scottens wrestled with a design question encountered by a generation of new parents, who, surveys suggest, hold more accepting views of gender nonconformity. How to create a room where a baby can grow up to become a boy, a girl or whatever feels right?

Kerry Hegg, the head of product development for Crate and Kids, heard some of these preferences in parent focus groups the company hosted last summer. Mothers expressed a desire for beautiful, inspired products. They wanted to make rooms where children could express their personalities. However, “they may not want to assign a specific gender or force a gender,” Hegg said.

This was a change from 10 years ago, or even five, Hegg added. Then, the baby aisle strenuously separated products by gender — often to mystifying effect. If cats are for girls, why are big cats — lions and tigers — for boys? What’s inherently masculine about an astronaut in a spacesuit?

The Scottens chose a design scheme that felt true to their family values. Elizabeth Scotten is a middle school English teacher; Sean Scotten, a writer. The nursery theme they came up with? Books.

Gender
Elizabeth and Sean Scotten with their child, Elliot Claire. Photo: Peter Prato/The New York Times
Peter Prato/The New York Times

Stories teach empathy, Elizabeth Scotten said, as characters encounter new people and places. “It’s the anti-gender binary, to be immersed in seeing the world with a lot of different possibilities through stories.”

They’re babies, doubters will say. A newborn doesn’t infer anything from the firetruck pattern on the crib bumper.

Here, the doubters would be wrong, or so a body of research suggests. Children don’t begin to categorise their gender until the age of two or three, explained Harriet Tenenbaum, who studies gender identity at the University of Surrey in England. At that age, “it’s a real incipient understanding,” based on vague traits like hair length and height. (“They don’t have a great understanding of genitalia,” Tenenbaum added.)

But young children pick up cues from the toys they’re given, the words they hear, the books they read and the behaviors they encounter on the playground.

Stripping the space of anything gendered is a poor solution, says Suzanne Tick, who has written about gender identity in design and who creates textiles and floor coverings at her New York firm, Tick Studio. A better strategy involves filling the room with materials and toys that encourage engagement and play.

Practically, she said, that means “activating a room with bold shapes and bold colors and a mix of colors. Soft tents, soft places where one can crawl into. Multiple areas of exploration.” She would encourage parents to decorate the room with books, plants, terrariums, ant farms, fishbowls.

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An-Lon Chen, 42, can see her three-year-old daughter, Nora, piecing together the rules and rituals of gender with her playmates in Seattle. Nora “misgenders” a beloved stuffed toy, “clearly intended to be a girl doll.” One day the doll will be “he,” the next day, “she.”

What interests Chen about this habit is that it mimics her own parents, Chinese immigrants whose easy fluency in English wobbles around gendered pronouns. Chen recalls that her father conducted his own parenting experiment. He gave her a name, An-Lon, that sounded gender neutral in English and male in Mandarin. And he raised her in the same demanding style as her brother. Not unisex, but essentially male.

The treatment felt disorienting: Her unstylish clothing didn’t match the way she felt inside. As a parent designing her own girl’s space, Chen set a different course. She tapped into the professional-grade empathy she’s acquired as a software engineer specialising in user interface design.

The family’s modern three-bedroom home feels upside-down. The kitchen, living room and playroom stack above the bedroom and nursery. How could she make this 3D maze navigable for a clumsy toddler?

“For me, the empowerment is more important, I guess, than the surface detail,” she said. With YouTube as a guide (and Home Depot as a supplier), Chen built a series of oak handrails, bridging one level of the home to the other. Height: About 20 inches off the ground.

A fleet of step stools gives Nora access to counters and shelves. And a secondary rack for toilet-paper rolls stands within a toddler’s arm length.

Boy or girl, no one likes to fall off the potty.

For Chen, gender nonbinary nursery design means understanding that a child foremost wants to master her environment, and tools like step stools, faucet adapters and railings encourage that development.

This is a universal principle, she said. An independent child can express her gender in this realm when and how she chooses. “All these meaningless choices parents make — worrying that a pink hippopotamus is too girlie — fritters away design energy that could be going somewhere more interesting,” she said.

Source The New York Times

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