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The myth of gender-neutral parenting

A family outside roasting marshmallows.

A family outside roasting marshmallows. Credit: iStock

In pursuit of gender equality and to promote nonconformity, it’s become popular in some social circles to start early, very early, by raising young children in a gender-neutral way: not revealing the baby’s sex at birth, dressing the child and its bedroom in various shades of oatmeal, encouraging play with gender-neutral toys. There’s also pressure on corporations to help; parental complaints led Target to stop sex-segregating its toys, for instance.

Offering kids the opportunity to pursue what they’d like, freed from societal expectations, is undeniably positive — whether it has to do with toys, clothing or aspirations. But the scientific reality is that it’s futile to treat children as blank slates with no predetermined characteristics. Biology matters.

A large and long-standing body of research literature shows that toy preferences, for example, are innate, not socially constructed or shaped by parental feedback.

Most girls will gravitate toward socially interesting toys, like dolls, that help social and verbal abilities develop. Most boys will gravitate toward toys that are mechanically interesting, like cars and trucks, fostering visuospatial skills.

A recent study published in Infant and Child Development showed that these preferences emerge as early as 9 months of age — before children are developmentally aware that gender differences exist, which occurs around 18 months.

Another piece of evidence comes from studying girls who were exposed to high levels of testosterone prenatally, in the case of a genetic condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Girls with CAH tend to be gender nonconforming, and will prefer toys that are typical to boys, even when their parents offer more praise for playing with female-typical ones. This speaks to the vital role of hormones in developing gender preferences and sex differences in behavior, more broadly.

In the face of scientific data, the gender-neutral movement nevertheless continues to gain momentum. Its adherents took heart in a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which touted the idea that the brains of women and men are identical. If so, that would support the theory that gender is an artificially created, outdated concept.

However, a body of neuroimaging research has shown brain differences between the sexes. One meta-analysis of 126 studies found that men have larger brain volumes than women. Men also show greater white matter connectivity running from the front to the back of the brain, while women have more of the connections running between the hemispheres. White matter allows different parts of the brain to communicate with each other.

I hear from many well-meaning parents who raised their children in gender-neutral homes and were surprised to find that the kids nevertheless gravitated toward stereotypical interests and toys. Boys who were given pots and pans to play with turned them into makeshift toy cars, complete with self-generated engine sounds. Girls turned to one another and started playing house.

The gender-neutral trend capitalizes on fears that parents have of inadvertently limiting their child’s potential. We want the best for our children — for daughters to grow up to be as competitive for jobs in science, technology, engineering and math as their male counterparts, and for sons to possess strong social and communication skills.

Whether your child leans toward gender-atypical traits will likely have more to do with prenatal environment than a balanced upbringing. Besides, so long as kids get to take part in activities they find interesting, there’s nothing wrong with being gender-typical. Acknowledging inherent sex differences isn’t harmful or sexist; differences don’t necessitate one sex being better than the other.

Debra W. Soh writes about sexuality and is a sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.