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Gender Neutral Parenting

September 15, 2014

By Nikki Cecala

Gender Neutral Parenting | A young boy smiles as he pushes a stroller with a doll inside it.

I was at my friend’s house with my 15-month-old son, Seth, when he stumbled upon a box of hair accessories in her bathroom. He sat on the floor, smiling, brushing his hair, and trying to figure out how to put a bright pink sequined headband onto his head. When he finally figured it out, he beamed with happiness and said “Ta-da!”

“So pretty!” I exclaimed.

But my girlfriend said, “No, Seth! That’s for girls!”

Her comment really irked me. He doesn’t know or understand what that comment means, and brushing your hair or putting a headband on your head isn’t only for girls.

Later I started thinking of all the other things I let Seth do that might challenge traditional gender roles and that my friend might frown upon. My son enjoys cleaning, from wiping down walls to vacuuming to sweeping the kitchen floor. He sees mama doing it and wants to learn. I recently bought him a kitchen set and he organizes his fake cans of food and plastic plates in the cabinets. He is learning how to put items away.

I am a more laid-back gender neutral parent (GNP for short). I believe there is great value in learning at a young age about cleaning, cooking, fixing things, being artistic, playing sports, and dressing up, regardless of gender. Unfortunately, some parents limit their child’s learning because they assign and reinforce the more traditional gender roles. Many of these parents don’t even realize that they do it.

There are a few approaches to gender neutral parenting. Parents like these from Toronto believe in genderless parenting and have yet to reveal their third child’s sex, who is now three years old. Sweden added the gender-neutral personal pronoun "hen" to the country's vocabulary to be more inclusive. Even McDonald’s is changing their language from asking kids if they want a boy or girl toy to just describing the toys that are available and letting them choose the ones that appeal to them most.

Gender neutral parenting is about expanding a child’s world through decision-making, independence, and finding comfort with the choices he or she makes without parents pushing toward a gender. As Paige Lucas-Stannard puts it in her article about gender neutral parenting, “The whole point of GNP is that is doesn’t force any preconceived gender norms onto a child in the hopes that they can find their own comfort spot on the continuum we call gender.”

Many parents fear that they are molding their child to be more feminine or masculine by not setting gender boundaries. In my opinion, your child is going to be who he or she is meant to be no matter the gender. The difference is that you are giving your child the opportunity and support to express and discover him or herself a lot earlier in life.

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Couple Chat: Waiting to Have Children

May 19, 2014

By Ana and Mario Vela

Mario and Ana Vela smile from the back of a car.

Photograph by Isaac Joel Torres

In the Couple Chat series, we pose one or two topical questions to a couple and ask each person to answer privately. Each person then reads the other’s response and the couple discusses their thoughts on the topic. They share their discussion together in the reflection.

For today’s Couple Chat, we asked Ana and Mario Vela, expectant parents, about their decision to wait 10 years after being married to have a child. Here’s what they said.

How long did you wait to have children after you were married? Why did you wait that long?

Ana: Mario and I married young, at 21 years old. We have been married for 10 years, and now decided to finally have children.

Where we grew up, it was very common to have children at a young age. There were lots of teen pregnancies. There were also many young couples that ended up unexpectedly pregnant, and decided to marry afterwards because of that child.

I saw the struggles parents went through, and the regret that they didn't get their education, pursue a career, and enjoy some of the things life had to offer. Unfortunately, a large percentage of these couples ended up separating or divorcing because they got together for the wrong reasons.

Ever since I was in high school, I knew I wanted to enjoy my life before having children. I didn't want to feel like I settled and end up resenting my child, which I saw many people do.

Growing up, my family lived in poverty and struggled financially. Although that shaped who I am, I didn't want my child to experience that, so it was essential for me to get an education and establish a career.

Mario: Ana and I made the decision that we would try to be as successful as possible in our educational attainment and careers before having children. We decided that we would be the first in our families to earn a bachelor’s degree, and then I eventually earned a master’s degree.

We also decided to travel, move to Chicago from San Antonio, and focus on and have fun with our marriage. We thought we would start trying earlier, after about five years, but the move to Chicago made us reevaluate our timing. After recently buying a townhome, we both felt comfortable in our career and financial stability to provide our child the life we wanted.

Did other people question your decision to wait?

Ana: When Mario asked for my hand in marriage, my father gave us permission with the condition that we both graduate from college. After that happened, my parents did question when the grandchildren were arriving. But after working so hard to get our degrees, why would we dive into another time-consuming phase of our life? We wanted to enjoy ourselves, so Mario and I made a list of things we wanted to accomplish before having children. On that list were things like travel, get promotions, make a certain salary, and move to a big city.

Throughout the years, we were constantly hounded by people to have children. My parents stopped though. Actually, I think they were starting to think we were never going to start! It wasn't until this last year that they finally put the pressure again that they wanted grandchildren. Except this time, we were on the same page.

Although marriage is a commitment, having children was an even bigger one to Mario and I. We wanted to be sure we were going to be able to stay together through it. We needed to go through ups and downs, work hard, struggle, fight, and experience successes in order to be fulfilled and ready to bring a life into this world.

Mario: Yes, but nowhere near what Ana experienced. When we would be together, family and friends would be antagonistic and confrontational to Ana on why she would wait that long.

I also noticed higher levels of confrontation with lower levels of socioeconomic status and educational level. Since in our families we’ve far surpassed educational attainment, the questions were frequent. However, with friends of ours who have higher levels of education, questions didn't start until Ana started approaching 30. I believe that in both of our families, no one has waited until they were over 30 to have children.

Reflection
Ana: Since we have talked about this for 10 years, we weren't surprised that we had similar answers to these questions.

During this exercise we started to think about our family. We don't believe anyone had children after the age of 25. Mario's mother was even 17 when she had him. So deciding to have children at age 31 was very out of the norm, even though biologically it's a very healthy age to do so.

It was funny to me that Mario said I experienced more pressure than he did. I didn't realize that had happened, but it's true. It's based on gender roles. People would ask me when we were having children in front of Mario to add pressure. And it was very awkward. I had completely forgotten about that!

Trying to explain to some people that we valued education, our careers, and our marriage over children was such a challenging concept. Sometimes I felt like people reacted negatively towards our decision to wait.

This is what we felt worked best for our lives. We respect any couple's decision regarding their own family.

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Expanding Gender Roles

April 14, 2014

By Jessica Vician

A father hangs laundry on a clothesline to dry.

It’s sometimes hard to see, but gender roles and stereotypes are all around us. Parents paint baby rooms and buy toys based on a child’s gender. Even if you try to defy those gender stereotypes through concentrated efforts, sometimes they sneak past us and are accidentally projected onto our children.

Gender roles and stereotypes aren’t always bad things. It’s important to embrace who we are and to model that behavior to our children. But it’s also important to teach our children that their genders don’t solely define who they are. Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day, on April 24, is a great example of this concept. This day originally intended to show girls the various careers they could have, and now it includes boys because it’s important to expose both genders to the potential careers they can pursue.

Examine the gender roles that you demonstrate in your home. Does Mom cook and do the laundry? Does Dad take out the garbage and fix the toilet? Those might seem like natural things that happen in a family—it’s likely the way your parents behaved. But your children see those behaviors and may think that they must assume those roles when they grow up.

An easy way to counter these gender stereotypes is to switch up those roles with your parenting partner. Here are some quick and easy suggestions on where to start:

  • Share cooking duties. Both parents don’t have to be a chef. If one parent isn’t used to cooking, start with simple recipes and aim for two meals a week. Even a novice cooker can make an easy mac and cheese with vegetables. The kids will start to see that the “chore” of cooking can be done by both genders.
  • Teach each other to fix things. Just like with cooking, start small. If one of you knows how to fix the toilet when it’s running, show the other parent how to do it. Then the next time the toilet is running, the newly-trained parent can show the kids that he or she is also capable of fixing things around the house. Depending on your children’s ages, you might also be able to teach them.
  • Take turns paying for dinner. When you go out to eat as a family, rotate which parent pays for dinner. Make arrangements before you leave for dinner so that when the bill comes, your children see that both parents can contribute financially.
  • Support and encourage playtime. We often think that boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls. But if a girl wants to play with trucks and a boy with dolls, there is no reason to discourage your child from expanding his or her worldview and stepping outside of traditional gender roles. It’s how we grow as people and a society.

As with any change, start small by paying attention to the things you and your partner do at home. If you notice one gender tends to handle certain tasks, start sharing them. By modeling this behavior to your children, you affect the way they perceive gender roles and set a strong example that demonstrates that regardless of gender, your children can grow up to be the person they are meant to be, instead of who they think they should be.

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Puberty: How and Why to Talk to Your Tween

March 6, 2014

By Amelia Orozco

A preteen boy and girl

It’s unavoidable but something that needs to be done. No, I am not talking about doing your taxes or a getting a yearly mammogram. Albeit, those are much easier to do than talking to your tween about puberty.

Although you may hope someone else does it, you are the best source of information when it comes to talking to your children about puberty and the body and emotional changes that come along with it. Here are a few reasons to consider why having “the talk” with your children is important.

Reason #1 You can control how much you want them to know at that particular time in their life. Break down the talk in phases based on their age, beginning at around age 10. Then determine how much to share with each passing year. This approach will make it less overwhelming for you and your son or daughter.

Reason #2 As children enter their tweens, more than their bodies will undergo changes. It will seem they are on an emotional roller coaster. Their moods will change from one day to another. Their perceptions of others and themselves are altered as they become aware of the changes in their own bodies. Having open discussions with your children will reassure them that what they are feeling is normal and that they should not feel ashamed.

Reason #3 Intercept before the media or their friends do. Skewed images of teens that are unnaturally thin, physically mature, and “perfect” according to media standards are everywhere, from the Internet, TV, and magazines. These images imprint a false sense of expectations, which are difficult or impossible to fulfill. Peers can also be an influence depending on the amount or lack of information they have been given by their own parents or guardians. It is best to well-inform your son or daughter, even using online or library sources to show the biology that explains it all.

How do you get over the embarrassment of talking to your tween? It’s best to find a balance in your role as a parent. Although it may be tempting to be their buddy, it’s important they see you more as a parent and someone who can help them through this difficult time. Depending on the relationship you foster with your son or daughter from a young age, either parent can talk to their tween through this time.

I would recommend asking if they rather talk to their mom, dad, or other relative. In a single parent home, I would recommend this for either boys or girls. Given this choice, children will feel more comfortable asking questions, which should be encouraged so that they do not feel the need to seek answers elsewhere.

I have used The Care and Keeping of You, a book published by American Girl to talk to my daughters about this subject, which includes tips on personal hygiene and feelings. A good book for boys is The Boy’s Body Book: Everything You Need to Know for Growing Up You, by Kelli Dunham.

Amelia Orozco is the senior editor and writer at the Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo and a community and entertainment reporter for TeleGuía Chicago. A mother of three, Amelia also maintains an active role in her community and church by working with youth and promoting education and diversity through her writing and volunteer efforts.

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Couple Chat: Gender Roles

March 3, 2014

By Ana and Mario Vela

Ana and Mario Vela

Photography by Jennifer Schaffer Photography

In the Couple Chat series, we pose one or two topical questions to a couple and ask each person to answer privately. Each person then reads the other’s response and the couple discusses their thoughts on the topic. They share their discussion together in the reflection.

For today’s Couple Chat, we asked expectant parents Ana and Mario Vela about gender roles. Here’s what they said.

What traditional gender roles do you feel are important to honor with your child, if any? Why?

Ana: Growing up, gender roles were very prominent. The ones I enjoyed seeing celebrated the strength of the mother of the family. The mother tends to get the family unit together, and all members would respectfully obey their mothers’ wishes.

My daughter will be free to choose to live whatever life she wants, and I want her to feel confident and demand respect wherever she is. Women tend to be seen as a source of knowledge and compassion, and I would like to instill that in my daughter as well. She should learn to be thoughtful in the decisions she makes, and understand how it impacts others.

Mario: Before we knew we would be having a girl, we both always thought we would have a boy. One of my concerns was not having a traditional father figure. I created my archetype of a father figure through a collection of influences from role models and family influencers.

Now that we’re having a girl, I need to reflect on what my daughter will need from me as a father. I feel I have to be an even stronger figure for a daughter. I felt content and ready to be an example for a son, but I now have to be even better for my daughter. I need to reformulate my idea of a role model and use both male and female examples. For instance, my grandmother, who fought and led her life the way she wanted, is an example of a strong role model for my daughter.

What traditional gender roles do you want to ignore with your child, if any? Why?

Ana: Growing up in the Latino culture, there were several things I disliked about gender roles. My father constantly pushed me away anytime I wanted to spend any quality time with him. Several times I requested to go fishing with him and my brother, asked to help him fix the car, or just sit and watch some of his favorite western movies with him. He refused and would say that I was a girl and that I should be in the kitchen helping my mother.

That’s what I ended up doing—all the activities that were expected of me as a female: cooking, cleaning, playing with dolls, and wearing dresses. I ended up resenting it growing up, which caused friction between my mother and I as I constantly challenged these roles my parents and society were placing me in.

When I found out we were having a girl, I was excited that I had the opportunity to challenge gender roles with my daughter. I do not want her to experience these situations that only caused me heartache and confusion. As an adult, I am very grateful for the life skills my mother taught me. I just wish it had been something I wanted to learn, not a forced expectation of me.

Mario: Many times I’m at a loss for what a woman should strive to be. I always felt my son was going to have a responsibility to be a good man. I still struggle with what it means to be a good woman. Fortunately, I married Ana.
 
How do you think you can honor and ignore those roles when raising your child?

Ana: I think the best way to honor and ignore these roles with my daughter will be through not pointing them out at all. Modeling positive behavior and not limiting her interactions with either my husband or I should demonstrate to my daughter the best way we’d like her to interact with others and us.

I can’t imagine having any kind of conversation with my daughter in which I tell her that she has to be a certain way because she is a girl and not a boy. Now that my parents are grandparents and are helping raise my two nieces, I can definitely see that they have relaxed a bit regarding gender roles. I’m hoping that by adding another girl to the family, they will focus more on encouraging them to be strong, responsible, smart women, and encourage any interests they may have.

Mario: I want my daughter to learn from the strength and passion of my grandmother. I want her to learn of the irrational success of Ana. How she has become an amazing social climber, regardless of the poverty and abuse she faced, the limitations placed on her, the poor education she received, and the environment she lived in, all while being a woman. Ana is an amazing role model.

I can honor the positive gender roles by providing examples and a strong archetype of both men and women who help society, help their families, and help others. I can also teach her to care for herself and to understand the inherent value she possesses as a person.
 
I can teach her to understand the limitations of others and to not let them affect her own sense of self, her progress, and her potential to improve this world and the world around her.
 
Reflection
Ana: Mario and I always thought that we were going to have a boy. This made Mario very comfortable, and me secretly uncomfortable. Since we found out we were actually having a girl, Mario has been worried about this role and I have felt very secure.

In this exercise, Mario expressed that he needs to be an even better father now that we’re having a daughter. We both agree that we want our daughter to feel strong and confident, and not be confronted with limitations.

I was surprised to discover that we both are worried about some of the interactions our daughter will have with our families, as they still engage in some of the gender roles that we do not want to promote with her. Mario wants to utilize his grandmother and myself as role models for our daughter. On the other hand, he was very surprised with my answer that gender roles do not have to be pointed out to our daughter at all. And he agreed with that concept.

Through this emotional exercise, I finally understand why I wanted to have a daughter – because I now have the opportunity to change the definition of gender roles with her. And now I also understand why Mario wanted a son – because growing up without a father, he wanted to change that experience into a positive one with a son.

Mario and I have both used our anger, frustrations, and struggles growing up to drive us to the successful lives we now live. Although that helped my success, I do not want my daughter’s success to be out of anger. I would rather her success be out of empowerment and through us as positive role models.

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