'Tis the Season for Gender-Conscious Parenting Quandaries

It's one thing to refrain from gender-stereotyped gift-giving as a parent, but another to raise girls who cherish toy machine guns and boys who cradle baby dolls like the girls and boys Photoshopped -- yes, Photoshopped -- into the Swedish catalog.
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As a new anthology called When We Were Free to Be reminds us, this month marks the 40th anniversary of the classic stereotype-busting children's record "Free to Be...You and Me." It's also the launch of holiday madness, giving us a golden opportunity to assess the state of society. We live in a world where parents support William not only when he wants a doll for Christmas, but when he wants a dress. The slow creep of wider acceptance around gender variant, creative and non-confirming kids is due, in large part, to the groundbreaking work of 1970s pioneers who advocated for a "free" childhood and gave us unisex overalls. Attitudes once marginal are now mainstream -- and not just in Sweden, where, last Friday, the nation's largest toy chain unveiled its gender-neutral Christmas catalog.

But amidst the reminiscing at Soundcheck, reflecting at Slate, queries about accidental stereotyping at Motherlode, well-earned feminist high-fives and stories about gender-neutral dollhouses catching on with U.S. toy chains, it's a ripe moment to check in on what gender-conscious parenting now entails. It's one thing to refrain from gender-stereotyped gift-giving as a parent, but another to raise girls who cherish toy machine guns and boys who cradle baby dolls like the girls and boys Photoshopped -- yes, Photoshopped -- into the Swedish catalog.

The Photoshopping of these images is a metaphor for where some of us are today. The Swedish company fashioned the catalog in response to the country's advertising watchdog agency, which chastised the company for gender discrimination following complaints over a 2008 catalog displaying outdated gender roles. It's a step in the right direction, even if superimposed. What remains a muddle (in this country, in my home) is how we assimilate attitudes of gender acceptance into parenting practices as authentic as our kids.

Three years ago I gave birth to boy/girl twins. I've been plagued with a sense of trying to get gender conscious parenting "right" ever since. My girl hit 3 and clamors for princesses. My boy loves balls and drums. I find myself vaguely disappointed with their predictability. And that's a wake up call. Is it more authentic, as a parent, to get my girl a princess, or grin and bear it when others accuse me of photoshopping ideology onto my little ones?

My muddle around what today's gender-conscious parenting entails is generational. For a generation raised on the non-sexist childrearing philosophies promulgated since the 1970s, a super-traditional gender identity has joined the ranks of food allergies and chemical toxins as a focal point for parental concern. You can rid your pantry of peanut butter and replace your paraben-laden shampoos with the California Baby brand, but short of trying to create a gender-neutral environment (and getting publicly flamed for it), it isn't always clear what you can do to ensure that your girl baby grows up to shun Barbie Sisters Cruise Ship and your darling boy doesn't ask Santa for Blaster Pro.

Part of our muddle has to do with the fact that we know more now about the way that gender actually takes hold. In the early 1970s, nature was conveniently swept under the rug. But a look at this year's hot gender studies titles reveals an embrace of both nature and nurture as playing essential roles. According to Emily Kane, author of The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls, most parents today strongly believe in both nature and nurture as influences, no matter whether we attempt to enforce or resist gendered conventions in our kids. And as Anne Fausto-Sterling suggests in Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World, we know more about this intermingling now than before. The concept of neuroplasticity tells us that inborn tendencies and traits, gender-based or otherwise, are also shaped by experience. The science and sociology of gender are converging; the very way parents think about and enact their gender biases and preferences can actually rewire their children's brains.

So what do we do with this knowledge, as parents? We have power during our kids' formative years. In the grander scheme, we may not. As kids hit preschool, peer influence takes over, often becoming stronger than parents' messaging around gender. Our window of influence is narrow, but it's there.

Ultimately, we'll learn from the kids. According to developmental and clinical psychologist Diane Ehrensaft, kids develop strong ideas about their own gender, regardless of the messages they receive. "We can give them important messages about breaking down stereotypes, and that's wonderful. But who they are as a boy or girl and how they want to be a boy or a girl is very much set by them." It's parents' job to stretch children's horizons as far as possible so they know they have many options, she says, but it's not for parents to dictate to kids how to be. That dictum applies not just to a homophobic parent attempting to mold his gay kid into a straight one, but for a mother like me who attempts to steer her daughter away from the color pink but thinks pink looks just great on her son.

Parents like me are a minority. And Sweden is not the U.S. But if the conversation Top Toy's gender-neutral Christmas catalog has sparked is any measure, I suspect we'll be hearing a lot more about gender-neutral gift giving this year.

Maybe today the very phrase "Free to Be...You and Me" is, today, a message to parents, across assumptions and ideologies, whose ideas about gender diverge from the boy and girls their kids may become. Which brings us back to the original message of the 1972 album now, doesn't it? Well, thank you for that, Mom.