The futility of gender-neutral parenting

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Debra W. Soh discusses the futility of gender-neutral parenting:

In steadfast 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 them and their bedroom in various shades of oatmeal, encouraging them to 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 an undeniably positive thing — whether it has to do with toys, clothing, or their future 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 visuo-spatial skills.

One recent study, published in Infant and Child Development, showed that these preferences emerge as early as nine months of age — before children are developmentally aware that gender differences exist, at 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, or CAH. 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.

We also see the same trend in our primate cousins, including rhesus and vervet monkeys. Young female monkeys gravitate toward dolls while male monkeys prefer wheeled toys, despite the fact they aren’t encouraged by other monkeys or their caregivers in their choices.


  1. Graham says:

    The trend line has been obvious for some time, but even so I am surprised at the early age of 46 to at last be so comprehensively out of touch. By way of example, this phrase:

    “Offering kids the opportunity to pursue what they’d like, freed from societal expectations, is an undeniably positive thing”.

    I always considered societal expectations a normal part of human existence and to remain some kind of framework for behaviour, regardless of specific content. Then again, a Supreme Court Justice [I think it was Kennedy] did once write that every person’s right included the right to define his or her own concept of existence, a sort of metaphysical declaration of war.

  2. Slovenian Guest says:

    Reminds me of something The Z Man once said:

    “Post-modernism is when a people forget all of the lessons of previous generations and start painfully re-learning them.”

  3. bob sykes says:

    “Offering kids the opportunity to pursue what they’d like, freed from societal expectations, is an undeniably positive thing…”

    It constitutes child abuse and leaves the child unsocialized and socially autistic.

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