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Courage beyond pink or blue

At our 20-week scan, my husband and I chose to find out the sex of our unborn baby. I’m not big on surprises – parenthood throws up enough of those.

Naturally, on finding out kiddo still had a heartbeat and a strong desire to wriggle away from the ultrasound wand, I was relieved. Finding out said kiddo was a boy, I was terrified. I grew up in a family of girls. Girls were comforting and familiar. I felt woefully ill-equipped for a son.

I asked the internet: “What’s positive about raising boys?” I found … a lot of gender stereotypes. Boys are “grounded in reality” – they play with trucks, planes and tractors, while girls play with fairy princesses. Boys are “a whirlwind of noise, covered in dirt”. But they’re less dramatic and emotionally volatile than girls! So much more straightforward and honest! Much easier.

Snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails.

Being me, I was prompted to do more research. Some, including within the scientific community, argue male and female brains are indisputably different; thus, children will interact with the world along those lines. Others contend that children’s behaviour and preferences are influenced by a gendered society – from the toys we offer to the differences in our parenting.

For example, boys are more likely to play with “practical” toys [blocks, construction sets, remote-controlled cars] because that is aggressively marketed to them. Boys are the “builders”, girls are the “nurturers” – they get dolls and miniature kitchens. Toys help all children develop skills and interests – and yet, we insist the pragmatic, “real world” toys are for our sons, and anything less is “girly”.

Research has found parents are more likely to encourage adventurous play and “rough-housing” in their sons, and police the same behaviour in their daughters. Conversely, mothers have been found to speak and read to baby girls more than baby boys. In other words, we unknowingly socialise girls to be talkative and relational, and boys aggressive and boisterous.

Are boys more direct? Possibly … although we know girls who are assertive and authoritative are labelled “bossy” or “difficult”. Are boys less emotional? A recent American study found men were equally sensitive to emotional stimuli as women – but were more likely to mask their reactions. Clearly, we are still raising boys to be stoic and impassive – and “easier”.

Not all gender markers are negative. There’s nothing wrong with a boy rolling in the mud, or a girl snuggled up with a book. Impending motherhood has shown me I’ve internalised my own gender biases. Did I think a girl would be “easy”: Empathetic, self-actualised, better with language?

What is negative, however, is when young people are punished for stepping outside of the gender binary. Especially when boys display typically feminine qualities or interests. Dancer Rilee Scott, recently featured in Midweek, shared his experiences of bullying when he started ballet lessons. And yet, we’re more likely to accept girls for climbing trees, shunning dresses, and playing rugby. Feminine – dancing, shedding a tear, or cuddling a baby doll – is synonymous with lesser. It’s not “easy” for any child to exist within those rigid, “pink vs blue” constraints.

How will my son get on? Maybe he’ll take after me – i.e will have a lot of opinions and an obsessive sense of justice. Like my husband, be could be a friend to all animals and an unrepentant goofball, with an imagination worthy of Cartoon Network. Ballet or rugby? Either way, I’ll be the most enthusiastic supporter in the crowd. But he won’t be easy – he’ll be a child; it’s there in the non-existent manual. His Dad and I will learn as we go.

He’ll be … him. And if that exists outside of the binary, I hope we can raise him with the courage to be himself.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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