Gender-neutral parenting starts with language

Gender-neutral parenting, when it comes to clothes and toys, is a simple concept. But what about the language you use to describe the world to a child? Does it matter that at traffic lights we refer to the ‘green man’ rather than the ‘green person’?

My daughter Joni, who’s nearly two, is learning how to cross the road. She knows to reach for my hand, to look out for cars – though there’s some confusion here, as I say “any cars?” and she says: “yes” – gesturing towards the parked cars lining the street. But she’s learning that some caution is necessary when approaching a road.

However, we’ve recently come across a gendered language issue, whereby every time we approach traffic lights, she’s told to wait for the ‘green man’. This may seem trivial, but in referring to the lit up person telling us it’s now safe to cross as a man, we’re perpetuating the patriarchal tradition that men give orders.

And so I now tell Joni that when the red person becomes a green person, we can step from the pavement into the road. The idea being that removing gender from this activity we do so many times each day might just make her see the world as a more gender-equal place.

This is just one example, amongst many others. So I’m going to list a few in the hope that if we all think about the language we use around children, we might raise the next generation in a more balanced way. Gender-neutral parenting might be sneered at, but all it’s doing is giving both girls and boys choice.

Gender-neutral parenting through language #1

Firefighters and police officers
While traditionally, these were jobs carried out by men, a 2015 Home Office report revealed that in some UK counties, up to 33% of the police officers are female. Similarly, female firefighters are increasing year on year and this should be reflected in our language, when discussing these workers with our children.

So when a police car zooms past, or the kids are playing with a toy fire engine, referring to the people inside as firefighters and police officers, rather than the more commonly used ‘firemen’ and ‘policemen’ will instil the notion that both girls and boys can enter these professions.

Gender-neutral parenting through language #2

People make history, not just men
The jury’s out on whether there has ever been a matriarchal society, where women have unambiguously ruled. However, women have always played a crucial role in society and continue to today. So the use of ‘man’ or ‘men’ when referring to historical accomplishments or society in general is inaccurate. Women were there, too.

In fact traditionally, in working class communities, women would have taken on manual labour roles alongside the men. Also in tribal cultures, gender roles would have been – and still are – more fluid; with women harvesting, carrying water and men helping with cooking and child rearing.

So we need to teach our children that the world was built by both women and men, that we all play an equal part in creating history and that they have the choice to do physical, hands-on work or to take on less active work – independent of gender.

Gender-neutral parenting through language #3

Men and women, or women and men?
When discussing a mixed-gender group, we will often refer to the ‘men and women’ in the room. Much like the ‘green man’ example above, this automatically creates a gender hierarchy where men precede women.

The idea of gender-neutral parenting, and using gender-neutral language, isn’t to put women first, because that would potentially create the same problem in reverse. So it’s about switching it up or removing gender entirely. Try using ‘women and men’ occasionally, or just saying ‘people’.

Gender-neutral parenting through language #4

Dear Sir/Madam
People don’t tend to write formal letters any more in business, and emails get away with a more casual approach. However, if you are sending a formal letter (print or online), putting ‘sir’ before ‘madam’ creates the same issue highlighted above.

It might seem pernickety or even pretentious to put madam first but why should we just accept this cultural tradition? When teaching your children how to write letters, or formal emails, why not tell them that they can put madam or sir first, whichever they choose.

Gender-neutral parenting through language #5

She’s not bossy; she’s a leader
When a young girl puts her hands on her hips and goes against authority, or orders others around, she’s referred to as ‘bossy’. A boy doing the same thing is showing his potential to take on an important role later in life, like that of prime minister.

Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, and author of Lean In, says it’s time to stop calling young girls bossy. When a girl gets up and shows confidence and an ability to designate roles to others, we should say she is showing leadership skills. She, too, has the potential to be the next prime minister.

Gender-neutral parenting through language #6

Showing admiration, through language
When admiring young children, it’s easy to compliment a girl for her prettiness. I know this, because I find myself doing it – at least in my head. But this is teaching young girls that their worth is based on their looks, while the boys are judged on their intellect and practical ability.

Ideally, we should be praising all children for working hard rather than their looks, but if you do want to compliment a child’s appearance perhaps just try to avoid using ‘handsome’ for boys – which has connotations of strength and aptitude – and ‘pretty’ for girls, which sounds passive. Instead, find something specific to comment on, like a haircut or outfit choice.

What do you think about gender-neutral parenting? Are you into it or against it? And what about the language we use with children – is it important or should be just relax about it all? We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below…