Culture / Family / Kids

Raising a Toddler in a Gendered World

Liberal [I originally published this post about a year and a half ago over on West Philly Mama.  Much of it still holds true, but it’s only gotten harder to dodge the constant gender messaging.  He’s now at an age where he is noticing gender and asking questions about biological sex and trying to piece together how they relate to each other.  His baby sister wasn’t home 48 hours before he gasped, looked at me with a very worried face and asked, “Where is her penis?”  Currently he’s enthralled with ballet and has a pink tutu that he will wear to practice the five positions – but when I tell him that he looks very pretty, he shakes his head and tells me, “No, Mama, I look handsome in my tutu.”  He’s working it out, and I hope we are giving him the space to do that.]

Perhaps our family thinks about gender and gender roles more than the average family (but not quite as much as some of the neo-con family groups that seem to be obsessed with it).
We didn’t find out Leo’s sex while I was pregnant for several reasons including that we hoped it would cut down on some of the gender focus.  And it did, and we were lucky enough to receive a lot of lovely gender neutral gifts which allowed us to keep some of the gender noise out of our house (as well as allowing for a sibling or friend to inherit regardless of sex).  Now that Leo is earth-side and learning to navigate the world, we are still trying to limit stringent boy/girl messages.

So far I think we are on track.  I do realize that once he gets to the age when he asks for things and is exposed to advertisements aimed right at him things will be different – but the goal isn’t to keep him away from gendered things forever, we are just hoping to give him the space to figure how he relates to his gender on his own.  If his gender identity doesn’t “match” his biological sex, we are ok with that.  But since it is statistically likely that he will identify with the masculine end of the gender spectrum, I’d really like it if he wasn’t fed stereotypes of what being masculine means.


At nearly a year and a half into Leo’s life, I think that so far we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping his toys mostly neutral with equal parts “girl” and “boy” associated toys thrown in.  He loves cars and cooking; dinosaurs and babydolls.  It hasn’t been difficult – but it has taken some thought and we’ve had to be very intentional about it.  The division between “girl” and “boy” toys is striking when you walk into any store – luckily we rarely buy toys.  Leo has a lot of people in his life who can’t seem to resist buying him gifts and we’ve also been grateful recipients of some fantastic hand-me-downs. Currently his favorites include his kitchen, puppets, drums, cars, and any stuffed animal that he can feed or put to sleep.


Clothes have been a bit trickier to navigate. When I search in the girls’ section for articles of clothing that walk the line it’s really depressing.  Even items that are supposed to be comfortable, like pajamas, often have frills or lace around the collar – it doesn’t look like something I’d want to sleep in.  We try to snap up any cute crossover items, like that “girl’s” sweater without lace or bows or a “boy’s” polo shirt with pink stripes.  Still, most of his clothes could double for tiny man clothes (which is adorable in it’s own way, but not the point of this post).  He has a bunch diapers that were likely designed with girls in mind (from pink and purple to flower patterns) and some pink pajamas – but that’s as non-traditional as his wardrobe currently gets.  I’m sure we will have some fun with dress-up play, but again, our goal isn’t to push the envelope, just present a wide range of options.  As he figures out his own style we’ll follow his cues, even if it’s all football jerseys and backwards caps.  Currently his first choice is always one of the shirts with a dinosaur on it.

Modeling Gender

jb and I are not your everyday mom and dad – but we do fall into traditional gender roles in a lot of ways.

  • jb works in an office and I stay home to care for Leo
  • I present with mostly feminine traits and jb is handsomely butch
  • jb takes out the trash, kills the bugs, and carries the heavy stuff
  • I love to sew/craft/decorate

Of course we also do the old switcheroo for some expectations.

  • I am the Ms. Fixit of the family.  If it requires a hammer or a screwdriver I’m your girl.
  • jb does the vast majority of the laundry – including the diaper laundry
  • We share cooking, chores and parenting pretty evenly

Hopefully Leo sees us taking on a range of roles and responsibilities.  He will also be able to look to his uncles, aunts and grandparents for familiar examples of gentle and caring men and strong independent women.

Right now he is just the sweetest little boy.  He’s all kisses, and hugs, and “I love you”s.  He is so eager to help with anything and everything.  He loves taking care of people (and pets and stuffed animals).  He’s a cuddle monster.  He feels his feelings and seeks comfort openly.  He’s just so tender and loving.  I hope we are able to foster these qualities and keep them intact as the world sends him the message that they are weak and un-manly.  I think he’s strong enough to weather it.

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