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How to Gender-Neutral Parent in a Family of Bias

How to Gender-Neutral Parent in a Family of Bias

By Amalah

To all-knowing, mother of boys, gender-bias hating Amy,

I have an almost two-year old son, who has a same-age girl cousin. We see them about 1-2 times per week, sometimes more often.

In our house we are big on treating everyone the same regardless of gender. My son’s general temperament at home, and confirmed by his daycare teachers, is easy going, sweet, and curious. However, he’s also a typical toddler. He likes to explore new things (even if they are supposed to be off limits), doesn’t yet understand the concept of sharing, and other typical toddler behaviors.

Here’s the problem. My in-laws are raising their daughter in a pink, princess, girls get what they want world. I’m working on getting over the fact that it’s not the way I would raise a girl (cause you know, not my kid), but I take issue with it when it affects my son. In my husband’s family, but especially with my niece’s parents, my son is frequently called “wild,” “messy,” “all boy.” My niece on the other hand is “gentle,” “sweet,” “caring.”

Here’s the thing, she’s not. She’s, *shock* a toddler, who acts like, *shock* a toddler. She steals toys, she gets into things she’s not supposed to, and she makes messes. The kicker: of the two, my son is definitely the gentler more caring one. He gives up whatever he has if she cries about it, generally leaves her alone while she is playing (he does like to tease her and then laugh when she starts screaming, so he’s definitely not perfect . . .). She, on the other hand, demands his toys, screams when she doesn’t get her way, and barges into whatever he’s doing. Then HE gets flack for it. She was chasing after him to hit him with a toy and as I was about to remind her that “toys are not for hitting”, my SIL stated, well he took her toy 5 minutes ago, and he is bigger (he is, by a lot, but still!). But god forbid he hit her, a time-out would be necessary (and supported by me, because hitting is a time out worthy offense in our house), and it would be the end of the world because a BOY hit a GIRL, OMG.

I also feel like all of his actions are scrutinized with a bias of rough boy (“he swung that bat, must have been trying to hit her” as compared to “she swung that bat, must be trying to hit the ball, it was an accident”). Which is equally annoying.

So my question: How do I keep my son from being brought up in an environment where the rules don’t apply to his cousin because she’s a girl? Do I need to confront the family (let’s not talk about how grandma gives her more attention/presents, because, girl, ugh)? Passive aggressively send articles about gender-bias? Do I need to just enforce our rules fairly and explain to him that it’s different around them? He’s getting to the age where he is going to start noticing and it makes me sad to think about.

About to move out of town

You probably gave up on ever seeing this question answered, OP, and I don’t blame you. It’s languished in the queue for far too long, because I really wanted to give you a SOLUTION.

“Here! This is what you say! This is the perfect script of gender-bias shame and logic guaranteed to pull the wool off every parents’ eyes  and make them reassess their own lifetime of internalized sexism and blind adherence to a meaningless social construct!”

If only I could come up with something like that, though….

Honestly you’re dealing with two problems here: The gender thing, AND the fact that this little girl is also being raised very permissively (aka SPOILED). With your son, you see the boy/girl excuse being made for why she’s not responsible for her behavior, but I wonder if her behavior is all that different around other little girls. Your in-laws might just latch on to some other excuse: She’s younger, smaller, oh just let her take the toy you were almost done playing with it anyway. 

Or maybe not. Maybe she’s already caught on that her parents don’t hold her responsible for tantrums and hitting around boys and is rolling with it. That’s…really a shame. And going to be quite detrimental to both her and the boys/men she interacts with later in life, for sure.

If your in-laws are on Facebook, sure, go ahead and post some thoughtful links about gender bias/roles on your own wall. Accidentally leave a book or two behind at their house. (Perhaps Still Failing at Fairness or Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue.) But know this: They probably won’t get it. They almost certainly won’t change. Their parenting style is rooted in pink/blue/girl/boy and topped off with a maddening dash of Special Snowflake Syndrome.

If this was someone you knew from say, a playgroup, I’d totally give you permission to Bye Felicia this friendship as one you’ve outgrown. Obviously, family makes it different. While a same-age cousin relationship sounds WONDERFUL in theory, you don’t want to be purposely forcing your son to socialize with someone he doesn’t like or get along with all that well. And yeah, it’s kinda hard to explain to a toddler why So-and-So is allowed to get away with hitting/throwing toys after he’s more or less learned to control those behaviors and recognize them as unacceptable.

With some time and maturity, her behavior might improve. Your son will learn to speak out on his own behalf. (And no one can fault a boy-child for using his WORDS to tell a girl-child that “toys are not for throwing,” right? Right? Oh God…they probably can.) The cousins might naturally grow apart as their interests diverge more and more and the 1-2 times a week get-togethers would be best spent with other peers.

Hell, if none of that happens and you simply can’t take it anymore, you can always sink to their level because  “boys” don’t want to play with “girls” after a certain age ANYWAY.

But above all, keep raising your son the way you’ve been raising him. Watch the adjectives he gets called by family and make sure you include the missing ones. Just as you want to make sure a girl hears that she’s “smart” as much as she’s “pretty,” it’s important for boys to also be praised for their kindness, compassion, ability to nurture, etc., rather than their physical size or abilities.

(And P.S. Grandma being unfair with presents. Dick move and should be pointed out to her. By your husband [since I assume it’s his mother] tactfully and in private.)


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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