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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

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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  • Myriam

    February 1, 2016 at 11:47 am

    Find new “playdates” or activities to be involved in. I don’t think you will change your family, and you should “force” your son to be “constantly” subjected to this behavior. Be busy, involve more people in your playdates, people who might be less touchy about putting them on the spot about their lax/gendered parenting…

  • Dan

    February 1, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    Obviously you can’t change the way they parent their kid, but could you call them out when they are biased against your kid? Gently and with humour of possible but I see nothing wrong with correcting them in, say, the bat situation, or correcting them when they call him ‘all boy’ to ‘all toddler’. Ask for specifics when they call him messy or wild. Call their kid ‘boy’ adjectives. None of it meanly but it might get them to quit saying it. Or even say outright to them that you’re trying to avoid stereotyping your kid and could they please be mindful of saying that stuff while he can hear them. That is, of course, if you don’t want to just do the easier thing of reducing contact!

  • Dina

    February 1, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    OMG This… I wish I could wave a wand and solve this problem in my family. I will say that we haven’t changed minds but by constantly talking about this to my parents and my in laws we’ve at least reduced the gendered talk in the presence of my children. But yeah… it grates on my nerves big time when it does come up and also because I know what they’re thinking when my daughter wears her truck shirt or we dress my infant son in his sister’s hand-me-down pink footies (because you know, as a 6 month old, he cares a lot about that).

  • Jeannie

    February 1, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    I don’t know about other people, but my kids have rarely had a problem with differences in parenting style among my larger family and our family friends. Maybe that’s because the discrepancies aren’t as glaring as they are with this family. But my kids have understood in any differences that “this is how we do things, and this is why — because mom / dad feel that we should treat everyone the same … or whatever reason”. And there are age appropriate ways to explain things.

    If OP doesn’t feel like her son understands, and he’s noticing the differences and being upset by them … I’d just find some other people to hang out with more, and spend less time with family. If that’s a reasonable approach …

  • Veronica

    February 1, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    Thanks for addressing this-just watched a 3 year old boy get scolded for “playing rough” and had to tell his mother that my 3 year old daughter and her (female) friend had actually run into the boy (accidentally) and not vice versa so if anything we should be calling out the two girls. And, as noted above, my comment fell on deaf ears but all we can do is try. (Although I acknowledge that some aspects are easier when you have the girl child so I don’t want to compare my experiences to the letter writer’s).

  • K

    February 1, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    We have something kind of similar here – we have an almost 4 year old boy while my SIL has a just turned 4 year old girl. She definitely gets more gifts and whatnot, and is generally treated as the “more fragile” of the two, but I think with my husband’s family it’s maybe not as intentional. I mean, there are some generational/historical/cultural things going on with them and I would definitely say that my SIL and BIL parent “permissively”, but I have a feeling they might do the same if they have a boy-child. That’s just how they parent. My son definitely recognizes a difference in the way she “follows” rules vs. the way that he does, but I think at almost 4, it’s more about me explaining that “mom and dad expect one thing, and other parents might expect/allow different behaviors from their kids”. While I get being sensitive about classifying behaviors as male or female, I also would say – at his age, it’s probably less obvious to him than you might think. And even at 4, my son isn’t clinging to the fact that “she’s a girl and gets away with everything”, he just knows that she behaves the way she does, and he gets to remove himself from her immediate area is she’s unkind/bossy/whatever, and it really doesn’t matter if she “gest in trouble” for that behavior. Now, if everyone is at my house, I make the rules, and everyone follows the same set of rules. When we are at their house, he is responsible for following my rules too, but we don’t necessarily worry about enforcing our values with anyone but our own kid. As long as no one is actively saying things like “no, that’s her toy because it’s a doll” or something like that, I tend to just let this stuff go, and balance out his exposure to their “values” with lots of time with other families who are maybe a little more aware of their words and actions. Also, I say this with love, but my sister has two girls, and she swore she would never give them princess dresses/buy everything in pink and guess what – one of them LOVES the color pink, loves all things frilly and sparkly, only ever wants to play dress up and “kitchen” and whatnot. Doesn’t mean that she gets away with murder, but it is definitely a preference, so maybe don’t judge so harshly on that color/character preference (I assume that’s what OP was referring to in the beginning of her letter – I’m guessing this little girl wears a lot of pink?)

  • Jodie

    February 1, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    One thing I didn’t see addressed, but would love to see, is how to have the conversation with your child.  I never hesitated when they were younger, but now they will literally parrot my exact words.  So if I say “When Grandma said _____, we think about it different because…” I better be prepared for that to immediately be discussed with Grandma.  

    • Kate

      February 3, 2016 at 7:17 pm

      Yeah, this one is tricky. When my oldest neices were tweens another aunt took them to Walmart to get something and they gave her my whole lecture about how I don’t shop at Walmart and why (they had asked me why a few weeks earlier). Luckily that SIL is very easy going so she just thought it was funny but it could have been extremely awkward.

  • Holly

    February 2, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    I would certainly point things out about the way they treat/speak about YOUR child, just in a cool, calm “oh, I don’t think he’s doing that because he’s a BOY, he’s doing that because he doesn’t like things being snatched.” “Or “he may be bigger but boy vs girl doesn’t matter when sharing”. I’m happy to (and do, frequently) engage in the whole gender debate about my two year old daughter (she likes robots, ME TOO!) but you will probably have to be more circumspect when addressing their parenting choices, but don’t be afraid to have a friendly discussion about clothes, toys etc. 

    I think you can talk about other parenting styles with your son, but seeing these people so regularly means he WILL pick up on these differences – you can’t judge the daughter’s behaviour but you can and should expect adults to modify their comments after a reasoned discussion! 

    I also make sure that the toys I buy for my niece (who is also being raised as a “girly girl) give her a chance to be something else… Goldieblox, books like Wild by Emily Hughes. 

  • Brigitte

    February 3, 2016 at 12:39 am

    I have let friendships go over the whole gender bias thing.  This really really irks me.  I’ve got two girls myself, and I used to hang out with a lot of moms-of-boys, and I just got sick of all the biased things they said.  Thankfully they didn’t really treat boys much differently than girls, it was mostly just the annoying things they said amongst us moms as we chatted.

    Sometimes when my girls do something rambunctious, I’ll shrug it off and say “boys will be boys!” just to throw a wrench in other parents’ bias.  My husband is more likely to straight up counter anything someone says about their boys with a parallel example about our girls.  I find this gets a bit competitive and awkward, but sometimes it’s nice to shut people up.

    Kids are pretty good at picking up on the fact that other families do things differently and just accepting it as the norm.  I wouldn’t worry too much about your family’s influence on your son.  He will develop whatever relationship he does with them, and it doesn’t have to be the same as your relationship with him.  Your influence and your relationship will always trump anyone else’s in his life!

  • Amy Renee

    February 3, 2016 at 9:26 pm

    I know OP said both kids are almost 2, but I wonder how much of an age difference there actually is there – at that age, even 2-3 months can be a big difference, developmentally. And if OP’s son is a little older and much taller or sturdier its also easy for other parents to expect him to behave as an older child, not his own age.

    If OP’s son is a little older, that can also mean he’s hitting some of the fun developmental milestones (constantly saying “no”, hitting or biting, tantrums, etc) a little before his cousin – and the in-laws may be reacting in that ” my darling would never act like THAT” to OP’s son, and then flipping to “its just a phase, ignore her” when their daughter does the same behavior.

    I also wonder – is the family madebup of OP’s husband as older brother and SIL as younger sister? Any chance there are some tense dynamic left over from when they were kids? Or if SIL was raised hearing “careful, she’s just a little girl, be gentle” when there was a larger age (and size) gap between the kids and she and MIL are repeating it, not paying attention to the fact that it’s not nearly so applicable to this set of cousins?

    Unfortunately, I think the best OP can do is respond to gendered comments like “he’s so rough, just like all boys” with a more general “all kids can be rough at times” and other “all kids … statements. And then encourage lots of parallel and side by side cousin play to avoid any kind of physical interactions (hitting, toy grabbing, etc) from either side. Maybe as they get older it will calm down, and otherwise I would just try to minimize the amount of time you spend with them (go over to the in-laws for an hour or two for a meal, but don’t plan to spend all afternoon on Saturday there, for instance).

    Oh, and buy lots of neutral or duplicate toys as gifts and for at Grandma’s. Get both kids a truck and a doll for Christmas, etc. Just because 🙂

  • CeeBee

    February 4, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    I would start finding other people to hang out with, if possible. If they’re going to parent permissively, then all the true colors of that method will come to light. And if your niece grows into a selfish, disrespectful teenager, my guess is that no one will notice anyway. Or they will label her a “typical teenage girl” and find it funny.

  • L

    February 4, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    “you can always sink to their level because  “boys” don’t want to play with “girls” after a certain age ANYWAY.”

    The rest was great, but please don’t do this. The last thing you want to do is reinforce any of their nonsense, because you can bet that your son is already soaking it in. Just speak up! If your niece hits your son (takes toy, whatever behavior your family has generally deemed unacceptable), speak up. Tell your niece that hitting is not allowed. You can enforce time-outs with her too, if that is something generally being done when your son hits/behaves unacceptably at these playdates. If you get flack from grandma or SIL for equal enforcement of standards, then why not leave? It’s important that your son explicitly gets the message that it’s not okay for others to mistreat him, even if they happen to be female and/or relatives. And your niece certainly needs to receive that message too. What a nightmare! Sorry you are dealing with these double standards, OP. 🙁

  • Annie

    February 10, 2016 at 1:05 am

    Yep. My kids’ cousins live I town, and they’re being raised in a gender-biased way that really gets under my skin. Well, actually the girl has freedom to be interested in “boy toys” like Legos, but God forbid her brother show curiosity about her “girl” toys. And she is really reinforced for bratty tantrums. Her brother is criticized for crying. My husband’s relatives organize outings like a baseball game for all the boys and guys! And tea party for all the girls and ladies! It drives me up the wall. For years my husband and I have upheld different standards, and I think we’ve done well gently pushing back and resisting gender stereotyping in a way that hasn’t wound up alienating people . We invite all the kids to go to the Nutcracker or to the Auto Show. If we get comments from relatives like “why would a boy go to a ballet?” my husband says “Well, I’m interested in going. It’s Tchaikovsky, Dad.” Or if they look stunned at the idea that a girl would go to the auto show, I pipe in with “I’m going. I’m curious about the design. We’ll see things we’ve never seen before.” This kind of comment shuts adults up pretty quick, and models a different attitude for the kids.

    We repeatedly say “I don’t believe in girl toys or boy toys. I think kids should get to play with everything” and “there are different rules at different houses”. The adults don’t change, in my experience. But the kids, who now range in age from 5 to 10, have shifted. I took my niece skiing, and pointed out how tough and determined she was. I don’t think she had ever been shown that side of herself, and she was beaming. And, surprise! No whiney tantrums on the ski slope! Our nephew gets to play with “girl toys” at our house and has room to be free and creative. He loves our house.

    So, OP, while I agree that exposing your son to like-minded friends is really important, and that trying to parent alongside family members who don’t have the same values is tough….. One day your niece may really appreciate what the differences in your home and philosophy can offer her.