From pink polka-dotted outfits and tutus to wear home from the hospital to toy cars and tool sets for birthday presents, it’s no secret that little boys and girls are quickly encouraged to play specific gender roles. But in a world increasingly focused on gender equality, some are saying it’s time to focus also on gender neutrality.
Activists in Sweden, one of the most gender equal nations of all, are now promoting a gender neutral pronoun: hen. The idea initially surfaced years ago as a way to avoid space-consuming he/she writing. But now, some argue the concept could be key to encouraging a society where everyone is free to choose their own self, especially small children.
Walter Bockting, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Program in Human Sexuality, isn’t sure the effort is necessary in terms of child development.
“Gender generally develops in very predictable ways,” Bockting says. “For the small percentage of people who don’t identify with the traditional gender categories of boy or girl, man or woman, these types of accommodations can be beneficial. But whether that identity applies is hard to determine until much closer to adolescence.”
Instead of discouraging gender-oriented play, Bockting suggests parents and caregivers provide a variety of options and activities to toddlers and young children. This allows parents to focus time and energy encouraging interests of the child while remaining open and supportive, whatever those interests may be.
“As long as the interests of the child are first at hand, it’s best to just let the child play and grow,” said Bockting. “Given space, time and an open environment, children will discover their own interests and identity.”