Progressive Parenting: How Much Does It Counter Gender Roles?
There was a spread in a popular American catalogue, not many years ago, featuring an image that immediately went viral: fashion circuit darling Jenna Lyons’ 4-year-old son wearing bright pink nail polish. The carefully crafted editorial depicted a perfectly-appointed home, an impossibly stylish family – all of it beautiful but not overly fussy or formal. But nothing else captured the perfect polished-boho, hipster-progressive parenting lifestyle that so many of Lyons’ admirers aspire to quite like the little boy with the hot pink nails.
With that one photograph, Lyons communicated her progressive parenting – her rejection of traditional gender socialization, her comfort with gender fluidity, or, at least, the possibility that her son could be gay (not that painting your nails means that, but that’s for another column). She flaunted her encouragement of creativity and freedom of expression, and, most importantly, her belief that children should be given the space to explore who they are and want to be under their parents’ roof. Readers who identify with all those values gushed over the spread.
As progressive parents who embrace these ideas for our children, we relish the idea that we can – through the parenting of our children – change the way the world has traditionally viewed gender, sexuality, freedom of expression. We tell boys they can paint their nails, wear makeup, dress up in sparkly clothes, cry when they’re upset, share their feelings, show affection. We tell girls they can be superheroes, reject dresses and the color pink, run fast and play rough, and be engineers and doctors when they grow up. Because in progressive parenting, nothing should be only a girl’s or boy’s domain, and the breadth of life’s experiences should be available to all our children, regardless of their gender. Right?
But if that’s what our progressive parenting strives for, then why do we bristle at the reverse – at the behavior that comports with the traditional gender roles we reject? The same parent who is supportive when her son wants to paint his nails hot pink might not allow the same thing for her daughter, because those same values tell her that nail polish on young girls is overly sexualizing at an inappropriately young age. We tell girls they can fight back and be tough on the playground, but a boy who does the same is a bully. (Boys are supposed to be sensitive and kind, remember?) We encourage our boys to cry and express themselves, but tell a small girl who’s upset, “Don’t cry.” We think it’s awesome when little girls play video games — because who doesn’t glorify the Gamer Girl – but imagine our reaction at a lazy little boy who sits on the sofa with his tablet all day.
Every social more we reject, out of a sense of superiority towards the values it illustrates, can just as easily be used to point out our own hypocrisy. If freedom of expression is the goal, why shouldn’t our girls paint their nails, play with makeup, and wear glitter? And if interests, hobbies, and future occupations should be gender-blind, why should we cringe when boys want to play with diggers and girls pretend to be hairdressers? Perhaps it’s because we assert girls’ right to be aggressive, in an effort to bolster their footing relative to their male counterparts. And maybe we want them to “toughen up” because it will help them adapt and excel in a male-dominated world. We want our boys to be more kind and sensitive and expressive, because that’s ideally how the adult men around us would behave. But is the ultimate goal worthy of such a double standard?
Implicit in all these progressive values we seek to impart to our children is the set of norms we ourselves want to assert to the world. By perpetuating a double standard — albeit in the name of a noble goal — we seem to be communicating our acceptance of double standards… if they skew in the direction we want.
If we want to free our kids – of both genders – from the burden of the way the world interprets their genders, we need to actually free them from a double standard, even a reverse one. And that means freeing colors, emotions, expression, clothing, and games of gender associations in our own minds. It’s only not a “man’s world” or a “woman’s job” if kids truly grow up without believing anything – the color blue, being a doctor, or wearing pink nail polish – is somehow linked to a particular gender.
Because whether your little boy likes to wear skirts, or your daughter can skateboard backwards, there’s one thing we can all agree on: The world would be a better place if everyone had a little glitter.