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Raising boys and girls differently: so what?

In the intricate terrain of parenting, the question of whether boys and girls should be raised differently stands as a complex and often contentious issue.  Recognizing that children are unique individuals, we navigate through the tangled web of gender assignment, societal constructs, and parental influence to uncover the impact on the development of our youth. The following exploration delves into the subtle yet profound ways in which children are socialized, the role of toys in shaping gender norms, and the emergence of online parenting trends that echo and perpetuate gender stereotypes. 


Reality Check: 


The question: of whether raising boys and girls differently is necessary or socially productive, is quite difficult to tackle and one a parent may want to engage in a flourishing debate over.  To not get lost in subjectivities (acknowledging of course the difficult task of parenting and that children are nuanced individuals) I will concentrate on assessing the question generally. 


To begin answering this question we first must acknowledge the fact that children are assigned a gender at birth based on their biology (most usually reproductive organs). The assumed gender of the child is then reinforced through gender education which cultivates a mindset and a series of attitudes. Gender is then essentialized; that is, differences that are not natural to gender categories are made out to be. For example, the conception that women are by nature ‘more emotional’ than their male counterparts is taken as fact, notwithstanding that gendered differences do not account for the psychology of a person, much less their emotional states. It is in fact, that women are allowed to be emotional in a different manner than men are in society. Gendered constructs that punish men for demonstrating emotion are then essentialized and packaged as ‘human nature.’ 


It seems then that we are in a “chicken or the egg?” dilemma. Do we raise boys and girls differently because they are different, or because our conceptions of gender have made us believe so? Regardless of the answer, we know two things: boys and girls are raised differently, and the performance of gender has become almost subconscious in society. We do not realize we are performing gender or conforming to gender roles, instead, we must actively and consciously participate against them. 


Toys and Parental Socialization


Parental socialization is pivotal in the gender typing of their children. From the type of play that children may engage with to the toys they are given or encouraged to play with; parents play a pivotal role in the internalization of gender by their children. 











At least in American households, it is more common for girls to have dolls and domestic items (like toy vacuums!) than for boys. Conversely, boys have trucks or action figures: both associated with the social concept of speed and power. 


This is not to villainize children's toys but rather to examine the impacts of their messaging. By recognizing that gender is indeed a social construct that is dialectically constructed by social institutions, then, we can examine the breadth of the impact of familial interactions on the societal constrictions around gender. 


If young girls are given toys to simulate their domestic role; in play kitchens (a favourite of mine when I was younger) toy vacuums and grocery stores, then what are we setting them up for? Especially considering young boys are already encouraged to experiment with the social concept of prowess and strength. What are we informing our youth about their gender through these subconscious and perceived harmless differentiations? 

‘#BoyMoms,’ ‘#GirlDads and the In-Betweens 


Not being a parent myself, and having limited access to parents of this day and age, I ventured to the only other acceptable place to find any type of information: TikTok. Notwithstanding that the platform has little academic value due to its murky sources, it is a good indicator of evolving social attitudes and gauging public opinion. In the social media platform, a myriad of parenting subcategories are available, but one that stood out and has recently risen to prominence: ‘#BoyMoms’ is amongst the most popular. Firstly I erroneously believed perhaps these mothers would be raising their sons to not perpetuate patriarchal gender dynamics; with a sensitivity for women and our imposed strife under patriarchy.


This unfortunately is not the case. Instead, the hashtag is pejoratively filled with mothers exhibiting preferential treatment for their sons while propagating rhetoric that disparages other women and young girls.  Mothers creating videos under this hashtag spew the idea that their sons are virtually free of wrongdoing, and are preempting a bad encounter between their sons and other women. It is important to keep in mind furthermore, that these continue to be children (not above the age of 11 in most cases). Hence, their parents' behaviors inform their ideas about the world. This socialization perpetuates patriarchy by encouraging, for example, weaponized incompetence: when men or boys weaponize their incapability in order to scapegoat participating in household tasks. Mothers who engage in ‘toxic’ behaviors with their sons usually demonstrate deep-rooted internalized misogyny: wherein women have internalized patriarchy (thus misogynistic rhetoric) to such a degree they begin to spew it as well. This behavior is a way to appeal to patriarchy in order to escape its punishment.



Likewise, fathers demonstrate a skewed relationship with their daughters which perpetuates patriarchy within the confines of the familial institution. This, however, is a long-standing and familiar trope known as girl dad’s. If we are being honest this is just repackaged misogyny perhaps marketed as less harmless or more delicate: misogyny but with a bow.  A girl dad in internet culture is perhaps one who is overprotective, demonstrates disdain towards his daughter's potential suitors, and whose main recourse is violence (at this point only against other men). The overprotectiveness of fathers in this case is to protect their daughter’s perceived ‘purity’ which would be corrupted over the most innocent of interactions with other men (in this case specifically of boys). The relationship of protection implies a certain degree of ownership over a daughter's purity, given that the fathers seldom project a desire to protect young girls from explicit danger, but rather would want to keep them away from other men completely.













This type of explicitly gendered parenting, although not immediately overt, is inherently harmful and reductive, indicative of a categorically obsessed society. Far from juxtaposing the experience of raising a child of a different gender as a form of gender subversion, it emphasizes existing gendered structures that, in the familial sphere, are designed to confine women in an oppressed role. This pattern of new parents on social media, who categorize their parenting experience according to gender, aligns with the phenomena, as Michelle Obama put it: “Love our boys and raise our girls.”


Once again, the individuality, and more importantly, the personhood of the child is trumped by the enforcement of gender roles. Parents actively project gender roles onto their children, which include what they should expect or fear from the other gender. In this way, familial relationships heavily dictate and guide intergender relationships. 


The “Shouldness” of it All: 


So, should parents treat their girls and boys differently? This question becomes more controversial when we are confronted with the reality of a gendered world: that the world can be (and is) specifically cruel to women and that many boys are either blissfully unaware or become perpetrators themselves. To raise girls and boys differently from each other more often than not means to highlight the essentialized differences between genders that are only emphasized by larger social institutions. Then, assuming that the goal is to reach a society that is equalitarian and not cruel to women, children need not internalize gender roles from the onset. Most children, assuming they are within the able-bodied average, need similar things: love, comprehension, and nurturing by a safe parent. In the child’s developmental years, it is unnecessary to treat them any differently based on their assigned gender. This of course may be easier said than done given that the differences between genders have become essentialized and thus thought to be exhibited even by children. Que the difference in child’s clothing and even the blue-boys, and pink-girls categorization.


The Goal: 


Then, what is the goal? I must reiterate here my position as a person without children, but instead as an invested young person. To highlight the importance of a more so gender-neutral approach to raising children, or to at least avoid the toxicity that is found in much of gendered parenting is with the finality to heal the relationship between men and women, and deconstruct harmful gender stereotyping in the veins of society that harms the healthy assimilation of children in society. As remarked above, the familial sphere is an institution. The familial structure is the one which children have first contact with and thus has a primordial impact on their development. Hence, the familial structure has a unique potential for effective change in the internalization of gender by children. 



As we ponder the "shouldness" of treating boys and girls differently, we confront the reality of a gendered world—one that can be harsh for women while leaving boys either blissfully unaware or unwitting perpetrators. In striving for a society that is egalitarian and compassionate, it becomes apparent that differentiating between genders from an early age perpetuates essentialized differences. The call, then, is not only for a gender-neutral approach to parenting but also to dismantle the toxic narratives embedded in gendered upbringing. Embracing a vision where love, understanding, and nurturing are the common threads weaving through all children's lives, regardless of gender, becomes imperative. By fostering a more inclusive familial structure, we unlock the potential to heal the relationships between men and women and dismantle harmful gender stereotypes, thereby empowering the healthy assimilation of children into a more equitable society.


As we ponder the "shouldness" of treating boys and girls differently, we confront the reality of a gendered world—one that can be harsh for women while leaving boys either blissfully unaware or unwitting perpetrators. In striving for a society that is egalitarian and compassionate, it becomes apparent that differentiating between genders from an early age perpetuates essentialized differences. The call, then, is not only for a gender-neutral approach to parenting but also to dismantle the toxic narratives embedded in gendered upbringing. Embracing a vision where love, understanding, and nurturing are the common threads weaving through all children's lives, regardless of gender, becomes imperative. By fostering a more inclusive familial structure, we unlock the potential to heal the relationships between men and women and dismantle harmful gender stereotypes, thereby empowering the healthy assimilation of children into a more equitable society.

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