Parenting  •  February 19, 2018   

The Risk of Gender-Neutral Parenting

After Larry Summers got into hot water with his remarks on women and science, Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke held a public debate on the same topic. In his presentation, Pinker backed up everything Summers said, but Spelke argued that scientific evidence is still not good enough to assume that biological gender differences exist in our brains. Her position, therefore, is that we should assume no difference until science can prove otherwise. While this sounds logical, we can also draw the opposite conclusion given Spelke’s own arguments. That is, because science is still not 100% clear, why not assume that biological differences exist until proven otherwise? Why is assuming equality any better or safer? After all, we humans have raised boys and girls differently for practically our entire existence on earth. Why should sudden change be assumed safer? We should carefully examine this question because there are risks associated with making wrong assumptions.

On NPR, I heard a mother tell a story about how she motivated her children to clean their rooms. She turned it into a competition of who can clean the fastest. That worked great for her son but her daughter asked the rational question that ruined her scheme: “Why?” Why indeed. Most boys don’t ask this kind of question. Now, why do girls ask this but not boys?

Imagine a picture of a father and son practicing baseball with the sun setting behind them. The father has a bucket of balls next to him and keeps throwing them at his son, pushing him to hit them harder and harder. He eventually hits one perfectly and it flies over the father. They give each other a high five. They walk home talking about how well he did and what they should try next. This is a stereotypical image of a father and son.

Now, try to imagine a mother and daughter doing the same thing. We could imagine a father doing this with a daughter if she has boyish tendencies, but a mother and daughter doing this would be rather rare. The idea of fun between a mother and daughter is quite different. It generally does not involve mothers pushing daughters to perfect some skills that have no practical values. Girls generally avoid competitive situations because they can threaten the stability of their friendships.

In New York City, we don’t see a group of girls practicing skateboard tricks on the street. The vast majority of them are boys. They keep falling and embarrassing themselves but keep trying over and over. They push each other to perform tricks that have no practical values. The boys might think they are impressing the girls but many girls must be wondering, “Why do they do this? What’s the point?” Again, why indeed. If we were to ask this question rationally, there is no answer. It is indeed stupid.

I think the blind pursuit of skills is an essential part of masculinity. This masculinity exists in girls too but, for most of them, it’s not a strong drive. Men like to perfect their skills because skills allow them to have more power and control over their environments. This is why in most households, men are in charge of fixing mechanical things. They want to be in control of their own world. Women are more rational and practical; so they ask for help or delegate instead of investing the time to figure out how everything works. Men do not think about whether the investment of their time in acquiring these skills makes financial sense or not. They would spend hours learning about how to fix their cars, for instance. If they were to take into consideration the cost of their own time and labor, I’m sure it makes a lot more sense to simply take their cars to professional mechanics. But that would be missing the point. It’s not about money; it’s fun for them to master these skills even if they have no ambition of becoming an auto-mechanic. Again, men don’t ask why. The reason they hone their skills is self-evident to them.

Because it’s self-evident, when fathers keep pushing their sons to try harder, the sons don’t ask why either. The fathers’ disciplinary actions are interpreted as challenges and are part of the fun they have with each other. However, this can become a problem when the fathers try the same on their daughters because most girls do not have the innate drive to hone their skills without a purpose. Because they don’t understand why, they can misinterpret fathers’ behavior as mean, critical, or even abusive.

I myself just recently realized this in dealing with my own daughter. Unconsciously, I was trying to establish a father-and-son relationship with my daughter. I had assumed that, if I pushed her hard, she would respond back with enthusiasm. Without having the irrational desire to keep perfecting pointless skills, she wouldn’t understand my motivation. She would wonder, “Why is he doing this to me?”

What would be the politically correct answer here? What would a gender-neutral parent do in this situation? Treating my daughter like a boy isn’t gender-neutral, but at the same time, treating my daughter like a girl isn’t gender-neutral either. Many would probably assume that somewhere in-between is the right answer, but this is the assumption I want to question. Why is splitting the difference the best answer? Why not swing the other way, and help her master her femininity?

Today, with the ferocious political correctness, masculinity in general is labeled “toxic.” Boys are not taught or shown how to master their masculinity but to repress it. They are taught to deny their masculine impulses as if they do not exist in them. The consequences of this repression are naive manifestations of masculinity lasting far beyond childhood and adolescent. Men end up wielding masculinity like someone who just learned karate. Unconsciously, they abuse the power of masculinity because they’ve never learned to master it. By repressing masculinity, we create more sexual harassers and abusers.

The word “equality” has political connotations, so I would rather use the word “sameness” to be more careful. I believe men and women should have equal rights and opportunities, but I do not believe that we should assume sameness in boys and girls. They are different and the difference should be respected and encouraged. Otherwise, we end up raising men and women who do not understand the power of masculinity or femininity and naively and unconsciously abuse it.

Any form of power can be used for good or evil, and we all have powers we take for granted or don’t even recognize. Being white or having American citizenship, for instance, is a form of power. If we deny it, we are more likely to abuse it. To prevent abuse, we must first understand its power well. Masculinity and femininity are both equally powerful, but the nature of their power is not well understood in today’s society because we are so busy trying to pretend these forces are irrelevant or nonexistent. It’s as if we prefer to stare at computer monitors all day long so that we can pretend as if day and night don’t exist outside.

I’m not saying all boys should be automatically taught how to master masculinity and all girls femininity. Gender socialization is a problem only if it does not align with the natural drives of each child. Some girls have dominant masculine drives. I believe repressing them would have negative consequences. The same goes for boys who have dominant feminine drives. As a matter of fact, this is not limited to gender; children need help mastering their natural drives and impulses whether they are related to gender or not. We let the children take the lead, and we provide support in mastering their drives.

Many parents today practice gender-neutral parenting but it simply means they are not helping them master their own sexuality, and are sending them out to the world without understanding how powerful and dangerous it can be.