Expecting our first baby, my husband and I told my father-in-law that, whatever the sex of our unborn child, we would call it "Baby" - and raise it gender neutral. He saw through our pseudo-liberal joke immediately, but in lots of ways we weren't actually kidding. We are millennial parents (albeit at the elderly end of that cohort) and we were interested in ideas of bringing up our daughter without the life-limiting shackles of being assigned a pink dolly at birth, and so on.
To those parents who have already successfully raised perfectly capable humans without stressing about this, the whole concept of gender neutrality can be a bit of a marmalade dropper, or at the very least an eye-roller. At its more extreme end, it evokes stark images of children not being told what sex they are, banned from playing with the toys they crave, and dressed only in grey or khaki babywear.
But the issue is certainly trending at the moment. Celebrities such as Paloma Faith have said they will be raising their children gender neutral (Faith said she wouldn't reveal the sex of her first born, though it turned out that she meant "to the media", not to the child, as panicked headlines suggested). John Lewis stirred the pot further when it announced it would drop the labels "boys" and "girls" on its childrenswear.
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So it's fashionable, but backed up by research, too. One study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that children subject to strict gender expectations are at an increased risk for mental and physical health problems during and after adolescence. A separate study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that kids enrolled in the Sweden's gender-neutral kindergarten system had access to more opportunities, which the researchers predicted would equate to more success as adults.
Kids love to emulate adults. They love playing with mini-kitchens and pushing tiny buggies around because they see us doing those things
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There was also a BBC documentary last year, No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?, which followed a class of seven-year-olds. It observed that girls called themselves pretty, but had lower self-esteem than the boys, while boys had a limited vocabulary when describing their emotions. Wanting the best for our child (like all parents), my husband and I made a conscious effort to tell our daughter, from birth, how brave and strong and intelligent she was, instead of how "pretty" (it's quite hard to ascribe intelligence to an immobile spud that just feeds and sleeps, but we did our best); and we bought her the cult book Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls - about female astronauts, engineers and civil rights campaigners - along with toy cars and Lego and dinosaur baby-grows. Not a dolly in sight.
Our bemused parents played along, gamely. Not that either of them had raised us in a world of pink and princesses (me) or macho boy stuff (my husband). I was very into my dad's old toy cars, along with dolls, whereas my husband loved to draw and play sport. But somewhere between my childhood in the early Eighties and today, female childhood seemed to become saturated in a pink hue. And my generation of parents have felt the need to respond with campaigns like Pink Stinks and Let Toys be Toys. But have we taken it too far?
Helen Wills, the blogger actuallymummy.co.uk, who has a 13-year-old daughter, Maddie, and 11-year-old son, Evan, says that she sees "quite a lot of angst from parents of younger girls". Her advice? "Chill the heck out," she laughs. "The important thing is to be aware what they enjoy, expose them to everything and don't jump to the conclusion that if your little girl loves pink her mind's been warped by a patriarchal society."
While raising Maddie, Wills says, "I didn't actively encourage pink, but I didn't avoid it either; I just bought things that look nice," she says. "I didn't really buy stereotypical toys, although my daughter did have a doll's house because she was fascinated by other children's. But my son walked around with a pushchair, because that's what he wanted to play with."
And now? Maddie is, like many teenagers, into fashion, make-up and Instagram. "But there is zero chance she's going to be a pushover in the workplace because of that," Wills says. And Evan? "He might kill me for saying so, but because he loves Lego, when he did cross-stitch at school, he found that he enjoyed following a pattern and putting it together in that same way. And millennial pink has become very fashionable, so he wears pink T-shirts. If you treat your children as individuals, they will show you who they are."
Dr Stella Mavroveli, a personality psychologist from Imperial College London who has studied the gender differences between boys and girls, says that both sides of the gender neutral debate are guilty of extremism. "We have to accept that there are physical and psychological differences between men and women, and while as parents we need to allow our children to flourish and develop in an environment that is not too prescriptive, we do tend to gravitate towards the extremes, as of late. I wonder whether we will end up with children who are even more confused and fixed in their opinions and choices."
Dr Mavroveli, who has a two-year-old son herself, says she didn't push him towards so-called boys' toys, but he loves them anyway. "I never bought cars for him but I do allow him to choose toys that he wants and, at this age, he gravitates towards things like cars and diggers. At the end of the day, we are all striving to develop balanced children by accepting and understanding their individualities. If he wants to ride on his digger because he is fascinated by it, I will not stop him."
Emboldened by Dr Mavroveli and Wills (and the little voice inside my head), I watch how my daughter coos over the dolly pushchair at playgroup, and reason that actually, she's copying her mum and dad, rather than conforming to stereotypes. "Kids love to emulate adults," Elizabeth Davies, founder of The Mummy Coach, a personal training/doula service for mothers, agrees. "They love playing with mini-kitchens and pushing tiny buggies around because they see us doing those things."
And by not letting her have the choice to play with those toys, I've deprived her of half of the fun toys out there. So I relent, and buy my daughter a buggy of her own. But it is blue.