Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra: Gender-neutral parenting allows kids to explore nature and nurture
By Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra
“Look, Mom, Kabir is pretending to be a mommy!” My then-four-year-old daughter pointed enthusiastically at her year-old brother, who was lovingly pushing a doll stroller around the living room. He had carefully placed a toy baby in it.
My first reaction: overwhelming love; and my second: correcting my daughter. I told Mehar that little Kabir wasn’t pretending to be a mommy but to be a loving daddy. I reminded her how her own father plays that role. In short, age-appropriate words, I said: “Mommies and daddies both care for their children.”
She nodded. And let out another cry of joy as she saw Kabir pick up the “baby” and plant a kiss on its plastic cheek. “Look, Mommy, Kabir is kissing the baby just like Daddy kisses me.”
I let out a sigh of relief. As any parent can relate, it is a constant battle to “correct” children. It is a struggle to maintain a balance between overly correcting them and ignoring their actions. Apart from a general world consensus on teaching kids the basic courtesies, there is a debate and a book on how to approach every other topic.
But teaching gender equality (read pink and blue) doesn’t require a debate. There are no “girl things” and “boy things” for little children. Period. The colour pink, which has come to represent “girl things” like playing a princess, and the colour blue, which represents “boy things” like playing superheroes, are creating a further divide in the patriarchal power imbalance between a man and a woman. Thanks to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor for stopping by Sesame Street to teach that being a princess is not really a job.
This divide is so deeply embedded in our products that it is a constant battle to educate kids about its emptiness. There is no pink or blue. They are simply colours of the same spectrum. And we need to allow our kids to pick a colour of their own liking.
I encourage both my children to pick their own. When my daughter Mehar was born in the summer of 2007, my husband and I decided to get her a healthy mix of age-appropriate toys, not “gender-appropriate”. For me, that term is a misnomer. Over the years, Mehar has gotten a mix of toy babies, princesses, building blocks, balls, stuffed animals, and, yes, cars. My husband ignored my instructions to buy small, soft play cars. Once he came back with a gigantic remote-controlled play truck for then-two-year-old Mehar. She delighted in taking her stuffed animals for a ride.
Mehar is now five-and-a-half and attends full-day kindergarten. She is a lovely, spirited child. She rarely walks in the house: always on her toes, she runs from room to room. She is always singing in joy, calling out to Daddy or me or to her little brother in a loud voice even for a simple conversation. As a friend remarked once, “She is a party in a box.” My evenings are spent asking her not to use a loud voice indoors, to save it, God forbid, for a situation that might be dangerous (and explaining what dangerous means).
She loves to create stuff. Her study nook is always piled high with paper crafts and discarded shreds of paper, and the tiny white table is shiny with glitter and glue projects. She loves to draw: her day at school, the movie she watched, daily conversations—everything finds an expression through her sketches.
She watches fairy tale movies but has a penchant for cartoon action flicks. One moment, she'll be "riding" around as a knight on her rocking horse—a play bucket for a helmet, a paper towel roll for a sword, a sheet wrapped around for armour—and the next hour, she'll be wearing her toy princess crown, with the "armour" transformed into a dress. One Halloween, she dressed as a princess, and for the last one, she was Bat Girl.
I love her imagination, her creativity, her carefree state of mind, the joy of just being herself and enjoying and savouring every moment. I admit, it gets a little challenging to steer her in regular life after some time, but I love the fact that she has so much zest for life.
And I admire her soft, nurturing side: she loves to fuss over her baby brother and is thrilled to have visitors with little ones.
Her little brother Kabir was born the day she turned three. Despite sharing their birth date, they are temperamentally different. Like all kids, they give us challenges in parenting, but we weren’t prepared for challenges Kabir threw at us.
His sharp mind works in overdrive. Mehar rarely gets into mischief, but Kabir is always creating mischief. We did what we never did with our daughter: installed three childproof security gates in the house. One gate cordons off the laundry area, one guards my study, and a five-metre wooden gate has been bolted into the walls to guard him from the gas fireplace and our big television (further protected from the impact of toy projectiles with a solid plastic sheet).
With Mehar, simply telling her that the fireplace was hot and dangerous with elaborate, scared facial expressions worked. Kabir just gave us a smirk. We thought the wooden gate would help. He soon defeated us. He grabbed his toy doctor box, put it upside-down, climbed on it, and voilà, he was swinging over the security gate. I had to hide the box. He was all of 23 months then.
He has used “tools” from his toy collection to open turn-and-twist door locks and has perched his chair on top of a regular chair to try and open the security latch on the main door. And he did all of this when he had only just turned two. Light on his feet, one doesn’t realize when he disappears quietly. One moment he is playing next to you and the next, he is trying to loosen the grip of the security gates.
So after three security gates and endless childproof locks throughout the house, we keep an eye on him—constantly. As the main stay-at-home parent, it’s a challenge for me to leave him unattended even for a bathroom break. My dear daughter steps in for that purpose. She has instructions to yell if he manages to get into mischief before I can make it back.