When dads see their child for the very first time they burst with pride – no matter what sex their youngster is. However, as they grow older, do fathers feel differently towards their boys and girls? Do they encourage them to take part in gender-specific activities and wear stereotypically boys’ or girls’ clothes?
In the past, little girls wore pink, were encouraged to be emotional, and played with dolls, while boys wore blue, didn’t cry and played up trees. But the idea of encouraging gender-specific identities is being displaced by a more individualistic approach to parenting.
Termed ‘gender-neutral parenting’ the concept is to not force any preconceived gender norms onto a child. But, in reality, is it that simple? We talk to three fathers who have both sexes…
ARTIST AND ILLUSTRATOR, JAKE BIGGIN, 42, IS DAD TO SAM, SIX, AND ALICE, THREE
‘Parenting has changed so much over the years. My generation is the first where dads are so hands-on – and my wife and I have made parenting up as we’ve gone along.
‘Sam, my eldest, is really sensitive, and until about three or four years old, he was happy playing with both girls and boys. But once he went to school, he came home with attitudes like: “Uggh, girls are silly”. It’s extraordinary to watch how he gets self-conscious if there’s something romantic on the television. He was watching Frozen recently and when Elsa transformed, he said, “Look daddy, look how beautiful she is”. But then he realised what he’d said, and got really embarrassed.’
ALL IN CONTEXT
‘Now, if he says something like, “That’s only for girls” I discourage it; in fact, I actively encourage the opposite. If he came home saying he wanted to wear a skirt, I’d say, “What colour?” Rather than it being a problem, it’s a question of context. I’m half-Scottish, so the men in my family have worn skirts for centuries!
I won’t put him in a skirt for school – I’m not going to put him in a position where he might be ridiculed – but, equally, I want to give him the freedom to do what he wants – within reason, of course!
‘Alice is very different from Sam. She’s confident and doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her. The amount of freedom I give them is less a question of their gender, and more about which child came first. You watch the firstborn like a hawk, whereas second time around, you’re less terrified about them growing up.’
GIRLS = WORRY
‘That said, I think a dad will always feel differently about his daughter than his son. When people say that your son is handsome, you’re proud, but when they say your daughter is beautiful, you’re worried – you know what boys’ minds are like because you’ve been there!
‘You may start out saying you’re not going to raise your kids with gender bias, but in the end it’s unavoidable.
The influences are everywhere – school, friends, the media… So you hope that as they grow older they’ll find the clarity to know what they want in life and the confidence to go for it. And that they’ll understand that whatever they want is fine – regardless of their gender.’
'Change your attitude about gender specific toys and colours. Let toys be toys, let colours be the rainbow and give your children freedom to express themselves with your acceptance. Neither of the above define your children.'
ROB KORTMAN, 43, A MANAGEMENT CONSULTANT, IS DAD TO JAIA, 12, MILEN, 10, KAMREN, SEVEN AND ALISHA, FIVE
‘Our kids have been brought up with a mix of cultures. I’m Dutch and my wife, Ramni, 41, is Indian. And while we have two girls and two boys, it’s our backgrounds that influence their ways in life, not their gender. Our eldest daughter, Jaia, and youngest son, Kamren, tend to naturally take on my Dutch behaviour and mannerisms – which are quiet yet a bit more direct and to the point; and our eldest son, Milen, and youngest daughter, Alisha, have Indian tendencies – they’re a lot more outgoing and social.
‘I grew up in a predominantly male environment – I have one brother but the majority of my 36 first cousins are male – I’m used to what little boys are like; sport-mad, love to cycle and then girls come along… So when my two sons get older, I know how they’ll be feeling and what tends to happen. Girls, though, are a whole different story! I’m dreading a boyfriend coming on the scene!’
‘When my eldest girl was born, one of my first feelings was instant worry; I felt a huge sense of protection. It’s not too bad now, though – I’ve had 12 years to get used to it.
‘When my first son was born, I just started thinking what great things we could do together. It may be a stereotype but boys tend to be able to take care of themselves, whereas I find girls need more protection. I’m more comfortable with the boys’ futures.
‘The world has changed so much since I was a kid. I remember the freedom of cycling to school from age five, (you still don’t have to wear helmets even now) and playing outside until late; that’s what it was like in Holland. However, these days in the UK, it seems there are more dangers to consider so we are much more protective towards our children.
‘My boys are a big bundle of energy, always bouncing around, and they naturally get told off more than the girls because they don’t seem to listen as well as my girls. The girls are more thoughtful and don’t have the need to rumble and tumble to get rid of their energy. They’re much more advanced socially, but with a bit more attitude than the boys.’
‘The girls are very much “pink” girls, but the boys don’t care; they choose and wear any colour. There’s no distinction between gender-specific games, and that’s down to how close they all are. One day they can all be playing with animal games, the next it’s Lego, and then they mix it up. I don’t mind what they play with as long as they are happy. They watch cartoons together, too, which is nice.
‘It’s great that, with four kids, they’ve always got someone to play with. I’m seeing bonds form more now that they are getting older, too. The eldest two get homework and do it together, and the youngest two still play together. When friends come over, they get integrated. The youngest is confident and joins in with whatever the boys and their friends are playing; she can be a tomboy at times.’
‘When we go to Indian weddings and functions, the girls love dressing up in the beautiful saris. The boys like being smart, too. I tend to say more often to the girls that they look great, but when they were younger and got dressed up in their princess outfits and the boys in their Star Wars gear, I complimented them all.
‘Alisha loves to know she looks nice; she favours positive reinforcements, while Jaia doesn’t really care. But the boys compliment their sisters, too.’
‘When the kids grow up, my worries might shift. There’s a saying about the fact you never lose a girl, she stays with you forever. But boys tend to lose contact with their parents as they grow up. They gravitate towards their partner and in-laws We’ll just have to see what happens.’
'There are no gender specifics when it comes to playing games'
WRITER AND PERFORMER JAMIE GLASSMAN, 44, IS DAD TO ELIJAH, FOUR, AND ESEM PEARL, TWO
‘My partner and I have always wanted to treat our kids the same as much as we possibly can, and try to avoid giving them strong gender identities. Our kids are pretty young, so maybe when they are older the gender differences will become more obvious, but even now they do have quite an awareness of their own gender. When they watch TV together and they see a boy and a girl on the screen, Eli will point to the boy and say: “That’s me”, and then point to the girl and say to Esme: “That’s you”. He’s always the boy, she’s always the girl.
‘Maybe seeing boys and girls being portrayed on TV influences them subconsciously. We think we’ve done nothing to encourage this gender awareness, but the interesting thing is that they have both naturally developed gender-specific tastes when it comes to games and playing. Eli is into cars, planes and trains, and Esme, from a very young age, decided that she likes dresses, skirts and pink. From the age of one and a half, Esme would put on a skirt and stand in front of the full-length mirror and twirl around. We laugh and wonder where she got this from; I’ve never seen her mum do that!’
‘I think that children learn a lot about gender identity from the other kids they come into contact with at nursery. I think Esme has decided that she really loves the colour pink because she’s noticed that a couple of the older girls at playgroup are really into pink, and she’s just decided that’s what girls do. I guess they naturally observe and copy what other kids are doing.
And she loves the colour so much that, of course, we’re not going to stop her if she wants to wear pink; I’d say that we indulge her passion for pink rather than actively encourage it.’
‘When it comes to reaching different milestones, Esme has been faster. I don’t know if that’s a gender thing or a younger child thing. The younger child sees their older sibling doing things and just wants to be doing them as well. With Eli, we were feeding him with a spoon until he was two and a half. Esme on the other hand was feeding herself at six months! She masters things faster, because she wants to be doing the same things as her big brother.
‘I get really proud when they do nice things for each other, when they start sharing and helping each other without us prompting them to do it. Those aren’t gender-specific actions, and that’s when I’m most proud.’
‘When I think about the future, I want the same for both of them: for them to be happy and healthy.
I hope that when they get to school age, it will be something they enjoy and not a chore.
‘I hope we wont be parents who discourage them from going down certain career paths because of their gender. But you don’t know what prejudices you’ve got subconsciously that you have unwittingly passed on to your children. Consciously, we try not to encourage them in any direction because of their gender, and to encourage them as equal individuals.’
Images: Shutterstock, Will Ireland