Sara Dimerman

Sara Dimerman is a psychologist and provides counselling to individuals, couples and families. She is one of North America's most trusted parenting and relationship experts and the author of three books: Am I a Normal Parent?, Character is The Key and How Can I Be Your Lover When I'm Too Busy Being Your Mother?: The Answer to Becoming Partners Again. Learn more or listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching for 'helpmesara' podcasts on iTunes or visiting Follow Sara on Twitter @helpmesara.
Boys Will Be Boys, and Girls Will Be Girls? The Pros and Cons of Gender Neutral Parenting
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Have you heard of GNP? No, not Gross National Product but Gender Neutral Parenting.

For most, the decision to adopt a gender neutral approach to parenting comes out the belief that we have a different code of expectations from the moment that we learn the biological sex of a child. Raising a gender-neutral child is a result of the parents’ desire to challenge gender stereotypes and to not pigeonhole a child based solely on his or her biological sex at birth. 

In an effort to eliminate, as much as possible, the impact that societal stereotypes or expectations have on individuals as result of their gender, some parents—especially those who have approached this in an extreme way—not only give their children gender neutral names but may not reveal the gender of their child to anyone until such time that it becomes difficult to keep it a secret (when they begin a pre-school program, for example).

The difficulty I have with adopting this parenting style in an extreme way is this: if parents clothe their child in various kinds of gendered clothes—both pants and dresses, for example—until the age at which the child is able to exert free will, choice and preference when selecting their own clothing, how can one be sure that when they choose an item from their closet, that this is truly their innate preference instead of merely continuing to choose what has been their norm? And what happens when, a boy, for example, ventures into the mostly gendered world that we live in wearing a tutu and hair barrettes? When he’s so young and does not understand the consequences of his decision, is this fair?

In her book, Gender Neutral Parenting: Raising kids with the freedom to be themselves, author Paige Lucas-Stannard explores the benefits of raising gender-neutral kids and tries to debunk myths such as the belief that GNP is anti-feminine or anti-masculine. In an article at, she writes that, ‘What we want to do is expose kids to a wide range of gender-types and give them the freedom to explore without judgment those that call to them’. When writing about toys, she writes that ‘If your daughter proudly proclaims that ‘dolls are for girls’ while playing, instead of correcting her, open a dialogue.’

I do agree that exposing our children to a variety of toys and allowing them to select those that are personally appealing provides them with the ability to broaden their skills and interests. So, regardless of the sex of your child, you may have dolls alongside trucks and a plastic tool kit.

When it comes to activities, it’s again helpful to accept that some boys may prefer ballet over soccer and vice versa and to try not to inhibit your child’s interests as a result of the sex that has been assigned to him or her.

While I may not be convinced that the merits of adopting this approach in its purest form outweigh the risks (confusion on the child’s part in regards to his or her gender identity and possible alienation within society), I believe that there may be benefits to adopting this approach in a milder manner.

Beyond toys and activities, we may want to consider the pressures and expectations society places on a child based on his or her gender.

There is pressure to conform on a physical level, such as expecting that boys not grow their hair beyond a certain length or that girls not get too dirty. And there are also emotional pressures such as the expectation that boys not cry, while girls are encouraged to be delicate and more empathic. The reality is that boys and girls (and men and women) feel the same intensity of emotion but many have been socialized to express these feelings differently.

So, if you’d prefer not to perpetuate gender stereotypes you may want to:

  • Consider how you model or debunk them. For example, is cooking and cleaning considered women’s work in your home, while dad mows the lawn and takes out the garbage?
  • Do you make comments such as ‘he’s such a boy?’ or ‘she’s such a little lady?’ or a ‘tomboy’? Consider how these might perpetuate how society perceives boy versus girl behaviour?
  • Is your son free to pick pink and purple as his favourite colours? Many men wear these colours handsomely.
  • When choosing story books, do you consider gender stereotyped messages in the story? Are only men depicted as construction workers? Only women as nurses? If so, you might want to let your child know that both sexes are mostly equally capable.
  • Are you planning on painting your daughter’s room pink? Your son’s room blue? How about something more gender neutral? Yellow or pale green for example.

By becoming more conscious of your expectations and working to change, you may encourage your child to explore individual likes and dislikes without fear of being reprimanded or judged strictly based on his or her gender.

Image of boys and girls from Shutterstock.

Comments | Tagged under parenting, girls, boys
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Sara Dimerman
July 21, 2014
Sara Dimerman
Would You Welcome the 1970's Back?
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For some kids, summer break means the beginning of overnight camp and boarding the camp-bound bus—some for the entire summer.

For many other students, summer means day camp, and day camp for most kids means sticking to a schedule—getting up at a specific time (sometimes even earlier than for school), making sure to meet the bus at a specific location and going to bed early enough to be alert and ready to do it all again the following morning.

A disciplined schedule such as the above is exactly what the blogger 4boysmother is recommending against in her blog post on May 29, 2014—where she offered ten ways she plans on giving her kids a ‘1970’s-style summer’. This, she said, includes letting the kids watch plenty of TV, letting them eat whatever they want, having them put on a talent show and making them play outside all day.

I was asked by a national radio station to comment on this blog and to respond to the question, ‘Does a 1970’s summer work in 2014?’ My response, in part, was ‘It might….if you can get your kids away from their electronics, out of their bedrooms and outside.’ Left to their own devices, as the blogger suggests, my guess is that most of our children would rarely see the light of day during the summer months.

One way of ensuring that your children put away their electronics is to establish family rules around screen time. For example, a rule such as ‘no devices or screens between noon and five’ might be hard at first, but will encourage your family members to find other ways to entertain themselves and each other. Or how about asking each child to think of a creative way to enjoy time outdoors on a specific day each week and then trying his or her idea out with siblings or neighbours? Then, help them create a book of their ideas that can be added to each summer.

The other part of my response was in regards to the working mom in 2014 compared to the mom of the 1970’s.  Over forty years ago, most moms were stay-at-home. During the summer months, parents therefore could keep their kids at home and hang out with their kids—and probably other families—outside. Nowadays, finding a program to keep one’s kids busy and safe is not so much choice, but necessity. Although the blogger writes that it’s ok that the kids spend some unsupervised time alone, I think that this comment is, unlike the humorous way in which this blog is written, not very funny. Until one’s children are old enough to be left alone at home (and even then, most parents realize that leaving their teen alone all day is not the best option and that left to their own devices, they will likely sleep until 2 pm and stay up all night as a result), parents need to plan summer schedules in advance.

However, if your children are resisting being programmed all summer and you agree that it’s important to give them some down time to catch up on their sleep, stay up later with friends or just watch TV, but you still have to work outside the house, here are a couple of tips:

  • Create a co-operative of sorts. Find out which of your children’s friend’s moms or dads are stay-at-home, home for the summer, or taking a staycation from work and then create a schedule where each of you takes on the responsibility of a few kids for a week at a time. This way, the kids entertain one another while the parent supervises and your child doesn’t feel that his or her entire summer schedule is as rigid as during the school year.
  • If you need to leave the house early to get to work, and your children are younger and can’t be left alone but prefer not leave the house early with you, consider this:  hire a babysitter or ask a family member to arrive at your house before you leave a couple days each week or on a daily basis over a week or two. This way, instead of having to leave the house to go to a program every morning when you leave, your children can sleep in, awake at a more leisurely pace, and then stay in their pyjamas, if they wish, watching television or hanging out with the caregiver until you get home. 
  • If your child is a little bit older, perhaps he or she would like to help out at your office. If you’re self employed, maybe you can find ways to help your child feel responsible and productive. If you’re working for someone else, ask your employer if there are any odd jobs that need doing. If your child can make a little pocket money, even better. In addition, children love seeing where their parents work.
  • Consider whether there’s any chance of working a four day week during the summer months or shortening your day. This way your children may not have to be in the care of others for too long each day or you can all look forward to one day extra day together.

If you can, use the summer months as an opportunity for your children (and you) to take a break, to ‘chillax’ and to rejuvenate after a long school year of early mornings, homework and scheduled extra-curriculars. Whether you go away on a family vacation where you can re-connect, or stay closer to home to explore your own city as if you were tourists, the warm summer months are a great opportunity to relax your schedules and de-stress.

Image of kids outside from Shutterstock.

Comments | Tagged under parenting, summer, childcare
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