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Breaking binaries

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How one student took on the challenge of gender-neutral parenting. Gin Sexsmith reports

It’s not uncommon for expecting parents to be asked whether they’re having a baby boy or girl. As the due date gets closer, friends and family are often eager to have blue things ready for a boy, and pink for a girl.

But V.K., a third-year journalism student has rebelled against these norms of parenting. She is raising her four-year-old son Jamie without strict gender boundaries. She says this is part of an attempt to combat the patriarchal society that we live in.

Jamie has never had an all blue wardrobe, nor has he been bombarded with gender specific toys or TV shows.

V.K. lets her son express himself how he wants and makes sure she steers clear of restrictive male specific language like the word “snowman.”

Jamie has chosen to let his long brown hair hang freely and wears whatever he wants — even if others commonly mistake him for a girl.

“It’s not what I’m doing, it’s what I’m not doing,” she said. “I’m not imposing stereotypes, I’m not telling him to be a certain way.”

Instead, V.K. has let her son decide what he likes and how to define himself. Something she hopes will free him from the struggles and pressures that our society expects from men.

“We think of patriarchy affecting women, we don’t always think about how it affects our men. Men are also restricted in their own ways — they can’t express any kind of femininity,” she said.

Although Jamie has heard some of the criticism his mother has gotten from strangers who approach her, he is confident and calm about who he is.

Initially Jamie was enrolled in a conventional daycare, but V.K. pulled him out after three months. She noticed that her son was feeling isolated amongst the other children as well as by the teachers.

He now goes to ALPHA Alternative School, Toronto’s oldest alternative elementary school which prides itself on teaching children cooperation, social responsibility and freedom of expression.

Rebecca Lock, a contract instructor for the department

of sociology said it’s all about gender norms and whether people want to adhere to them.

Being raised gender neutral has to do with the values

conconcerning equality and giving children choices around gender.

“I think [it has to do with] the way people attach to gender, and we live in a society where we are attached to the binaries,” said Lock. “But not everyone is attached to the alignment, or maybe some people would like to change [it].”

Although children at Jamie’s new school sometimes mistake him for a girl, V.K. said he is self-assured and the children do not tease him.

“Jamie told me: ‘I don’t care if they think I’m a girl or a boy, or if they call me a she,’” said V.K. “But during the moments that he does care he’s confident enough to tell them ‘no, I’m a boy.’”

V.K. doesn’t believe you can expect an average university student to be accepting of blurred gender roles if they have been raised within our society’s strict binaries.

“Times are changing, men are being allowed to express themselves as parents and individuals, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet. These changes start with how people are raised,” she said. “It’s got to start young.”

Jamie hasn’t asked too many questions about how he is being raised, but V.K. said that she will be open with him once the inquiries start flowing.

“The idea that he’s questioning is good. It gives me a chance to tell him that we live in a male dominated society despite the fact that females are more than 50 per cent of the population,” she said.

V.K. said she read up on different education models before she ever decided to have a child.

When she had Jamie she already knew what kind of education she wanted to give him.

Her partner had no doubts about raising his son without distinct gender roles.

She also tries to provide him a balance of strong male and female protagonists in the books she reads to him to teach him the concepts of equality.

V.K. said that being raised this way will benefit him because she believes he’ll be comfortable with who he is and not fear looking silly if he wants to play or do a typically female activity.

But her parenting style is not as dramatic as Kathy Witterick and David Stocker’s baby Storm who is being raised without being identified as either male or female.

“It’s quite an experiment,” said V.K. “I don’t know what to make of it, but I strongly believe that parenting styles are very individual and that you really can’t judge.”

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