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The Need for Gender-Neutral Parenting

A man cleaning | Image: Eroire

The menace of gender inequality that we struggle with within the Nigerian society largely stems from a dysfunctional parenting model that reinforces heterodox gender roles. This parenting model is deleterious to the fight of gender equality and inclusion, and it embodies a vicious cycle that is passed from generation to generation. We have to hack this archaic gender-based parenting because a family is the smallest unit of the society. The onus is on parents to change the gender narrative in the family to consequentially jumpstart an exponential change in the society.

It is important to note that understanding the difference between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ will help reorientate the concept of parenting. Gender is a social construct; gender is performed; it is learned — we are encultured with these traditional roles, but people largely misconstrue it to be natural. Our behavioural patterns are more about nurture than nature. Gender is sociological; sex is biological.

Growing up in the average Nigerian family, children of both sexes were raised differently. The girls were the homemakers — they handled the domestic chores — cooking, washing and cleaning. Parents emphasised to the girl child that the need for being domesticated was in preparation for marriage. Marriage was sold to her as early as the age of 11. The notion that marriage is the ultimate prize of womanhood was instilled by these parents — everything the girl child did was weighed on the scale of her ‘marriageability’. She was admonished to cook well, dress well, act and talk so demurely because she was going to be someone’s wife someday. These girls were groomed to shrink themselves and be the expression of men’s desires.

On the other hand, the boys were held to significantly lower standards of accountability. The boy would get back home from school, throw his uniform on the couch, but the average parent would most likely ask his sister to pick them up, being the girl and the one who was supposed to be homely. The boys were exempted from domestic chores; you’d find them playing football, while the girl was expected to cook and serve them. Even when the boy offended his sister, the average parent would shush her and ask her to be mindful of how she spoke to him because he is a man and should be respected. This model of parenting mirrors the reason a lot of men have a fragile ego; constantly seek women to masturbate this ego; feel less accountable; and feel entitled to respect without being deserving of it.

Furthermore, these boys inculcate toxic masculinity when their parents shame them for expressing their vulnerability or for expressing soft emotions. “Why are you crying? You’re a boy!”, “Man up”. These expectations mould boys to be emotionally constipated. Rage and aggression are deemed more suitable for masculinity than feelings of fear, (extreme) affection, and pity. This points to the reason there is a stigmatisation of male vulnerability.

The notion that women are more emotional than men is socially engineered and fostered in the family. Firstly, emotions are a full range of feelings from love, anger, affection to pity. But boys are socialised to show anger, aggression more and girls are socialised to show the softer feelings to suit the diffident construct of femininity. Boys and girls are all emotional, as a matter of fact; but they are groomed to show different emotions to fit into the social construct of their gender performance.

The repercussion of this gendered parenting is glaring in the social, economic and relational facets of human endeavours. These girls grow up to be timid and the reflection of male desires, desperate for marriage. The boys? They grow up to be less accountable, entitled, reeking of male supremacy, and emotionally messed up. This reflects in heterosexual relationships where men are held to lesser standards and women are expected to make the marriage work even with a totally unaccountable partner, because these girls were prepared for unprepared men.

This introduces the need for exigent gender-neutral parenting where roles are not based on sex. The boys should cook too; they should clean — teach them that domestic chores are basic survival skills that everyone should be able to do. Teach them that they are not entitled to female respect just because they are males; teach them to earn respect. Allow them to be vulnerable because they are humans: it’s okay for boys to cry. Let your girls grow without the pressure of trying to fit into the desires of men; they should never have to do anything because of male attention and admiration. Teach them to be bold, gritty, and never shrink themselves to accommodate men. Teach them that they are worthy of having dreams; that they are worthy of excellence in their career.

A lot of our parents largely failed in this regard and we have to deal with half-baked humans. The revolution we need will be born out of a more intentional gender-neutral parenting by our generation. Let’s break the “boys will always be boys..” culture. No, boys will always be how you train them to be. Toxicity is not inherent in masculinity; domestication is not inherent in femininity. Gender is an act we are taught, and for a better world where gender equality is feasible, parents need to realize that, more than grooming their kids, they are grooming someone’s friend, future partner, employee, employer. Then, they will only be a reflection of the internalized patterns we’ve instilled in them.

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