How gender-neutral parenting is picking up in urban India – Economic Times

Karen Alfonso’s two-year-old loves to play with a kitchen set and she often helps the child peel onions. The Mumbai-based media professional plans to get a doll for her toddler’s upcoming birthday. Malika Sadani’s 4-year-old is into dolls too. But her elder child, 7 years old, loves soccer and has never played with Barbies, says the Gurgaon-based cofounder of The Moms Co, a pre- and postnatal care products startup.

Gender stereotypes and years of conditioning would make most people think that Alfonso has a baby girl and that Sadani’s elder one is a boy and the younger one, a girl. In reality, Alfonso is planning to buy a doll for her baby boy, while Sadani has two daughters with different interests. Alfonso and Sadani are among the millennial mothers who represent a small section of urban Indian parents adopting gender-neutral ways to raise kids as individuals free from gender bias. (Disclaimer: Alfonso works with the Times Group which publishes The ET Magazine).

A pronounced trend in the West, gender-neutral parenting has picked up in urban India in the past two years, says clinical psychologist Varsha Makhija. Millennials — who have either grown up in a gender-discriminatory environment but want to change that or who have had a liberal upbringing and want to pass it onto the future generation — are teaching gender equality to their children, she says.

Parents are now dividing domestic chores equally among themselves so that children can learn that there are no gender-specific roles at home. They are narrating stories of inspiring women and nonviolent heroic men to teach children there is no concept called the weaker sex. These parents are open to letting their boys and girls choose the kind of toys they want — no more cars for boys and dolls for girls.

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The preference goes beyond toys. These urban millennial parents want to break the norm that pink is for girls and blue is for boys. “Gender-neutral upbringing empowers kids to be confident in their choices and expression. It makes them openminded individuals who can have stronger conversations to fight gender stereotypes and biases as they grow up,” says Makhija.

In the US and the UK, several millennial parents have stopped referring to the gender of their children, says an article in New York magazine. The children are now referred to as “theybies”. Sweden has seen several gender-neutral preschools come up over the last decade, says a report in The Guardian. Here, teachers refer to students either as “friends” or “hen” — a genderless Finnish pronoun. According to Google’s worldwide trends, regions like the US, the UK, Australia and Canada have seen interest in topics like gender-neutral toys and clothes peak over the past 12 months.

Brands in the children’s category have followed the trend. In the last two years, global retail chains such as Target, Toys ‘R’ Us and Walmart have replaced girl-boy toy aisles with gender-neutral toy sections. It is an interesting shift, given that brands had created these gender territories to sell more, says Amita Malhotra, cofounder of Candidly, a platform focusing on gender, media and culture, and their impact on children and young adults. Creating gender territories made business sense.

As sociologist Elizabeth Sweet said in a recent story on Marketplace.org: “By making separate gender-coded versions of a toy, you could sell each family with a boy and a girl multiple versions of the same toy.”

Brands extended this strategy to accessories for young adults too, says Ritu Gorai, founder of Journey About Mast Moms, a social support group for mothers. Gorai recently showed her 8-year-old girl a video that explains how razor companies charge five times more for a pink product. “I told her not to get influenced by such things.” This seems to be changing.

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A recent Kantar Media report says 40-45% of toy shoppers in the US prefer gender-neutral toys. This has made brands reverse age-old rules. Lego, Mattel and Hasbro recently said they would not do a gender-wise breakup of revenues. Lego and Mattel have also introduced male dolls and female action figures. Gap-owned Banana Republic launched a collection of genderless baby clothing a few years ago. Last November, singer-songwriter Celine Dion launched a gender-neutral clothing line with Israel-based unisex baby clothing retailer Nununu. Figures from Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects, reveal that people are proactively helping those who want to create genderneutral items for kids. In 2016, indie publisher Timbuktu Labs raised $675,614 on the platform — the highest a children’s publication has raised to date — to release Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a book that reinvented fairy tales through stories of inspiring women. In the same year, US startup Boy Story raised close to $30,000 on the crowd-funding platform to create male dolls, aimed at smashing gender barriers.

In India, the concept is nascent but is catching on. About 90% of customers of toymaker Brainsmith India don’t demand pink for girls or blue for boys anymore, says its cofounder Tejal Bajla. Brainsmith, besides selling toys online, also supplies to retailers like Hamley’s. “We have a cleaning set in baby-blue and pink. A few years ago, it would be considered a girly toy and therefore the pink one would sell more pieces. But the pink one just doesn’t sell anymore. Even Hamley’s takes only the babyblue ones because it looks better,” she says.

“A kid not exposed to gender biases, roles and stereotypes will look at the world differently from us,” wrote Deepika K, a Bengaluru-based marketer, in an Instagram post last year. In March 2018, she started a movement to promote gender-neutral parenting through a hashtag: #AGenerationWithout-GenderBias. “A parent truly has the ability to raise kids who believe, embrace and practise equality.” Deepika said she uses the hashtag to post about the little things she was doing at her end. “It could be buying my child gender-agnostic toys, or ensuring my partner and I truly share the load, or reading Rebel Girls to her instead of Cinderella.”

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That Rebel Girls has reached Indian households is a sign that the gender-neutral parenting wave is here. The book has become a rage in urban mommy circuits. Sadani, the Gurgaon-based entrepreneur, reads it to her daughters. Keya Khanvte, founder of a child-friendly travel company, gifts it to her friends’ sons and daughters on their birthdays. For her 6-year-old son, Khanvte, 34, bought Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different: True Tales of Amazing Boys Who Changed the World Without Killing Dragons. “I wanted him to have role models who are compassionate and not trigger-happy.” She then got him 101 Awesome Women Who Changed Our World, for a balanced view of the world. She is happy with the results. “When he was 4, his chess instructor once told him not to cry like a girl. ‘Don’t ever say that, sir’, he promptly replied. I was glad he could apply lessons from these books in real life.”

Candidly’s Malhotra applied lessons from these changing times to launch a line of gender-neutral merchandise for kids. In June, she set up EqualiTee in Delhi, which sells T-shirts, toys, dolls, building blocks and notepads. EqualiTee sells about 20 items a month. “Fests do considerably well for us,” says Malhotra. EqualiTee’s pop-up shop at Mumbai’s recent Kala Ghoda Festival sold close to 800 items in a week. Brainsmith India, meanwhile, is working on gender-neutral packaging – a cover showing a boy playing with a kitchen stove, for instance. Last November, Flipkart changed the gender filter in its toys sub-category to create a genderequal store. The top labels under the toys section now show genderneutral and educational toys. “Within a month, we saw a 5% reduction in the use of search terms like “toys for boys/girls”, “says Apuarv Sethi, director of brand marketing. Sethi has also seen a rise in search and sale of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) toys for girls in the last few months. Such toys were usually considered the preserve of boys. “As a father of a 5-year-old daughter, this change brings a smile to my face,” he says.

Topics related to gender-neutrality are being discussed by 2-5% of over two million Indian parents on BabyChakra’s online parenting platform. Parents from tier-3 towns are asking how to raise their daughters differently, says founder Naiyya Saggi. “Earlier, mothers would ask how do I make my daughter fairer. Now they want to know how to make her smarter and stronger.”

While all these reflect well on progressive parenting, the message a child receives on gender has to be consistent across home, school, society and among friends. Eliminating external bias is a daily fight for many, says Shakti Salgaokar, executive director of publishing company Kalnirnay, and a mother of 6-month-old twins. “How to respond to people who say my daughter is so dainty she’s going to be a heartbreaker, “Why can’t you say she will be a CEO one day?”

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Anamika Singh, 36, a Mumbai-based professional photographer, often hears from people that her 6-year-old son is “too feminine” because he knows more about Disney princesses than girls his age. Aarti Kapoor, 38, a former PR professional, gets flak for making her 4-year-old son look like a girl because she uses ‘girly’ clips to push back his long hair. Sadani’s daughters frequently ask her why their girlfriends have pink rooms with pink paraphernalia but they don’t. The challenge does not end there for gender-neutral parents. Biplab Dutta, father of a 5-year old, is India’s only male who is a certified baby-wearing educator. He teaches parents how to carry their babies properly using a ring sling – a baby carrier made of cloth that is turned into a sling. He was subjected to raised eyebrows every time he stepped out of the house carrying his son in that sling. “It was a struggle to explain to men, and people in general, that wearing your baby doesn¡¦t bring your masculinity down.”

The struggle is real, says psychologist Makhija. But it shouldn’t deter parents, she adds. “Even if 40 kids are empowered with the message of gender equality, they’ll create a ripple effect.”

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