BOOK CLUB: CHILDHOOD UNLIMITED: PARENTING BEYOND THE GENDER BIAS BY VIRGINIA MENDEZ

Each month, our resident book club reviews a new must-read volume that will help to educate, inform, entertain, and thrill you.

This issue, Rhiannon D’Averc reads Childhood Unlimited: Parenting Beyond the Gender Bias by Virginia Mendez.

When I heard Virginia was launching a book aimed at the parents of young children, I knew immediately it was something I wanted to pick up. As a customer of thefeministshop.com

I had already come across her work, and by some kismet I just happened to have a five-month-old baby son when I first saw the news about the book.

Naturally, I was extremely interested. As part of our ongoing work in diversity, something which has always been a driving force behind the magazine and the content we choose to feature, I’ve already had many of my own conceptions about people challenged. And when we challenge stereotypes and assumptions, wonderful things can happen. For one huge example from my own life, I learned to stop seeing the word ‘disabled’ as dirty or shameful. When I stopped thinking that it would make me less-than or weak and embraced the fact I have a disability, it was freeing and actually empowering.

So, I knew the power that could come from unlearning those harmful stereotypes around gender – I just didn’t really know where to start when it comes to my child, except beyond the basic thing of not forcing him to wear blue every single day out of fear someone might think he is (gasp!) a girl.

The fantastic thing about Childhood Unlimited is that it starts from that basic position of not really knowing where to begin and gives you all the tools you need, from the ground up. And when I say tools, I mean every kind of tool you could imagine. Exercises to start recognising stereotypes around you. Things you can say and do with your children in order to start challenging stereotypes. Books to read. Videos to watch. Toys to buy (and those to avoid). Charities and organisations to interact with. This and much more, with so many recommendations in every chapter that my own copy is now marred with plenty of folded-over pages marking spots I know I need to come back to time and time again.

The format of the book is quite easy to digest, even though we have to tackle some parts of this subject which are quite scientific and sometimes difficult to understand from a layman’s perspective. By the end of each chapter, you feel like you’ve managed to find your way through it.

Each one starts with a premise, something that we need to learn or take action on when it comes to gender bias. Then we have lots of endnotes which tell us all about the data and studies behind the statements being made, which is incredibly useful for following up and checking the information – a key step for someone who wants to really be sure they are looking at statements of truth and not opinion. After this introductory part of the chapter, we’ll have an expert interview with someone who is uniquely positioned to speak on this particular part of the subject, with their recommendations and calls to action included in each case.

Each chapter ends with a summary of the key points made within it, and then a section headed ‘What to do next’ – giving actionable and insightful tips on what you can do as a parent, caregiver, or family member to a young child. There are specific sections for boys, for girls, and for trans children, allowing parents to explore all parts of the spectrum and see how their own child might experience the world in a biased vs a non-biased society.

The book is aimed at children who are between conception and the age of five years old – and as it explores in great depth, it’s alarming just how much stereotyping children as young as this are subjected to.

From the differences in clothing which may actually be harmful to development, to the messaging in books and children’s shows which limits their view of their place in the world… as a parent, I felt my heart rate rising when I read these passages. How could I not feel dismay about the idea of my child or children growing up in a world that tells them, from day one, what they can or cannot be?

It’s very interesting to read this book as the mother of a boy, because you do almost wonder how you can have much to do with feminism in terms of raising him, beyond just telling him that women should be treated equally and setting a good example. But as this book outlines, there is so much more that we as parents can be doing.

And though we don’t think about it often, the crushingly fixed stereotypes of masculinity and femininity do limit boys a great deal as well as limiting girls.

I found myself having to put the book down at times – not because it was boring or too heavy, but because I really needed to digest and process what I had read. In one chapter, Virginia talks about the way that clothing is coded right from day one for children – and how none of it makes sense.

None of it makes sense!

I was so inspired reading this chapter – thinking, yes, if Harry Styles can wear a skirt and I think that’s cool, then why can’t my son? – that I immediately went online and started wishlisting pink jumpers and onesies for the next time I need to buy him some new clothes. Because there’s no reasoning behind pink being for girls and blue being for boys. Even though I had already tried to go for gender neutral colours in my son’s wardrobe, reading this book opened my eyes to a reality I had been ignoring:

All colours are gender neutral.

Wow.

It’s incredible how deeply ingrained some of the stereotypes we hold about gender are. Even for myself, a person who considers themselves reasonably well-educated and very open-minded about the fluidity of gender, there were doors that had not yet been opened. Of course, I knew men could wear pink. I know men who wear pink. I’ve approved and published many photographs of male models wearing pink in the pages of this very magazine. So, why didn’t it occur to me that I could dress my boy in pink – my favourite colour?!

The great thing about Childhood Unlimited is that it’s very careful to give you space to have these realisations without feeling guilty about them. Parenting is a learning process, just like everything else in life. As the author tells us, it’s okay to have made mistakes in the past and it’s okay to make mistakes in the future. The point is that we always try our best. With this book in hand, I now feel much better-informed and better-armed about what doing my best can look like.

It’s thrilling to think that we live in a time when there is a market for this book. When parents are actually starting to push back against these stereotypes and harmful limitations.

I think about my son being able to wear a dress on non-uniform day at school some ten days in the future, if he wants to. I’d like to think he won’t get bullied for it. If more parents follow the tenets outlined in this book, it could actually become a reality, because we’re raising the generation that are going to be the next wave of this change.

And it’s not an ever-advancing wave of progress, either, as the book points out. There have been times in the past which were actually more accepting of fluidity in gender norms than the one we live in now. That’s quite a shocking thing to think, isn’t it? But it does highlight how important it is that we keep doing the work and showing up as examples for the children in our lives, as much as we can. Every change we make in them could be a change which continues on, passes down to their children too.

Ultimately, we all want the best for our children. Childhood Unlimited shows us that gender stereotypes are not at all the best for them – even for our boys, who appear to be getting the best of the situation but are actually being forced into boxes that can be incredibly harmful for their mental health and emotional development. And if our children can’t be happy when they’ve been raised with gender stereotypes, well, then we’d better start smashing those stereotypes down.

Finishing the book, I feel empowered and ready to make serious changes. I felt like I actually had the tools in my arsenal to bring out whenever anyone in the future might question my parenting – why my boy is wearing a pink skirt, why my (potential future) daughter might wear blue clothes with dinosaurs or tractors on, why they use inclusive person-based language instead of assuming gender when they meet someone new.

I actually know what to say in those circumstances. How incredible is that? To be given not just the way to make changes, but also the way to push back against those who might suggest the changes are wrong.

I can’t rave about this book enough, but I’ll leave it there in order to allow you to find out the rest by reading it yourself.

You might just get the opportunity to do that for free by entering our giveaway, the details of which are on the next few pages!

On the other hand, please consider purchasing a copy of this book yourself – so we can show publishers and retailers that the future we want is one in which our girls don’t feel they must quit their jobs to raise a family, our boys don’t feel they must hide their feelings no matter the cost, and our trans children don’t grow up feeling there must be something shamefully wrong with them.

Digestibility –  ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Actionability –⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Empowerment – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Childhood Unlimited – Parenting Beyond the Gender Bias: published by Sheldon Press, RRP £12.99, on sale now

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