Hoo, boy. Leave it to Sweden to bring out my inner conservative:
[F]or many Swedes, gender equality is not enough. Many are pushing for the Nordic nation to be not simply gender-equal but gender-neutral. The idea is that the government and society should tolerate no distinctions at all between the sexes. This means on the narrow level that society should show sensitivity to people who don’t identify themselves as either male or female, including allowing any type of couple to marry. But that’s the least radical part of the project. What many gender-neutral activists are after is a society that entirely erases traditional gender roles and stereotypes at even the most mundane levels.
Activists are lobbying for parents to be able to choose any name for their children (there are currently just 170 legally recognized unisex names in Sweden). The idea is that names should not be at all tied to gender, so it would be acceptable for parents to, say, name a girl Jack or a boy Lisa. A Swedish children’s clothes company has removed the “boys” and “girls” sections in its stores, and the idea of dressing children in a gender-neutral manner has been widely discussed on parenting blogs. This Swedish toy catalog recently decided to switch things around, showing a boy in a Spiderman costume pushing a pink pram, while a girl in denim rides a yellow tractor.
Let’s start by sifting out the things I don’t actually mind here. I don’t mind a toy catalog showing kids playing with toys that are not typically associated with their gender. (Marlo Thomas sang about it ages ago.) I certainly don’t mind increased sensitivity to transgendered people. I mind parents giving their kids crazy names (you should see some of the humdingers I’ve come across in my relatively short career), but think they should have the freedom to do so, and find the idea of legally-recognized names noxious in any context. And I don’t mind the creation of a gender-neutral pronoun that allows us to abandon the clunky “he/she” construct when discussing matters that are genuinely gender-neutral. (I favor repurposing “they.”)
But you know what’s not genuinely gender-neutral? Life.
To those who feel gender equality or gender neutrality ought to be intrinsic to a modern society, it probably makes sense to argue for instilling such values at an early age. The Green Party has even suggested placing “gender pedagogues” in every preschool in Stockholm, the Swedish capital, who can act as watchdogs. But of course toddlers cannot weigh arguments for and against linguistic interventions and they do not conceive of or analyze gender roles in the way that adults do.
Ironically, in the effort to free Swedish children from so-called normative behavior, gender-neutral proponents are also subjecting them to a whole set of new rules and new norms as certain forms of play become taboo, language becomes regulated, and children’s interactions and attitudes are closely observed by teachers. One Swedish school got rid of its toy cars because boys “gender-coded” them and ascribed the cars higher status than other toys. Another preschool removed “free playtime” from its schedule because, as a pedagogue at the school put it, when children play freely “stereotypical gender patterns are born and cemented. In free play there is hierarchy, exclusion, and the seed to bullying.” And so every detail of children’s interactions gets micromanaged by concerned adults, who end up problematizing minute aspects of children’s lives, from how they form friendships to what games they play and what songs they sing.
I apologize for resorting to medical jargon, but sometimes only specialized terminology will do. In the world of pediatrics, we would refer to a plan that does away with free playtime for preschoolers as “cracked out.” To translate, that means any kind of behavior or choice that is so outlandish and obviously addle-brained as to warrant a urine drug screen. Like, say, telling toddlers that they are not allowed to play because you think they’re doing it “wrong.” The next thing you know they’ll be electrocuting them into all bouncing their balls at the same time.
Before I commence free-form ranting, I should offer the caveat that all of this is coming from Slate, and I’ve had my own issues with how that particular publication sometimes presents information. I don’t really know how prominent this movement is in Sweden, and I don’t mean to unfairly imply that all Swedes support this agenda. (I would be delighted to learn that the majority find it as preposterous as I do.) This may be much ado about nothing.
But insofar as there is really a movement to abolish all distinction between the genders, I find it ridiculous. Installing educational martinets in every school to prevent children from behaving according to their own innate playful desires is horrifying. As the parent of a small boy whose heart’s desire whenever we leave the house is to pass a dump truck or bulldozer and who thinks the coolest person in the world is the man at Lowe’s who drives the forklift, let me assure you that I did nothing to inculcate him with traditional gender norms. (I have joked while perhaps not 100% kidding that I strongly suspect God has a sense of humor, and that my son is destined to become a massive sports fan who will rapidly tire of having to explain to me over and over again what a “safety” is.) I have known many mothers who despaired because their daughters played with Barbies despite the mothers’ best intentions to prevent it. While I’ve said before that it’s hard to generalize from a sample size of 1, and that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” I’ve seen enough little boys and girls to know that generally they like to play with different things.
Furthermore, depriving children of unstructured playtime flies in the face of just about all the emerging studies about early childhood development. Children need to play. It’s how they learn. I pity the poor children in whichever Swedish preschool abolished their playtime. They are doing them no favors.
There seems to be some confusion between “equality of opportunity,” which is a goal I think is worth trying to achieve (with some skepticism about how successful we can ever hope our best efforts can be), and “sameness,” which is not. I do not think that it is valid to conflate “different” with “problematic.” Teaching children that men are superior to women is a problem. Teaching them that they are different will confirm what their own eyes are telling them, and will spare them the confusion that is guaranteed to result from well-intentioned but wrong-headed attempts to subvert biology.
Is unstructured playtime a ripe opportunity for exclusion and bullying? You bet. Which is why teachers should be vigilant, and should teach children how to play nicely together. Not all childhood play is salubrious. But doing away with playtime entirely or forcing children to play in a manner that we think they ought because of our adult conceptions is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I cannot believe that something so obvious needs saying.
Boys and girls should be allowed to play how they wish, whether it conforms to traditional norms or not. Boys who detest sports (like certain blog authors, back in the day) should not be forced to play them, and insofar as such play is part of their physical education the ill effects of their lack of skill or interest should be mitigated to the greatest extent possible. (I have nothing nice to say about the practice of allowing children to pick teams.) Boys who like to play with cars should be allowed to do so without being hectored about the oppressive gender stereotypes they’re enforcing. Ditto girls with dolls. If they want to play with them, let them. (Boys, too.) If they want to get bruised playing soccer with the boys, let them. And help them see through their playtime that people are different, and that different is just fine.
UPDATE: Per at least one Swede in the comments, this is all much ado about nothing, and is not really reflective of Swedish attitudes as a whole. Which is a relief, and adds to my growing disenchantment with Slate as a news source.