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Gender-Neutral Parenting And The Larger Family

Posted: December 9, 2011

Gender-neutral parenting is always a challenge, but the Indian extended family makes it extra difficult. How do Indian moms manage?

By Nayantara Mallya

Whenever I read parenting books, I use most of the strategies they suggest with a huge pinch of salt. In the Indian cultural context, a parent is under constant scrutiny from the older generation. Especially when Indian moms are progressive regarding gender stereotypes, roles and responsibilities, it can lead to clashes, misunderstandings and compromises, all of which breed resentment and are not in the child’s best interest. Some Indian moms share their experiences and tips on gender-neutral parenting in the context of the extended family.

Ignoring gender stereotyping is tough for Indian moms

My mother can really upset me with some stereotypes she won’t let go of,” says Veena Ghoshal*, a Software Test Engineer. “My husband, son, daughter and I were in a car that turned turtle on a slippery road last year, and we all sustained minor injuries. More than the accident, my mother’s anxiety got to me. My daughter lost two teeth and my mother was worried about how it would affect her chances of marriage. She’s 5, for crying out loud!

Veena’s mother was also concerned that the concussion Veena’s 3 year old son suffered might affect his intelligence, and therefore his chances of getting an engineering seat, she recalls wryly. It’s very tough to ignore blatant slotting like this – girls get married and boys study and earn money.

Veena feels it’s important to challenge such statements and beliefs immediately and directly, to avoid the kids accepting or imbibing the messages. She has had several battles with her mother, but feels she’s lucky that her mother is sporting about it. “While it hasn’t changed her attitude much, I think it’s good for my kids to see me challenging her.”, Veena concludes.

It’s very tough to ignore blatant slotting like this – girls get married and boys study and earn money.

Sometimes, parents don’t face discouragement, but support – often times family tastes and likes will influence how the grandchildren are raised. Baisali Chatterjee Dutt, Freelance Editor, says that her husband’s family is very creative and artistically inclined. “Whenever my elder eight year old son gravitates towards anything to do with singing, acting or playing music, I’ve only met with encouragement, never insensitivity. I’m sure, had the family not been so musically involved, this might not have been the case,” she feels.

Live and let live

I just let my mother-in-law have her attitudes. I don’t consider it my job to be teaching an old ‘dog’ new tricks, but I’m very serious that my kids should not be influenced by her limiting ideas.”, says Jayanti Pai*. She makes sure her daughter Shweta*, aged 4 and son Shreyas*, aged 8, understand that their grandmother has a right to her ‘old-fashioned’ views. Meanwhile, Shreyas and Shweta are given exposure to activities, roles, skills and appropriate chores for kids, regardless of their grandmother’s disapproval. Jayanti adds, “It’s harder to do. It would be easier to just give up and keep the peace…but how will it help my kids in the long run? The older generation, mean as I might sound, is on its way out, as is ours. The future belongs to our kids, so why burden them with archaic attitudes?

Talk about it

Meenakshi Singh, a college professor in Bangalore does not live in a joint family, but her kids are taken care of after school by their grandmother. She states, “I get my husband to talk regularly with his mother. I think if you’re on somewhat of the same page with your spouse, it really helps show firm boundaries to elders. ‘Yes, we respect your views, but we’d like to raise our kids our way and with our attitudes’, is what he tells her, and he does it very lovingly.

Let them know your expectations

Grandparents can reinforce gender stereotypes unconsciously, and parents can help them be more aware by making clear what’s preferable to their sensibilities. Elders tend to gift based on gender, such as girly clothes that are pretty, gold and other jewellery, dolls and kitchen sets for their granddaughters, and guns, soldiers, blocks and sports gear for their grandsons. “My husband and I have told our parents to please give cash, or to consult us before they buy gifts, and that has been the best solution for us,” says Meenakshi.

Grandparents can reinforce gender stereotypes unconsciously, and parents can help them be more aware by making clear what’s preferable to their sensibilities.

It’s challenging to deal with extended family’s efforts to pass on stereotypical attitudes to young kids. Often, the messages kids receive from their grandparents are more influential than those they get from the peer group and media. Good communication while staying focused on what’s best for the children’s upbringing and potential certainly help in nipping gender stereotypes in the bud.

*Names changed on request

Photo Credit: Anuradha Sengupta (Used under a Creative Commons Attributions license)

I'm currently a communications specialist in the corporate world, and mom to a teen

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