Are “Gender-Neutral” Spaces for Children Doing Anything?

Harrods–an internationally renowned department store in London–has changed the ways in which children encounter toys in the store. Rather than creating gender-specific areas and aisles, they have elected to group toys thematically. Harrods is calling it their “first gender-neutral toy department.” It’s interesting and wonderful to think that feminist critiques of toy store segregation might possibly be behind this move. I think it probably has much more to do with creating a children’s “fun zone” where you don’t realize that you’re actually shopping–though everything’s for sale. It did cause me to pause though and think about what the heck “gender-neutral” actually means.

My son–Ciaran–was born on April 4, 2011. Preparing for a child was an interesting process. Even before you start trying, you start reading (and there is NO shortage of material), and–if you live in the U.S.–you develop your “parenting philosophy.” This encompasses things like what research you support, agree with, or choose to acknowledge; whether you’ll be breastfeeding and for how long; whether you’ll allow your child to “cry it out” at night; and much much more. Lots of new parents think about gender. It’s something about which we thought a great deal. It’s not that we don’t want Ciaran to have a gender, or to be gendered, or even that we think that’s possible. But, we wanted to control some of the ways in which gender (as an organizing principle in the world around him) was introduced to him on a daily basis.

This issue becomes particularly important if you will need or want to rely on family and friends to help you buy some of the things you acquire when having a baby. Certainly clothing is gendered, but so are pacifiers, baby carriers, bottles, strollers, car seats, teething rings, crib sheets, mobiles, children’s books, most of children’s media (if you use it), toys, sleeping sacks, diaper bags, and more.

We responded in a way that I’m guessing is typical of many couples like us when asked, “So, what can we get for you?” We ended up sprinkling the phrase “gender neutral” into lots of those early conversations.

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