Last Thursday, when I arrived at school to pick up the boys before the long weekend, Leif was wearing a hot pink skirt over his pants. They'd done some dress-up for Easter and he hadn't taken off the skirt yet. When I commented on it ("I love your pink skirt!"), he seemed pleased and proud, then continued to run around and climb things.
One of the many things we love about living in Sweden is the focus on and, to a large extent, realization of, gender equality. Not that it's perfect here and there's no room for improvement, but Sweden is light years ahead of most of the rest of the world, and especially the US (which ranks number 45 to Sweden's 4 in this report). (It always makes us laugh when we are at a dinner party with Swedish friends and they start discussing the gender inequality here—the things they see as major problems here would be giant leaps forward for the US!).
A side effect of gender equality is that it's much easier here to raise gender-neutral kids. (I should pause now and note that I'm speaking from our experience living in and near the capital city, and that I've heard people say that it's not the same in smaller towns and the countryside.) There's generally less focus here on raising little girls or little boys—we're all just raising children! Of course there are exceptions, and of course this changes as children get older; but we really appreciate that in the early years of our children's lives, there is less cultural pressure to be or behave in certain gendered ways.
The most obvious display of this is in children's clothing. Here, it's totally normal for girls to wear boy clothing and for boys to wear girl clothing. If a little boy has an older sister, for example, you are most likely to see him wearing hand-me-down purple overalls with a pink hat in winter. Younger brothers at our preschool are just as likely to be wearing Elsa t-shirts, frilly sleeves, or pink pants as any girl. Likewise, of course, it's common to see girls wearing hand-me-downs from their older brothers—though that's something you'll sometimes see in the US.
Contrast that to some of the comments we've received outside of Sweden: when we purchased a pink play couch when August was younger, one family member suggested that we'd also end up having to paying therapy bills (for letting him sit on a pink couch!). In another instance, August was asked what his favorite color was. "Pink and blue" he responded, and the person who had asked said, "What?!" and gasped and gaped at us, wondering if that could possibly be true (and ostensibly, how could we let that be true?). Here, boys show up in pink, purple, and even dresses, and no one bats an eye.
Recently I had to buy new fleece outfits for the kids, and the only ones in August's size on the sale rack were pink and purple. Guess what? He got new pink and purple fleece pants, and he loves them. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have had the guts to buy them if we lived in the US, but here, I didn't give it much thought.
Similarly, it is common to see little boys on playgrounds with long blond hair. Even though I was myself the mother of a long-haired boy for a long time (exhibit A, exhibit B), I'm still often mistaken when trying to identify a child's gender from afar. Again, here, it's just no big deal. In fact, when we started at our current preschool two years ago, the head teacher came to me, put her hand on my arm, and said, "Please don't ever cut his hair!" (We did eventually, but not for any gender-conforming reason.) Our families, however, always gave us a hard time about his hair length.
A friend notes that when she's at preschool picking up her son, and she sees the mass of young children playing and looks at the hooks where their clothes are stored, there are often no indicators of what gender the children are—nor does it matter.
Children's literature is a great place to look for characters who don't conform to traditionally-gendered traits. One of the world's most popular characters of of the genre comes from Sweden: Pippi Longstocking (here, Pippi Långstrump). Pippi is the strongest girl in the world, a totally self-possessed and quite unusual little girl. Another character in Swedish children's literature that I find fascinating is Bamse. Created in the 1960s, Bamse is the world's strongest bear—and he's also the world's kindest bear. Just hold that thought for a moment: the strongest is also the kindest. What a delightful combination.
Language sometimes reflects this neutrality, too. At his first preschool in Sweden, August was taught to use the word "friend" to refer to a classmate, rather than the Swedish equivalent of "he" or "she." As I remember, the reason for this was that the children were being taught to see their peers simply as other people, rather than specifically as girls or boys. They wanted the children to play with and treat their schoolmates the same regardless of their gender, and not to have their gender be a defining factor when talking about or thinking of them. I don't believe this is the practice everywhere, though.
There's even a new(ish) gender-neutral pronoun in Swedish, hen (han is the male pronoun and hon the female), though it isn't in widespread use quite yet, partly because its use can be political.
As an adult, I've noticed that here there are more women in fields that are traditionally predominantly male. It's not uncommon to see a woman jump down from the driver's seat of a dump truck, and Sweden has one of the world's highest representations of women in parliament. A friend pointed out that the sports page of the newspaper reports on women's and girls' sports with the same regularity as men's and boys'.
But this isn't to say that no gender stereotypes exist here, or that our children don't prefer things that traditionally appeal to boys. Their play preferences remain decidedly "boyish": from the first time August saw a construction truck, he's been in love with everything with wheels or wings. Their favorite toys are vehicles and building sets (Lego, MagnaTiles, regular blocks). We encourage them to play with anything that engages them, and don't care whether it's a a dump truck or a doll. They prefer t-shirts with construction vehicles and airplanes, and we let them have them. But we also let them have pink wool shirts decorated with hearts, too.
We appreciate living in a culture that engages and celebrates the child inside of them.
Let me ask: do boys wear pink where you live? Would you let your preschool-aged boys wear girls' clothing (or vice versa)? Have you had a different experience while living in Sweden? What's it like where you live?
Photos by me. Many thanks to Sophia and Lisa for thinking through this with me!
Another great thing Sweden does for new parents, and the best-ever gift for new parents.
Such a fun article and great topic to discuss! Thank you so much for sharing 🙂
I like your thoughts on this. As kids approach puberty they'll get a definite enough sense of gender identity. But as little kids, they have so much to observe and comprehend already. Every play activity is an educational experience so it seems backwards to say "this doll is not for you" or "this truck is not for you". Your post also got me thinking about the difference between ethics, courtesy and convention. I imagine its challenging enough to foster a sense of right from wrong and explain what manners are. But to teach kids convention? They're not dumb, they can observe for themselves what the majority of boys or girls do. Putting too much emphasis on what is conventional might give the wrong impression that whatever the majority does dictates the morally right thing. And God knows, its a long road back from that way of thinking... Anyway, kudos to you for raising thoughtful, creative, little free spirits. And for being straightforward enough to write this great post!
Thanks for this incredibly thoughtful response, Laura. You're right, kids will pick up on all of the conventions and expectations of their gender well before puberty—so why rush to start early? And further, why funnel them into a set of activities, toys, colors, and preferences simply because of gender, without letting them explore and discover what they intrinsically like?
Shauna | Linden & Lavender
I read this article some time ago now but wanted some time to give it a think before commenting. My assumption was that Canada is similar to Sweden in its approach to gender equality and raising gender neutral children. Observing children at the school and playground, however, I noticed that children here, at least in my city, dress in gender specific clothing. Some boys do wear pink here and there but I think that’s a reflection of men’s fashion in general as it is trendy to wear pink right now.
As a mother of 2 daughters, I cannot think of an outfit that they could wear in which it would not be obvious what gender they were or would be viewed as too boyish for a girl. However, your example of boys in pink skirts would certainly draw attention here. If I were the mother of sons, I admit I would hesitate to let them wear pink skirts outside the home for fear that someone would say something that would hurt my child. Call it the mother instinct but I think we’ve got some ways to go here before we reach the level of awareness/acceptance that is more the standard in Sweden.
Thank you for this thought provoking article!
It's funny what you realize once you start paying attention, right?
I have to admit that I don't know how strongly I'll encourage the boys wearing pink and purple when we visit family in the Midwest, or how long we'll be able to hold on in dressing baby girl in her brothers' hand-me-downs. It was really hard for me to watch my son become upset when his cousin questioned (teased?) him about his long hair—it makes me ask the question "What can I do to help my children develop the confidence and self-esteem to be totally okay in who they are and what they like?"