‘Pink for girls, blue for boys’ has been a popular axiom in the starter pack for newbie parents. It still is, but given the due revolution on the gender and sexuality forefront, the guiding principle has retired to gender reveal parties as of late. With gender-creative parenting on the horizon comes the introduction of theybies—babies raised with they/them pronouns to foster a childhood free of norms on how one should dress, act and play. Deciding not to reveal the sex of their children at birth, parents of theybies seek to give them the ultimate autonomy of choosing their identity. Rightly so.
But on Instagram, the resultant quest for gender-neutral colours seems to have manifested alongside the rise of strategic minimalism. I’m talking about beautiful beiges, pristine taupes and immaculate creams—bleeding into everything from walls, floors and cribs to dressers, nightlights and baby monitors.
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Of course, no two nurseries are the same and there are still parents dotting rooms with trains, teddy bears and polka dots in bright yellows and reds. But a quick scroll through millions of posts under #nursery and #nurserydecor will plop you into a muted wonderland filled with macrame rainbows, elegant chandeliers and fluffy dreamcatchers.
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“Aesthetic moms,” the internet goes on to note. They love twinning with their kids and planning photoshoots with matching straw hats under the sun. They prefer chunky, knitted blankets and wooden toys over plastic ones. Backed with the aim of decorating nurseries as if they were cradled among the clouds, their colour palette is restricted to white, beige and tans. Red? Oh yeah, they love him from That ’70s Show. According to Twitter, aesthetic moms are also known for ignoring their kid’s request for a PAW Patrol birthday cake—instead opting for a 4-layered, barely-iced one decorated with twigs, leaves and jute banners for the ✨ aesthetics ✨.
“Being a mother can get chaotic quick,” reads one of the top posts under the hashtags. “So if you’re going to be in a room with a screaming baby might as well make it a peaceful one!” It makes sense… until science decides to butt in. How do visual histories impact our perceptions later in life? Is it true that babies see only black and white in the first place? Simply put, “what will happen to a generation of gray-bies raised in a world devoid of colour?”
According to Doctor Alice Skelton, a developmental colour scientist who works as a research fellow at the University of Sussex’s Baby Lab, it’s a myth that infants can only see in black and white. In fact, they have the same three colour receptors in their eyes as adults, but these receptors don’t work the same way. In an interview with WIRED, Doctor Skelton noted how babies can’t reliably see blues and yellows until they’re three months old. However, many are able to make out bright reds from birth. “Their colour vision is generally worse than an adult, so they need a much bigger difference between two colours to be able to see it,” she said. “It’s kind of like the saturation dial on the world has been turned down.”
In short, a colour needs to be fairly saturated for babies to see it. This is why toys targeted towards the demographic tend to be doused in bright, primary colours. According to Doctor Skelton, black and white toys also appeal to infants—given how they are also drawn to contrast. “Babies like high contrast because their vision is just generally poorer and the world is a lot blurrier, so it’s a reliable thing that they can pick out of the fog,” she explained. This essentially means beige and taupe nurseries “look just the same as gray or white” to babies.
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Now, before the internet jumps on with the sarcastic “does mother really know best?” version of the popular eulogy, let’s look at the role colour plays in our childhood. In 2007, a group of Norwegian scientists published a paper where they studied people born above the Arctic Circle—comparing those who had been born in autumn, when prolonged darkness exposed them to loads of artificial light, to those born in summer when there is no night. The study concluded that adults born in autumn showed “an overall decrease in colour sensitivity”—thereby arguing that “the environmental impact on colour vision may act early in infancy, in all likelihood during the first months of life.”
Doctor Skelton, however, explained that it’s more about how much and what impacts our visual perceptions in life rather than if it impacts it. The study, as noted by WIRED, clearly shows that there are ways that our perception is shaped by our visual history, but we’re still clueless about its impact on certain aspects of our lifestyle. “We can’t really say whether a baby with a bright blue nursery will grow up to perceive the world differently from a baby with a tan one,” the publication added.
That being said, Doctor Skelton believes beige and taupe nurseries aren’t “optimised” for babies, adding how finer details in monochromatic environments are practically invisible to infants. According to the expert, it’s probably okay to set up neutral nurseries “but it’s just a bit of a shame.” Sure, these babies are not holed up in 73 feet-high towers like Rapunzel and will definitely be exposed to plenty of colours out in the real world, but Doctor Skelton thinks people are underestimating babies and their vision. “Babies want to be looking at stuff, and they’re driven to seek out new information, so it’s a bit of a shame to not offer that to them,” she said. The expert has also demonstrated that the demographic spends longer time looking at intense colours than those that are washed out.
Yes, aesthetic moms, you might’ve been missing out on some parental hacks to keep your offspring engaged in your quest for aesthetics.
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On the other hand, Doctor Tricia Skoler, a psychology professor at City University of New York who studies infant brain development, loves everything about the neutral nursery trend. According to the expert, parents will be better able to foster joint attention to their children if they have a shared interest in their environment. “You don’t want to set up situations that we see so often where you have one area of the home that’s the child’s space and then you have the adult space somewhere else,” she explained. “I like to see toys that fit into the home, that it’s okay to leave your toys out because they look good.”
So, the final verdict? Aesthetic nurseries may be stimulating for Instagram but not as much for the ones that end up sleeping in them. But it’s not much of a concern—as long as babies are not locked in there all day. However, if you want an Instagrammable nursery but are worried about your child’s development, Doctor Skelton advises high-contrast prints with large detail rather than fine ones. “There are lots of rules of thumb—babies like to look at odd ones out, so if you had four flowers one way and then an upside-down flower, they’d find that engaging to look at,” she told WIRED.
After all, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to parenting. All science can do is merely nudge parents into what they deem best for their children. And, if you ask me, I still visualise those glow-in-the-dark galaxy stickers on my ceiling when I find it hard to sleep.
A few days ago, Grimes and Elon Musk welcomed their firstborn child named X Æ A-12. After the internet was done making memes about the newborn’s name and searching for its hidden meaning, people were quick to pick up on a significant detail about the child’s future upbringing: Grimes and Musk have decided to raise X Æ A-12 through gender-neutral parenting. What exactly is gender-neutral parenting and why should parents start considering it for their own kids?
In a live broadcast in February, Grimes explained that she and Musk wanted to adopt a gender-neutral parenting style in case their child doesn’t identify with their biological sex: “I don’t want to gender them in case that’s not how they feel in their life.” The pair is not the first celebrity couple to embrace this—Brangelina were openly supportive of their oldest child John (named Shiloh at birth) exploring their gender identity after saying they wished to be a boy. In 2017, Megan Fox was criticised by the media for allowing her two sons to wear dresses.
Although gender-neutral parenting is still frowned upon by most conservative and religious news outlets, more and more parents are ditching gender reveal parties in exchange for gender-neutral baby showers. Some countries are now allowing parents the option of labelling their children’s gender as ‘X’ on their birth certificates, and Sweden has even incorporated a gender-neutral pronoun, ‘hen’, into its vocabulary.
Gender-neutral parenting is about breaking away from the binary and allowing the youngest members of our society to explore their gender identity without any social restrictions. Because it is still new to our society, this parenting style comes in different forms. What exactly are the benefits of being a gender-neutral parent?
While ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are synonymous, they are not equivalent to one another. Sex is biological, whereas gender is social, performative and arguably, limiting. Philosopher Judith Butler first coined the term ‘gender performance’ in 1988, which defines gender as something learned and performed in our daily activities, purely based on the constructed notions of femininity or masculinity.
For instance in children, activities such as playing dress-up are seen as ‘girly’, whereas playing with toy cars is considered ‘boyish’—in the same way, the colour pink is exclusively associated with baby girls, and blue with boys.
Picking activities for your children depending on their assigned gender limits their self-expression. People who shamed Megan Fox for letting her sons wear dresses did exactly that. Many experts argue that this also negatively impacts the child’s personal growth and ability to reach their full potential later in life, as our childhood experiences and upbringing are formative to our development.
A 2016 study published in The Guardian article Gendered toys could deter girls from career in engineering, report says found that only 11 per cent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) toys were listed for girls, which was directly linked to the gender gap within the tech industry heavily dominated by men. There has since been a spike in marketing STEM-related products to girls, as well as in the representation of women in STEM as role models for young girls, but it is still important for us to ensure that it does not stop at that.
Stuti Agarwal, perhaps better known as @mombae.blogger on Instagram is a Mumbai-based parent blogger who frequently talks about the importance of gender-neutral parenting on her account. The mother to a two and a half year old boy and a six month old girl was also raised in a non gender-biased household.
Speaking to Screen Shot about how she has conversations around gender equality with her son, Agarwal says: “I try to make him learn to do all the housework, which is still traditionally taken as a woman’s job. Even though he is young, I keep telling him that he has to learn all of the skills because later on in life he will face problems if he doesn’t know the general basic skills like cooking.”
At the moment, Agarwal is teaching her son how to make roti from Play-Doh and has even bought him a kitchen set he loves playing with. Speaking about how their neighbours ridiculed the kitchen set as being a ‘girly’ activity, Agarwal responded: “Please don’t say things like that because I want to teach him that cooking is not a girl’s job—not just a girl’s job.” She explains that her children are “free to do what they want to do. My son can be a chef, my daughter can be a policewoman, whatever they want to be.”
While for many parents gender-neutral parenting is about removing gender stereotypes and fighting inequality, some parents are choosing to ditch the concept of gender altogether by keeping their child’s biological sex private from the public until the child makes a decision on how they identify.
Gen Zers are most familiar with non-binary pronouns and expressions, and more and more new gens are rejecting the gender binary themselves. Raising children as gender-neutral can provide them with a safe space and allow them freedom of expression without any restrictions.