Can A Child Be Raised Free Of Gender Stereotypes? This Family Tried

Oct 2, 2017
Originally published on October 3, 2017 4:01 pm

Expectant parents often daydream about their children's future. What sports will they play in school? Will they become musicians, or scientists?

Royce and Jessica James had big dreams for their baby, too. But when an ultrasound revealed they were having a daughter, Jessica began to worry about how gender stereotypes would affect their child.

"I remember working at the Boys and Girls Club near our college and seeing the children, watching how they played and how they were able to play based on what they were wearing. And thinking, 'Those girls could also be up at the top of that playscape, swinging upside down, if they weren't wearing sandals and sundresses.'"

Jessica and Royce decided they weren't going to let clothing — or any other gender norms — limit their child's potential. So they said no to dresses given to them by family members and friends. They took the same approach with toys.

"We're not going to be getting her baby dolls and Barbies. We want her to have open-ended free play toys," she says.

This week on Hidden Brain, the story of a couple and the challenges they faced in trying to shield their child from gender stereotypes. And we meet their daughter, now sixteen years old, to hear her take on how she was raised.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Rhaina Cohen, Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Parth Shah, and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. There's a popular inspirational quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that's made its way on to T-shirts, mugs and posters - be the change you wish to see in the world. It's a noble idea. But the truth is, few of us follow it. Life gets in the way. We compromise. We delay. We put aside our idealism as youthful naivete. But what would happen if we didn't do this, if we stood fully by our principles? Plenty of people have tried. Julia Butterfly Hill spent two years in a redwood tree she named Luna to keep it safe from loggers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIA BUTTERFLY HILL: To some people I'm just a dirty, tree-hugging hippie. But I just - I can't imagine being able to take a chain saw to something like this.

VEDANTAM: And then there was LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher who defied the federal government and kept grazing his cattle on federal land after he was asked to remove them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVOY FINICUM: This fight I make in America, it's not about cows, and it's not about grass. It's about the freedom of our land. This grazing right is my personal property right. I own it.

VEDANTAM: Julia Butterfly Hill saved the tree after she and her supporters negotiated an agreement with the timber company. LaVoy Finicum was killed by Oregon State Police during a standoff on a federal wildlife refuge. Both said they had no choice but to take their drastic actions. It was a matter of principle.

But the truth is, in daily life, we often veer away from people like this. They can be exhausting, grating. They stick to their principles no matter how small the benefit or how great the cost. This week, we have the story of a couple with ideals that run just as deep, a couple who wanted to live their own lives based on what they believed without compromise and without regard for the consequences. It was far harder than they could have ever imagined.

JESSICA JAMES: There was a lot of loss involved.

VEDANTAM: What it takes to walk the walk, this week on HIDDEN BRAIN. Our story begins with two young people who decided to start their adult lives with service to the nation. In 1994, President Bill Clinton created AmeriCorps. It's a national community service program modeled after the Peace Corps. In a swearing-in ceremony on the front steps of the White House, Clinton told the first class of volunteers that they were giving new life to the values that bind Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: But when it is all said and done, it comes down to three simple questions. What is right? What is wrong? And what are we going to do about it? Today, you are doing what is right, turning your words into deeds.

VEDANTAM: Turning words into deeds - that was the idealistic goal made clear by the oath of service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: Let me ask all the AmeriCorps volunteers here to raise your hand and repeat after me. I will get things done for America.

AMERICORPS VOLUNTEERS: I will get things done for America.

CLINTON: To make our people safer, smarter and healthier.

AMERICORPS VOLUNTEERS: To make our people safer, smarter and healthier.

VEDANTAM: In exchange for a small living stipend and help with educational costs, AmeriCorps volunteers spend about a year in community service. They tutor disadvantaged kids, build homes in poor neighborhoods, provide maintenance in the national parks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: Faced with adversity, I will persevere.

AMERICORPS VOLUNTEERS: Faced with adversity, I will persevere.

CLINTON: I am an AmeriCorps member.

AMERICORPS VOLUNTEERS: I am an AmeriCorps member.

CLINTON: And I am going to get things done.

AMERICORPS VOLUNTEERS: And I am going to get things done.

CLINTON: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

VEDANTAM: In 1995, Jessica Carnes took the AmeriCorps oath. So did Royce James. Jessica had recently graduated from high school in New York. Royce was a Washington, D.C., native. They were both assigned to the AmeriCorps campus in Denver. The volunteers were housed together in the barracks of an old Air Force base. Jessica says when she first met Royce, she just really liked him.

J. JAMES: Royce was - Royce is a very handsome man (laughter), and a very loving and charismatic person. He was a leader in our campus community, getting all of the campus involved in extra service projects beyond what we needed to do.

VEDANTAM: Like teaching music to kids at the Boys & Girls Club. Jessica liked that, the way Royce jumped right in. When they weren't working, the volunteers hung out together. They played a lot of ultimate Frisbee. They bonded. Eventually, people began pairing up in the way that people do when they are young, and broke and helping the world. For Jessica and Royce, their connection started with a mishap.

J. JAMES: He hit me in the head with his Frisbee.

VEDANTAM: And then grew during an impromptu road trip with friends to Santa Fe.

J. JAMES: I just remember starting to look at him a little bit differently. Like, huh, that's a very, very good-looking man. I already knew he was a really good person and a really fun, good friend. I said - so that's probably where we - we probably fell in love in the land of enchantment - in New Mexico.

ROYCE JAMES: It just happened, you know? It was a definite - I'm looking at you in a different way and understanding you in a different way. I don't know if it was the atmosphere or the weekend, or, you know, just the clarity of not pushing so hard. And oftentimes, I find that's when my heart does the right thing. And I was lucky enough to be able to listen and have that reciprocated.

VEDANTAM: Jessica and Royce decided that once their time with AmeriCorps was over, they'd go to college at New Mexico State. They moved into an adobe apartment with a spiral staircase, and a classic New Mexico railing and turquoise. They loved it, and they loved the university.

R. JAMES: Jessica was getting a double major in women's studies and sociology. And I was doing my music, math minors with my physics major.

VEDANTAM: In the clear New Mexico evenings after class, they'd talk about what they were learning and the ideas and questions they were grappling with. They thought a lot about social justice, oppression, fairness.

R. JAMES: You know, what does it mean to exist and be a feminist? What does it mean to exist and be an activist? What does it mean to exist and be a proponent of rights for indigenous people? So, I mean, these were parts of our lives. And we just continued to have these types of conversations.

VEDANTAM: ...Conversations that lots of students have during college when late nights and cheap beer produce passionate arguments. The thing about Jessica and Royce is that they didn't see these issues as just debate fodder. This is who they were.

Royce, for instance, grew up with family stories of the civil rights movement. In 1960, his uncle Franklin McCain was one of four young black college freshmen who sat down at a whites-only Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Four college freshmen, all negroes, were refused service at a Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter, and the civil rights sit-in was born.

VEDANTAM: Over the coming days, the lunch counter protests grew and spread.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: More than 1,500 negroes were jailed over a period of several days, most of them students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical Institute (ph) and from Bennett College. Mr. Farmer (ph) said the entire Negro population - 40,000 - stood ready to go to jail.

VEDANTAM: The protests eventually led to the desegregation of lunch counters across the South - a major victory in the civil rights movement. Years later, Franklin McCain talked about his role as one of the Greensboro Four, as the young men came to be known. He said he acted because it was time to take a stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)]

FRANKLIN MCCAIN: If there is there something that you want to do, and in your heart, you know that it needs to be changed, modified or turned upside down, go ahead and do it. Don't follow your head. Don't follow your heart. Follow your gut.

VEDANTAM: Royce embraced his uncle's advice. It's one reason he pays such close attention to injustice and inequality. And he feels it in his own life. When he and Jessica sit down to eat at a restaurant today, as an interracial couple, they still experience remnants of prejudice from long ago.

R. JAMES: There's often times where the server will kind of look at both of us and really not know what to do because they don't know - wait, there's a white woman there and a black man. Who do I give the check to?

VEDANTAM: Jessica and Royce strongly felt that they wanted to live honest, open lives unencumbered by systems of bias and oppression. The more they talked, the more they were sure it was the right way to live. At school, Jessica came across an idea so powerful she couldn't stop thinking about it. For her undergraduate degree in women's studies, she began a research paper.

J. JAMES: ...About gender stratification in pre-K. And that was the - when I first recognized and started looking at the things that adults project onto children from birth that affects the way that children move through and experience the world.

VEDANTAM: Suddenly, Jessica began seeing how gender shapes all kinds of choices.

J. JAMES: I remember working at the Boys & Girls Club near our college and seeing the children, watching how they played and how they were able to play, you know, based on what they were wearing, and thinking, those girls could also be up at the top of that playscape swinging upside down if they weren't wearing sandals and sundresses.

VEDANTAM: A little earlier, Jessica had come to a similar insight about her own life. Like a lot of women, Jessica had always thought she was bad at math. Before starting college, she had to take remedial algebra. She expected to do poorly. One night, as she struggled with a problem, she asked Royce for help.

R. JAMES: I just remember I was writing a song at the time with my guitar. And I turned the paper over and said, well, just read it to me like it says. And I worked it out. And then I said, OK, well, let's go through it piece by piece. And she just needed the little confidence boost.

VEDANTAM: That's all it took - some confidence, someone who expected she could do it who didn't let her off the hook. Jessica began to wonder why, as a child, her teachers hadn't done the same thing - expected that she could be good at math.

J. JAMES: Looking back - and this is just me kind of when I was at this point in college and learning these new things - looking back on that experience of math, you know, early math, doing a long division problem and thinking maybe the teacher didn't - wasn't surprised that I couldn't solve that problem because I was a girl.

VEDANTAM: Her newly sown confidence made a difference in that remedial algebra class.

J. JAMES: And I got an A. And I was so amazed, and it changed the course of my experience and what I thought that I could even take in college.

VEDANTAM: Jessica added this experience to her mental catalog of biases. Gender, like race, is an accident of birth. So why does it define so much of what we can and cannot do? She and Royce began to mull over gender issues in their evening conversations. They felt they were opening their eyes to rules about how boys and girls are supposed to behave, rules so ingrained that people don't notice them anymore.

J. JAMES: These are the things that we're just steeped in in the world. I don't think we're encouraged to take a minute and think about how we decide to dress our babies, how we choose the favorite color for our babies depending on what their sex is. Or when you say that you're expecting, and somebody says, what is it? You know, and you don't answer with, well, it's a human. You know, you (laughter) - you're expected to answer with a particular - it's a boy, or it's a girl.

VEDANTAM: And Jessica believes that label - boy or girl...

J. JAMES: ...Shapes the whole experience of how the family and the community responds to the pregnancy, and the birth and the preparations. And so even just sitting with that - oh, my goodness, those are actual - those are maybe unconscious choices, but they are actually choices.

VEDANTAM: The young couple weren't planning on becoming parents anytime soon. In fact, after graduating from college, they headed to different cities. Royce was off to New London, Conn., to officer candidate school for the Coast Guard. Jessica took a job in Washington, D.C., as a statistician with the Census Bureau, thanks to her math success. She also made plans to start graduate school.

They saw each other when they could. Sometimes she'd go north to him. Sometimes he'd come south to her. It was after one of those visits that Jessica discovered she was pregnant. Royce was back in New London, and as a young officer candidate, he didn't have phone privileges.

J. JAMES: I had to send him a letter - FedEx.

(LAUGHTER)

R. JAMES: I'd forgotten all that. That's right. I got a - and I did, I got a letter, a FedEx letter that told me that we were pregnant.

VEDANTAM: They made new plans. Royce got a land-based assignment with the Coast Guard. Jessica put grad school on hold. They got married. They started preparing for the baby. Jessica wanted to have a pregnancy with minimal medical intervention, with one exception - an ultrasound. And that's how she learned she was carrying a girl. Suddenly, all those things about gender she'd made a mental note of, they felt very real.

J. JAMES: I started thinking about how I wanted to shape things a little bit differently from the very beginning.

VEDANTAM: Jessica didn't want her daughter to be lumped into a category. She didn't want a princess. She didn't want a baby in pink.

J. JAMES: I'd really like to give her a chance to figure out what even her favorite color is and figure out who she is as a person and not as an idea about what other people think she should be.

VEDANTAM: What Jessica wanted was to raise her daughter free from gender stereotypes. It's an idea that others have pondered for many decades. Back in the early 1970s, for instance, the author Lois Gould wrote a fictional account for Ms. magazine about a couple trying to raise a genderless child. The story of X created a sensation. It was eventually turned into a book and, in 2016, an animated short film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABY X")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Narrator) Once upon a time, a baby named X was born. This baby was named X because no one could tell whether it was a boy or girl. Its parents could tell, of course, but they couldn't tell anyone else. You see, it was all part of a very important, secret, scientific experiment known officially as Project Baby X.

VEDANTAM: In the story, X's parents keep hitting barriers as they try to raise the child without revealing its gender. Friends and family are furious that they aren't told what the baby is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABY X")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Narrator) There were other problems too - toys, for instance, and clothes. On his first shopping trip, Mr. Jones told the store clerk...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Mr. Jones) I need some clothes and toys for my new baby.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Narrator) The clerk smiled and said...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Well, now, is it a boy or a girl?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mr. Jones) It's an X.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Narrator) Mr. Jones said smiling back. But the clerk got all red in the face and said huffily...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Well, in that case, I'm afraid I can't help you, sir.

VEDANTAM: The point of the baby X tale is to highlight all the ways gender stereotypes act as rules for children, from the clothes they wear to the sports they play to the interests they're encouraged to pursue. Now, Royce and Jessica weren't trying to hide their daughter's gender. They just wanted her to grow up without all the stereotypes attached to being a girl.

Jessica devoured articles on gender and parenting. So did Royce, reading late into the night under his bed covers by flashlight. They didn't label their evolving child-rearing philosophy. But these days, we'd call it gender-neutral parenting. They had strong views on what would and wouldn't be good for their daughter.

J. JAMES: Toys. We had started talking about - you know, we're not going to be getting her baby dolls and Barbies. And we want her to have open-ended, free-play toys.

VEDANTAM: Like blocks and big Legos.

J. JAMES: ...And wanted toys that had animals and lots of bright colors instead of - bright primary colors, instead of just pastel pink and princess or fairy motifs.

VEDANTAM: And so they planned and waited. They decided on a name - Isis, after the fierce Egyptian goddess and symbol of powerful womanhood. Isis had her own plans. On November 7, 2000, she was born two months premature. She was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit, or the NICU. Now all that Royce and Jessica wanted was for Isis to survive.

R. JAMES: When Isis was in the neonatal, she needed to nurse every two hours. And so we lived less than a - little under a mile away. And so we had to go every two hours, which means that - and the feeding took a good, you know, 45 minutes from start to finish. And so - right - and so we would - and then we would go home, you know, catch 20 minutes, 30 minutes of sleep, get back up and go right back.

VEDANTAM: It was exhausting. And in this atmosphere of breathing machines and monitors, Jessica had her first big encounter with gender stereotypes. At one point, the nurses were concerned about both Isis and Jessica, and they made a suggestion.

J. JAMES: They said, you know what? I think you and the baby are stressed out. And I think that - why don't you let us give her a bottle, and you go home and take a nap? And we lived about a mile or so from the hospital. So I left my baby. And I think we probably had her, like, in yellow and green, maybe. I wasn't trying to dress her like a boy, you know? I just wanted to have what I considered to be neutral colors - had her in just some - a regular sleeper.

And I came back to find the little box that my little baby was in was shrouded in pink, and lace and fluff. And inside, my little baby had ribbons in her hair - I don't even know how this is possible - had been, like, dunked in a Pepto-Bismol bottle, in pink everything. And the nurses were so excited to see how I was going to react that they had done this nice thing for me (laughter) while I was at home resting. And I was horrified.

VEDANTAM: Now, Jessica's reaction might seem extreme. It was a gesture of kindness, after all. And Isis was just a newborn. She wouldn't remember. That's not how Jessica sees it.

J. JAMES: I was instantly validated in my anger by somebody who was visiting another baby nearby who turned and looked at my baby in my arms - my little pink baby doll - and said, oh, she's so precious, and delicate and dainty. And I was enraged. I said, you know what? We're in the NICU, and we want to go home. And we're not going for precious, and dainty and delicate. That's not what I want. We're going for strong, and powerful and healthy.

VEDANTAM: Language mattered to Jessica.

J. JAMES: I noticed that, from that moment, how other people would talk to her. And I felt - words are powerful. And right now, we're - we want all of our energy to be towards growth, and strength and power.

VEDANTAM: What Jessica was realizing is something marketers have long understood - language sends a powerful signal. We pulled some toy ads from the early 2000s, when Isis was a baby. And what we heard over and over were two distinct tones - one for boys and one for girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Hot Wheels leading the way.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: New Hot Wheels Thunder Roller racing game. Now you can take a Hot Wheels car and really drive it.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: Is that your baby sister?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: No, it's Hush Little Baby.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Hush little baby, I love you 'cause you do things real babies do.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: She's crying.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: She just wants a bottle.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: Hush Little Baby looks and sounds so real, you'll think she's a real baby.

VEDANTAM: To Jessica, messages like these were about much more than dolls and tea parties. The clothes Isis wore, even as a preemie in the NICU, changed the way the world behaved toward her.

J. JAMES: When my baby is in what people consider to be boys' clothes - yellow - they would say, oh, look at that strong baby. You know, you are doing great. You're growing so big and so fast. And when she was in that pink outfit, all the sudden, she was dainty and delicate.

VEDANTAM: Here was all the stuff that she'd read about made real. It galvanized Jessica to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, to be the change she wanted to see.

J. JAMES: I'm right (laughter). I'm right about this. And that's exactly what I want, I - not just now, not just getting strong enough to go home, and leave the hospital and be healthy. This is what I want for her for her whole life. I want her to feel like she is strong and powerful.

VEDANTAM: Jessica and Royce thought, if they could just make it past the NICU, the hardest part would be over. They were wrong. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is HIDDEN BRAIN. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When Jessica and Royce, a young interracial couple, found out they were having a daughter, they decided to raise her free of gender stereotypes. It was an idealistic goal that turned out to be far more complicated than they imagined. Their daughter, Isis, was born early and spent the first two weeks of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit. When Royce and Jessica left the hospital, they thought that things would get easier. But they quickly found that their choices for their own family sent people spinning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Here was Royce - a black man in a Coast Guard uniform, his biracial child in a sling. When strangers would peek at the child, Royce says, they'd look at him confused. And they'd say the same thing again and again.

R. JAMES: Oh, well, I can't tell what your baby is. And I'm like it's a baby (laughter). And so it's just that whole - not just the yearning to know what the sex was but not knowing how to interact in a situation without knowing what gender the baby was.

VEDANTAM: And this is what Jessica heard.

J. JAMES: Do you wish that your baby was a boy? Are you sad that you had a girl? And I was - what are you - where is that coming from? What do you mean? Of course I'm not sad that I have a girl. I'm so excited to have a girl. I just don't think that having a daughter has to mean this particular thing or that being a girl has to mean - like she's still a girl. She's still a girl if she's wearing bright primary colors and not wearing pink.

VEDANTAM: The subtle questioning grew, and it wasn't just strangers who didn't understand - who asked what's the big deal? Why make things so difficult? It was their own family.

J. JAMES: Well, we had family who were - who said, well - actually, you know, in sending another dress when we had said that we were not going to use it. And other people in the family said, you know what? You don't - fine, don't but take a picture of the baby in the dress, send them the picture and then give the dress away. And I said, no, I'm not going to do that. I don't want to do that. I don't feel like I should have to do that. And another dress came in the mail again, and we asked for them to send - you know, nobody has to buy you anything. But if somebody is spending their money on you and ask you - they would ask us for suggestions. And we would try to give other suggestions of things that we needed and were still - we were still instead receiving these dresses.

And this family member's feelings became - were really hurt. And they said that they were not sure if they could have a relationship with our daughter if they were not going to be able to understand how to relate to her. I didn't understand what dresses had to do with how they were going to relate to her, but it obviously triggered some really emotional reactions in some of our family members.

VEDANTAM: Emotional reactions they never expected. It was as if others took their decisions regarding Isis as a personal insult. To strangers, they were insufferable, politically correct do-gooders. To family, they were causing trouble, maybe even harming their little girl. Jessica and Royce felt they were fighting a tide of unconscious biases. But everyone seemed to think they were the problem. And sometimes when they fought against one norm, they ran into problems with another. Jessica tells of one particularly painful interaction after Isis decided she wanted to cut her hair.

J. JAMES: You know, my daughter wanted her hair cut short. And I didn't have any issue with that because it's her hair. And I was told - someone who I really respect and care about and love told me that it was inappropriate for me to have done that because I don't have the ability to understand the cultural dynamics around black woman's hair and black girl's hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

J. JAMES: And she said, for instance, women who were slaves in the United States, their hair was shorn and cut short against their will. And so that was something that - you know, that we talk about triggers, right? This person seeing me cut my daughter's hair short was painful for her.

VEDANTAM: It was like that saying. They pulled on one thread, and the whole cloth started to unravel.

R. JAMES: This is, I think, what happens when you start to break social norms. Other unanticipated social norms also get broken, like lines of communication. And so it was really hard for us in the beginning. And we did - we felt ostracized, but we knew we were doing it to ourselves. And we also knew that it was important.

VEDANTAM: Still, that didn't make it any easier - especially with family. They became estranged from Royce's mother for many years. The tension with their siblings was thick.

J. JAMES: What we tried to say to our family is, this is not an assessment or judgment of you and how you choose to do things or how you may have chosen to do things in the past. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with what we want right now for this particular child - our first child - and our family.

VEDANTAM: Did you ever have any moments of self-doubt where you sort of said, you know, I'm - I might be hurting my child in the interest of some abstract intellectual goal?

J. JAMES: I mean having my daughter sobbing because a little boy wanted her to take her clothes off and prove that she's a girl on the playground because she has short hair and she's wearing primary colors and doesn't look like a girl. And of course, she wasn't going to do that. But the fact that somebody would even suggest that would be something that should be done - you know, that was horrifying and so that - there are those moments that - like, OK, is this something that we created? Is this a problem - or is this pain that we created for our daughter? And I would say no that pain was created by the idea that it matters. You know, the way that somebody moves in the world expressing their sex or gender or that - that even matters when you're playing on the playground. That's the issue. That's the problem.

VEDANTAM: Jessica and Royce never saw what they were doing as an experiment, nor were they trying to keep Isis from being feminine. They just wanted her to discover for herself what she wanted and not have a label restrict her choices.

J. JAMES: I felt like we were trying to give her as many opportunities to figure out what she really likes and who she really is, and her clothes and her toy - those are functional items. Those were not items that were meant to be an identity for her. Their - her coat was to keep her warm, her shoes were to keep her feet safe.

VEDANTAM: Still if Isis had wanted fancy impractical dresses when she was young, Jessica says she wouldn't have just said no.

J. JAMES: At a point where she expressed to me that she wants, you know, a Cinderella dress to wear, I would be curious about - like, to hear a little bit more about that. And then - you know, gosh, this poor kid. Then I'd be, like, well, you know, we got to try to find one that maybe wasn't made by other children in a factory at another (laughter) you know, another part of the world. So right. Sometimes, like, can we just - can we just go to Wal-Mart like everybody else and buy something?

VEDANTAM: But, of course, the answer is no. Royce and Jessica want to be the change even when it's hard.

J. JAMES: There was a lot of loss involved.

VEDANTAM: And yet when they wondered is it worth it, they came to the same conclusion that Julia Butterfly Hill reached as she defended her redwood tree, that Lavoy Finicum reached as he challenged the federal government and that Franklin McCain reached at that Woolworth lunch counter in 1960.

Yes, it is worth it.

R. JAMES: The personal choices that I make in fighting against those ideologies that I find problematic are absolutely because I find them problematic. And I use all - every means necessary I have to fighting those ideologies.

VEDANTAM: Jessica and Royce believe it's the little things. The ones that might at the time seem inconsequential. Those are the ones you need to pay attention to. Because in the end, systems of unfairness are just the sum of many small choices.

(SOUNBITE OF MUSIC)

J. JAMES: Change doesn't happen in dramatic moments. You know, when we're talking about trying to make long-term systematic shifts, these things happen in the little decisions that we make every day and the little interactions that we have every day. And the power of a system is such that I don't think that we're helpless victims in the system, but I think that the system has its own life force. There's a huge capitalist drive between having girls and women spend their time and energy on buying products and clothes to change the way that they look. So there are different kinds of driving forces in our lives. There are cultural norms that maybe we passed down with love, but maybe they were initially started by a marketer, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: After all the effort Royse and Jessica put in, I had to wonder, did any of it make a difference? Jessica and Royce believe it did. They felt that as Isis grew, she embraced and internalized the power that they were offering her. When we come back, we'll hear from Isis about how it turned out.

ISIS JAMES: One third I got from my dad. One third I got from my mom. And one third is all me.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We've been hearing about a couple, Royce and Jessica, who tried to keep gender stereotypes at bay as they raised their daughter. I got a chance to meet that daughter, Isis, when she and her family stopped by NPR on their way home from a month-long road trip.

J. JAMES: This is Isis.

VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar.

ISIS: Hi, Shankar, I'm Isis.

VEDANTAM: It's so nice to meet you.

ISIS: Nice to meet you too.

VEDANTAM: I feel like I know so much about you, Isis. I feel like I know you really well (laughter).

J. JAMES: She's being a really good sport too - just waking up and...

VEDANTAM: Isis is 16 now, thinking about college and her future. She's no longer an only child. She has three siblings.

J. JAMES: Yamai (ph) is 11. Olorun (ph) is 9.

OLORUN JAMES: I wanted them to guess.

J. JAMES: You wanted them to guess. And Sati (ph) is 5.

VEDANTAM: While the other kids and Jessica took a tour of NPR, Royce, Isis and I sat down together. Isis has a quick smile, a head full of curly locks and a sharp sense of humor.

ISIS: My mom is in divinity school. I like to joke that I dress more professionally than she does.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: What strikes me immediately about Isis is her self-confidence. It's just part of who she is. It also comes through in the stories she tells about her childhood. When she was just 3 years old, Isis decided she wanted to take horseback riding lessons. Her parents told her she was too young - that the minimum riding age at most stables was 5. But Isis was insistent, so they found an instructor who was willing to let her try.

ISIS: I got on, and this was the first time I'd ever ridden. And I was like, oh, my gosh, Mommy, I'm riding. And I hadn't realized yet that you shouldn't shout. And Bean (ph) was like, oh, my gosh, there's a child shouting on me and totally reared up. But I stuck my seat, and she came down. And I was still there and fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISIS: And John (ph) was like, OK, you can ride. And I've been riding ever since.

VEDANTAM: This is what Jessica and Royce wanted, what they dreamed of since Isis was in the neonatal intensive care unit - a strong and powerful daughter who knew her own mind. Another thing that Royce and Jessica did was to home-school Isis. It was one way they believed to give the child unfettered space to grow. Again, Royce says, it was about trying to keep unnecessary rules at bay.

R. JAMES: There's not a whole lot of you will do this, this and this. There's a lot of what do you want to talk about? What do you want to learn? Come ask me questions when you need help with figuring things out and varying degrees of that.

VEDANTAM: Royce comes from a family of educators, and many of them found these ideas unsettling.

R. JAMES: It's really easy, I think, to see how they could be alarmed by - you know, oh, gosh, Royce read some book, and now he's, like, going to ruin, you know, my niece (laughter). And so I think that it's - not that anybody ever said that to me out loud. I don't know if they thought that or not, but I could see how easily that could take - the idea can take shape in someone's head. There was a lot of questioning about, well, you know, how are you going to know that they know everything that they need to know in order to progress. What if they never learn to write, right? What if they never learn to read? What if they don't know how to do mathematics. And my pushback to that - or not even pushback - my answer was that, you know, naturally humans are curious. And when given space and time to have conversation, they're going to be curious about their world. And they're going to figure out ways to do things.

VEDANTAM: This is at the heart of Royce's educational philosophy. People do their best, he believes, when they're motivated by their own passion and drive.

R. JAMES: And I think that internal motivation is what actually serves you later when you're trying to do things like complex mathematics, complex science. So I really feel like this whole gender stratification really breaks down to how are you motivated.

VEDANTAM: Royce gives this example. When Isis was young, he often brought her with him when he was teaching at the Coast Guard Academy.

R. JAMES: When Isis would come to school with me, and I'd ask questions in my class to my college students - the cadets. And they may or may not know the answer, but they would be completely inhibited - or not paying attention - in class. And so Isis was doing both. She was paying attention, and she was uninhibited. So if I had asked a question, she would answer it.

And so the cadets would look at her - at this, you know, 6, 7 year old and say, how is she - you know, what are you doing at home to train her to where she - you know, she's got to be doing some major physics at home. And I was like, well, no, you know (laughter). She has a question about how the world works. Of course, we talk it through, and I have some insight that maybe other parents don't. But a lot of the stuff that I'm doing right now in this class, we've never even talked about - like we've never talked about fluids in Bernoulli's equation. And so - but she's answering questions because she's uninhibited, and she's not afraid to ask questions.

VEDANTAM: Isis excelled at math and science - and, of course, horseback riding. When she was in her early teens, Isis desperately wanted to attend a summer camp focused on large animal veterinary medicine. But the camp was too expensive. Rather than give up, Isis took the initiative to raise the money herself.

ISIS: So we set up a website for fundraising. I made - because I'm a fiber artist - so I made things for the people who gave a certain amount of money. And I went to this camp. It was my first time being away for more than a week, and it was a really awesome camp.

VEDANTAM: Isis is busy these days. Besides her academics, she has steady work walking dogs and cleaning stalls at the horse barn where she still rides. She loves to read books, and she does not much like the color pink.

ISIS: You know, I've never really been a pink person on the edge of appreciating purple. And my favorite color has always been blue.

VEDANTAM: And it is the kind of blue that leads Isis to a story about how sometimes it was hard growing up with parents who believed in gender-neutral clothes and toys. When Isis was eight - she told me - her parents agreed to buy her her first bike. At the store, she found her dream bike.

ISIS: It was my favorite color of blue. And it had, like, the skirt bend in it. And I just wanted it so badly, but my dad said no because my brother had been born.

VEDANTAM: Royce and Jessica believed in gender-neutral parenting for their son as well. A boy with a blue bike. That would just be following the usual script. Another thing Isis didn't mention is that the bike also had frills - obviously a no-go.

ISIS: I was so mad. But, you know, moved on got a bike that had a blue stripe on it which was OK (laughter). It was very devastating for an 8-year-old to not be able to get the bike that you wanted. But I can understand now.

VEDANTAM: Isis says it was sometimes painful to be raised in a gender-neutral way.

ISIS: Because I had to tell people that I wasn't a boy. And sometimes people wouldn't believe me when I said that I wasn't a boy especially children, which was ridiculous.

VEDANTAM: With her dad looking on, I asked Isis whether it had been too much.

Did you feel like your parents ever went too far?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISIS: Don't look at me like that.

R. JAMES: I'm just curious.

ISIS: You're putting on the pressure.

VEDANTAM: You sound like someone who can deal with pressure.

ISIS: Yes, that's why I did my pressure voice. But I don't know. I can't think of a specific time where it was like that. I think that I've - I think that they gave me the freedom that I needed. And I've never - they've never said blatantly no, you cannot wear this or no, you can absolutely not do this. And I can't - yeah, I think it's been generally pretty good.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Mainly, the stories that come tumbling out of Isis tell of a girl who lives her life with determination. She grew up climbing trees and digging worms for their chickens and helping her younger siblings. She's also surprisingly candid about her gender and her sexuality. When we sat down for our interview - like I do with all guests - I asked Isis to introduce herself. Here's what she said.

ISIS: I'm Isis James Carnes. I'm 16 years old. My pronouns are she, her and hers. I identify sexually as bisexual.

VEDANTAM: It was a powerful moment. Isis seems to know who she is. She is a girl and yet she doesn't seem at all confined by traditional gender constraints. She can like boys and girls. She is comfortable in riding boots and in high heels. She can be herself. So one of the things that has fascinated me, and I've been always wondering as I talked with your parents is, I mean, you've obviously turned into a wonderful young woman. You are self-confident, you're, you know, you're happy. You're cheerful, you explore things. I mean, you are every parent's dream child.

ISIS: Thank you.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering, would you have turned out differently if they had parented you differently? Or is just - is it possible this is just who Isis is? This is actually not Royce and Jessica's doing. This is actually all you.

ISIS: Well, this turns into nature versus nurture, which is a very complicated and highly arguable idea that is through a lot of what we do. And so me personally, I believe that everyone has something that is totally your own. What I say is one third I got from my dad, one third I got from my mom and one third is all me.

VEDANTAM: And yet when you think about all of the ways in which the world shapes us, I think we are increasingly realizing that it's really difficult to disentangle the part of us that feels most like us that comes from us and the part of us that feels most like us that comes from the outside. And that they both feel exactly the same. They feel like this is who I am. And what we don't realize is that this is who I am can partly be a social construction, and it can partly be a biological construction and it can partly be a combination of those two things in ways that are quite unpredictable. And the question I want to ask you is, when your parents say we want her to be who she is - we want her to become who she wants to be. I've always wondered, does that assume that there is a person that we want to be outside of those social influences? Do you see what I'm saying? In other words, is there really something that is genuinely uncontaminated by the outside world that if we allow all of the outside world to be held at bay, that will come and flower up. Or is it actually the case that everything we are is actually shaped by the outside world and gender-neutral parenting is a choice just like any other choice, and it's going to shape things that you feel are truly intrinsic to yourself that might in fact be the product of your environment?

ISIS: Cause and effect is everything. So, you know, it's - I think, me personally, I believe for me to be myself to even have the concept of self. I need something that is inherently and undividedly, undiluted me. That's just me, and it will always be just me.

VEDANTAM: As their family has grown, Jessica and Royce have tried to maintain their beliefs. They still homeschool all their kids, they still buy clothes and toys that defy stereotypes and encourage exploration. It's gotten easier in some ways. There are more choices now - more parents doing what they do. But Royce says, they have also become less confrontational.

R. JAMES: It's almost like when we first become vegetarian, you are somewhat militant, (laughter) right? And then after a while, you just start to mellow out and - because you're - you can only be so militant. And so that definitely happened. The way we interacted with people became less militant. And I don't think that we were trying to be militant in the beginning. It just - that's just the way we were.

VEDANTAM: For her part, Jessica says, she spent a lot of time reflecting on the early days with Isis. She feels strongly they were doing the right thing, but she regrets how quickly they walked away from those who didn't understand what they were trying to do especially family. Things are much better now, but for a long time they weren't.

J. JAMES: Sometimes we were maybe too - we didn't change what we did, but we just kind of said all right. That's your choice, you know? And I think sometimes staying in relationship is staying in there when it - in those hard conversations for a longer. And that's what I wish that I had the courage to do.

VEDANTAM: But what they did do, also took courage. They were in a way pushing against the tide.

J. JAMES: When you do make a change, you feel the system respond to that change and sometimes fiercely.

VEDANTAM: After our chat, Isis and her family head to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. At the exhibit commemorating the Greensboro Floor, Royce pauses.

R. JAMES: Come one, guys. This is - this is your great-uncle.

VEDANTAM: He gathers his children around him.

R. JAMES: Yeah, that's your great-uncle right there and he says I had the most wonderful feeling. I had a feeling of liberation restored manhood. I had a natural high. And I truly felt almost invincible. Mind you, I was just sitting on a dumb stool and not having asked for service yet. It's Franklin McCain in 2009 - that's just before he died.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Royce and Jessica are idealists. They're also stubborn people who can come across to critics as rigid and dogmatic. Maybe you've met people like this in your own life. They make it difficult to go about business as usual. They can make a big deal over seemingly small issues and then stick to their positions with maddening ferocity. But when you think about how a culture evolves, it's because of people like Royce and Jessica. People who wake up one morning and decide they're going to be the change they want to see.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Lucy Perkins and Gabriela Saldivia. It was edited by Tara Boyle. We had original music from Ramtin Arablouei. Our team includes Renee Klahr, Parth Shah and Maggie Penman. Our unsung hero today is Camilla Smith. Camilla is a member of the NPR Foundation Board of Trustees, and she's been an early and vocal supporter of HIDDEN BRAIN. She's the very definition of an unsung hero. Camilla loves to work without drawing attention to herself. She sees far more than she lets on, and she's always generous with her encouragement. Every time I meet her, I feel more energized about my work. Thanks, Camilla.

For more HIDDEN BRAIN, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Next week on the show, we'll explore the signs around gender-neutral parenting. We look at what the research says about whether boys naturally gravitate to trucks and girls naturally gravitate to dolls. I hope you'll join us.

I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.