For nearly a century babies have been strongly connected to a gender classification. Pink for girls, and blue for boys. Parents are still to this day seen embracing this gender division by using the appropriate colors to decorate their nurseries, dress their children, or participate in a gender reveal party that usually involves biting into a cake or popping a balloon filled with gender-associated colors.
I had no idea how ingrained gender stereotypes were hardwired into my own parenting language until I realized that I was calling my son ‘Tough guy’ and my daughter ‘Little mouse’ or ‘the pixie’.
We’ve worked on changing our language to also focus on the strength and braveness of my daughter, along with the sweet kindness of my son because gender has nothing to do with any of these traits. Raising girl/boy twins has provided me with the advantage of seeing just how different socialization can be for little boys and girls, despite being the same age, and raised in the same house.
There is a growing number of parents who are moving toward gender-neutral parenting, with a select number avoiding disclosing the gender of their child until their child has decided it for themselves. While this may seem extreme to some, it’s an important evolution in the way that our society treats and raises children, and Gender Creative Parenting is becoming more and more prominent in modern life. Let’s take a look at why these parents decided to make the move to raise their children gender-neutral.
Julia is a mother who works in the male-dominated industry of engineering, who knows the struggles of pursuing a traditionally ‘blue’ career path. This helped guide her towards her decision about genderless parenting.
Julia says, “We read about how from when they're 20-week fetuses, they're already starting to be gendered, and people are calling the little girls ‘princesses,’ and buying certain things for different children. We wanted to prevent that, so that's how it started.
And then about a couple weeks before they were born, (my husband suggested), ‘What if we didn't tell people ever?’”
The Laxon family wanted to ensure that their child Sasha would not be persuaded by societal preconceptions, so they filled their home with gender-neutral toys and began referring to Sasha as ‘the infant’ as they put Sasha in both ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ clothing.
Miss Laxon said, "I wanted to avoid all that stereotyping. Stereotypes seem fundamentally stupid. Why would you want to slot people into boxes?”
The couple finally revealed Sasha’s gender when they began primary school when it became a challenge to conceal.
Mom Kyl Myers wanted to socialize her child in a way to promote change. Kyl says, “Gender socialization contributes to [gender] segregation, [gender] stereotypes, and micro-aggressions that result in gender inequalities in childhood and adulthood.
When people ask what to call their child they say to call Zoomer a “they-by”.
Kyl adds “By not revealing their [gender], and by treating them in a gender creative way, Z will have the freedom to explore and create their own identity, outside of the restrictions and expectations of traditional gender norms."
When parents place their children’s feelings before anything else it will be a positive experience. Dr. Jillian Roberts works with children and teenagers who are transitioning genders and says a strong support network is key to the health and success of these journeys.
Dr. Roberts says, “These kids feel confusion about why they were ‘placed in the wrong gender’ to begin with… that these bodies did not match their spirit.”
Dr. Roberts adds, that gender-neutral parenting may miss the mark, “These kids have never reported that they feel traumatized by initially being referred to by ‘him’ or ‘her.’ Therefore, I think it is unnecessary for parents to try and use terms like ‘theybys.'”
Don’t think there is a difference between how a child is treated when they are a boy or a girl? Gender neutral parent Ashlee Dean Willis has seen these biases play out first hand.
She writes, “In medical, social, and educational settings, I began to notice how differently people treated Nova when they assumed they were a boy versus when they assumed they were a girl. When Nova was assumed a boy, they were called “strong, brave, smart, and funny.” When Nova was assumed a girl, they were called “sweet, delicate, cute, kind.”
Ashlee notes that these types of interactions were simultaneously fascinating and unsettling.
Bex Laxton equates gender-based parenting to horoscopes, “what could be stupider than thinking there are 12 types of personality that depend on when you were born? It's so idiotic.” When gender impacts what kids are ‘allowed’ to wear, what toys, and who they can play with, it limits their options.
She adds, “I just want him to fulfill his potential, and I wouldn't push him in any direction. As long as he has good relationships and good friends, then nothing else matters does it?”
After the successes of raising her eldest in an open environment Ashlee Dean Willis dove full into gender-open life for her child, Nova.
Ashlee says, “What surprised me is how frustrated and confused people are by Nova's desire to be recognized as free of gender.”
This simple observation could be enough to inspire other parents to move toward gender open parenting and Ashlee adds, “I’ve been catapulted from gender-neutral parenting and have landed on a call to action to break down the gender binary altogether.”
Parents raising gender-neutral children admit that it can be challenging to get others on board when it comes to addressing their child using appropriate pronouns.
The Sharpe family explains how they helped others support this decision when addressing their child, “Since we've tried to avoid really getting into gender until they're old enough to understand it, I answered that ‘he’ and ‘she’ are pronouns and you use them to make sentences simpler, so instead of saying someone's name over and over in the sentence, you'll say ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’ instead.”
Ashlee Dean Willis speaks of not learning her child’s biological gender in 2005 when she first became a parent. They gave their child access to clothes with the colors of the rainbow and whatever toys they wanted – although they referred to her son as a boy, they expanded his world with choices that weren’t gender-specific.
She does not regret her decision and says, “12 years later, that child is an articulate, sensitive man-cub who is on the cusp of navigating gender and sexuality for himself for the first time. (Godspeed, kiddo).”
As much as parents stand by their decision to raise gender open kids, many admit that it puts up some roadblocks for their children in terms of fitting in, but still they say it’s worth it.
The Sharpe family says their parenting approach has led to some familial ostracism saying, “I discovered later that I'd been described as 'that loony woman who doesn't know whether her baby is a boy or a girl'.”
But adds of her child (who now identifies as a boy), “I don't think I'd do it if I thought it was going to make him unhappy, but at the moment he's not really bothered either way. We haven't had any difficult scenarios yet."
While reproductive organs determine a child’s gender, experts agree that gender-related traits, meaning a child self-identifying as masculine or feminine doesn’t happen until they’re around four years old. People have been socialized to believe this happens at birth, and since most people identify with the gender coinciding with the one determined a birth, they tend to think it happens at birth.
Development Psychologist Christia Spears Brown says, “The differences get larger as kids get older, which really suggests that its society and culture that are shaping the differences that we see — not innate differences from birth.”
While some experts see gender-open parenting as a progressive way to raise children, others worry what this means for children who live in a traditional community where non-gender conforming children are more likely to experience bullying.
Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience says, “Once your child meets the outer world, which may be daycare, or preschool, or grandparents — it's pretty much impossible to maintain a gender-free state, and depending on how conventional your community is, you could be setting your child up for bullying or exclusion.”
Miss Myers, Mom of gender-neutral child Zoomer, feels that the whole experience has been freeing and says, “If people don’t know Zoomer’s [gender], they can’t treat them like a boy or a girl, but rather, Z gets to be treated like the awesome little kid they are and experience a stereotype-free early childhood.”
Ms. Myers wrote on her blog that Zoomer would most likely select their gender by three or four, but that their parents would not be the ones determining this since it’s not their place to do so.
Since raising gender-neutral children is relatively new, experts aren’t yet able to weigh in on long-term impacts on the development, lives, and successes of these children.
Psychology lecturer Daragh McDermot says, “It's hard to say whether being raised gender-neutral will have any immediate or long-term psychological consequences for a child, purely because to date there is little empirical research examining this topic.
That being said, the family setting is only one source of gender-specific information and as children grow, their self-identity as male, female or gender-neutral will be influenced by school, socialisation with other children and adults, as well as mass media.”
For the most part authoritative parenting has gone out the window as parents work to build relationships with their kids from birth. Dr. Roberts says it’s imperative for parents to simply follow their child’s preferential leads instead of placing unnecessary terms on their heads.
If your child wants to play with a doll, let them, the same goes for cars, wearing pink, painting their nails or whatever else.
Dr. Roberts says, “Responding respectfully and openly to your child as they progress through development is what is important.”
Science says that the referrals of ‘he and she’ is all in our heads, but not even really in our brains. A study that looked at 1,400 brains surrounding gender found little differences with researchers finding, “29 brain regions that were different sizes in self-identifying males and self-identifying females. Upon closer individual examination, they found that very few had all of the brain features ascribed to their [gender]. In other words, there’s no such thing as an all-female or all-male brain.”
The lead researcher, Daphna Joel says, “There are not two types of brain. We separate girls and boys, men and women all the time. It’s wrong, not just politically, but scientifically — everyone is different.”
Brain researchers know that the human brain is most adaptable until age seven, although there is still plenty of time for rewiring the brain beyond this age, so gender-neutral parenting from a young age is sure to make an impact. While the child will not be sheltered from the outside world, complete with gender stereotypes, this will reinforce their home as a safe space to be themselves.
That doesn’t just need to be limited to gender, this creates a positive space for children to explore all facets of their personality and finding their true selves.
From Tiger Moms to Helicopter Parenting anything that is seen as trendy comes with an inherent stigma. Dr. Julie Romanowski is concerned that this movement could simply be seen as fashionable, which completely undermines what many gender open parents are working towards.
Dr. Romanowski says, “I would caution parents to make sure their intention is true and right if they choose to raise their child without gender.”
She also encouragingly adds, “But there’s no negative aspect [to doing this]. Gender shouldn’t be on the table when you’re talking to kids. You want to put the emphasis on the fact that they’re individuals and deserve to be honoured as such.”
It could be a sign of the times that fashion labels and retailers are also embracing gender-neutral fashion options and moving away from gendered labels on kid-focused toys and clothes. Stores such as Target and John Lewis are beginning to offer options that embrace all child interests without pushing pink for girls and blue for boys.
The more parents who push this type of parenting, the bigger the change we’ll see from smart businesses looking to support social causes and meet the needs of their clientele.
Sometimes it’s as simple as hearing it out of the mouth of a child, as they seem to get it. When gender-neutral child Nova is asked about their gender they simply say, “I’m a Nova!” or “I’m a human!”
Adults will then often ask the adults about the child’s gender, where the parents back up Nova and reiterate their answer.
Ashlee Dean Willis adds the importance of family in this parenting style saying, “Society may not yet be post-gender, but our home can easily be.”
References: Upworthy, Global News, The Telegraph, News Hub, NBC News, Parents