Gender neutral parenting is all the rage in certain circles these days, but it also has its detractors. Psychologists differ on the long term impacts of this recent trend and parents also disagree on whether it is even worth the effort to practice gender-neutral parenting. These differences extend to 2 of our writers who give differing views on gender-neutral parenting.
Okay boys and girls…Let’s talk about gender-neutral parenting (Sarah Karlovic)
My oldest went through a huge dinosaur phase. To our surprise, most of the dinosaur gear (clothes and toys) seemed to be targeted at little boys. Dinosaurs are fascinating no matter a child’s gender so dino gear should be placed in both departments. I’m just thankful she was too young to realize that she, a girl, was gravitating toward an interest people generally associated with boys.
In our house, our girls can like what they like. My youngest refuses to wear dresses so we stopped buying them for her and told our family the same. My oldest is still wild about dinosaurs but she also loves the Disney princesses. I thought my relaxed approach to their taste and interests was pretty progressive until I read about gender-neutral parenting and its wacky, free-spirited cousin, “Theyby Parenting.”
What is gender-neutral parenting?
Let’s unpack this a bit. The all-knowing wisdom of Wikipedia explains the distinction between sex and gender like this:
The distinction between sex and gender differentiates a person’s biological sex (the anatomy of an individual’s reproductive system…) from that person’s gender, which can refer to either social roles based on the sex of the person…or personal identification to one’s own gender based on an internal awareness.
In other words, a person’s sex is determined by their body parts and their gender is determined by their feelings.
The science of gender-neutral parenting
Gender-neutral parenting is a science-based approach to raising children absent of gender stereotypes beginning at birth. No foo-foo pink princess nurseries for girls and no navy-blue nautical themed nurseries for boys. They shy away from pink baby dolls for girls and monster trucks for boys. They won’t introduce anything that might perpetuate gender expectations. Why? Well in a July 2018 article by Jessica Salter in The Telegraph, she mentions children who were brought up with unforgiving gender stereotypes were more susceptible to mental and physical health problems during or after adolescence.
These findings about the adverse effects of imposing gender stereotypes aren’t completely new. In Sweden for example, there was a gender-neutral kindergarten reported on by the BBC’s Cordelia Hebblethwaite in July 2011. The teachers don’t say “boys and girls;” they don’t even use “she or he” when referring directly to the child. The BBC report interviewed clinical psychologist Linda Blair about the subject. While she admires the effort to not limit children based on their biological sex, she also worries about children having trouble with their identities at such a critical time in their life. Identifying as boy or girl is an integral part of their self-discovery and failure to acknowledge that could be confusing to the children.
There are some parents who find gender-neutral parenting to be insufficient. These parents practice something called “Theyby Parenting.” These parents do not tell family or friends their baby’s biological sex. The children are shielded from the entire concept of “he” or “she.” As infants, they wear gender-ambiguous clothing and as they grow older, they pick whatever they’d like to wear. This is called “Theyby Parenting” because the parents only refer to the children in “they or their” pronouns. The idea is that once the child is old enough to understand the concept of gender, they’ll pick the gender they feel is right for them. There is a Facebook group for Theyby parenting with 340 members. As one might suspect, this style is not without widespread criticism. Some have even gone so far as to call it child abuse. Because it’s so new, there are no published studies or evidence to suggest that Theyby parenting is beneficial or harmful.
Gender-neutral parenting is too much work
Suffice it to say, gender-neutral parenting and Theyby parenting is extra work added on to what is already known as the hardest job in the world. I’m certain these parents are just trying to do what’s best for their children based on their instincts and the information they have. Personally, I’ll continue to let my girls decide what they like, even though internally I get a little disappointed when they don’t wear matching Christmas dresses.
Gender-neutral parenting starts with us, the parents (Parul Mathur)
The phrase “gender-neutral parenting” may hold different meanings for different parents, but to me, it essentially is de-gendering your choices and more importantly your thought pattern on how you perceive gender. Lots of notions and stereotypical attributes come attached with preconceived ideas of gender. Breaking away from such typical boy-girl codes and adopting a relatively free approach when it comes to making personal choices is what we believe is gender-free parenting for us.
For us (as I speak for both me and my husband), gender-neutral parenting is not about killing the concept of gender as a whole, but rather learning to understand that gender is not some criteria used to discriminate between people, and one can choose clothes to wear, toys to play with, skills to learn, and friends to make irrespective of their gender.
How to make your home a gender-neutral place?
You can preach and tell your kids the idea of gender neutrality. But the purpose isn’t served by pushing your son to do ballet or sending your daughter for kick-boxing. What is needed is a shift in smaller and finer things that parents say and do in front of kids that truly impact them at a deeper level. Some simple actions will help you get there, one step at a time:
- Kids learn from both our actions and reactions. When kids see their mom and dad sharing housework without labelling certain tasks as women’s or men’s jobs and notice their parents taking bigger decisions together instead of one of them acting as the dominating head of the family, they learn to free such tasks from gender.
- Removing gender-based boundaries in most chores and activities at home helps kids see the value and importance of the chore itself and not as a duty that comes along with being a girl or boy.
- It is essential for every child to learn basic skills, from cooking, cleaning, changing a car tire to fixing a light bulb, mowing the lawn, etc., irrespective of their gender. The first step in encouraging them do so is to start doing it yourself. It’s never too late to learn to change a lightbulb or make a stew.
- Involve kids in all kinds of age appropriate work both inside and outside home. Involve them in activities ranging from cooking to cleaning to paying electricity bills and grocery shopping or fixing a leaking tap.
- Refrain from making gendered comments like “man up” or “crying like a girl” in front of your kids.
- And most importantly, let them make their own choices, especially in the clothes they wish to wear, the toys they wish to play with, or even the color of their bedroom walls. It’s OK for your girls to pick a doll to play with and your son to like blue as long as they don’t feel pressured to make these choices based on their gender.
Why choose a gender-free upbringing?
There are lots of discussions and studies on how beneficial it is to actually go gender-neutral in bringing up your kids. While debates may continue, there are certain definite benefits of gender-neutral parenting:
- When kids are exposed to making their own choices at a very early age it boosts the independence of their thoughts and beliefs.
- Freedom of views and beliefs helps develop improved ability of expressing opinions and feelings specially at an emotional level. For instance, a boy won’t shy away from expressing his sad feelings if he isn’t told “boys don’t cry” growing up.
- Children better evolved at understanding emotions grow up to be more sensitive towards other people’s feelings and sentiments.
- Liberty of choices also leads to better confidence and self-esteem.
- Kids that grow up in a gender-neutral environment also support and encourage a gender neutral approach at their work place and home leading to better acceptance of diversity and fewer glass ceilings.
The idea is not to make gender-neutral parenting an additional chore in your bottomless task list as a parent, but to get into a habit slowly by altering your approach towards already existing connotations that come with gender and make the future generation capable of identifying and growing themselves beyond their genders.