Gender neutral parenting is getting a lot of a buzz lately, but it might not mean what you think it does.
Gender neutral parenting has become a hot topic in the last couple of years, with many people debating it before fully understanding it. Rather than trying to assess if gender neutral parenting is good or bad for children, I think we would do well to try to wrap our heads around what is actually happening in families with a less traditional approach to gender.
At two and a half, my own kid hasn’t expressed any particular feelings about gender. Like many parents who don’t want to push gender on their kids, my approach has been something of a hodgepodge. While I’ve decided to use the expected he/him pronouns, I’m trying very hard not to push all of my gendered expectations on a two-year-old.
This, for many folks, is weirdly radical. It is so different from what we’re used to, and all of the aggressively gendered images and messages we get around babies and children (blue for boys, pink for girls; sparkly My Little Pony for girls, muscled Incredible Hulk for boys), that it just feels kind of off. People see my reluctance to push my kid into masculinity and equate it with a vast range of other people’s parenting choices, from decorating all-gray nurseries to refusing to even reveal a newborn baby’s sex. “Gender neutral parenting” has become a buzzword, but no one seems to agree on what it means. My goal, then, is to demystify the terminology, so that we can talk about parenting techniques and trends with a bit more nuance and understanding.
Gendered parenting, which “refers to parental messages and behaviors that convey information about how girls and boys are supposed to behave,” is overwhelmingly the norm here in the U.S. And while “gender neutral parenting” is often used as a catch-all term for parenting outside of restrictive gender expectations, it can be a bit of a misnomer. In actuality, rather than looking at one unified movement — say “the gender neutral parenting movement,” which doesn’t exist as such — what we’re really seeing is a lot of individual ideas and parenting decisions. A lot of those ideas are far from neutral, but all of them deal with gender in a way that’s slightly outside the mainstream. To understand that, it’s important to accept that parenting is complicated, gender is complicated, so there will be a lot of different approaches.
First, we need to know what gender is. According to The Transgender Language Primer, gender is “a complex combination of roles, expressions, aesthetics, identities, performances, social interactions, and more that are assigned certain meanings by society. Gender is both self-defined and society-defined.” This can get a little complicated (because gender is complicated). It’s also important to understand what gender isn’t. Gender isn’t biological sex. So whether or not an infant is born with a penis is one fact about that child. Whether that child is considered a boy or a girl is another fact, even if our culture tends to assume that penis = boy.
In her book, Gender Neutral Parenting: Raising kids with the freedom to be themselves, Paige Lucas-Stannard defines gender neutral parenting as “the desire to not pigeonhole a child into a specific gender based solely on their biological sex” (emphasis mine). But that definition is broad and refers to a desire rather than a set of parenting practices. And including solely seems to imply that you can totally be a gender neutral parent while pushing your child toward one gender, as long as their sex is only part of the reason rather than the whole reason.
In practice, most gender neutral parenting is defined by two interconnected ideas.
This is the idea that children can and should determine their own gender. Frankly, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable.
In American culture, children are declared “a boy” or “a girl” based on external genitalia. Since sonograms have become popular, it’s become increasingly common to make this assignment before birth. The thing is, sonograms can be wrong, and both technicians and doctors can make mistakes. The whole thing rests on the premise that a child born with a visible penis will be best off being raised in a particular way, which includes being pushed toward thing that are considered masculine. For intersex and transgender kids, this isn’t always true, but it’s also not always true for cisgender kids (kids who continue to identify with the gender assigned to them at birth).
The best-known story of parents trying for gender self-determination is the family of Storm Stocker-Witterick. At the time of Storm’s birth, her parents chose not to share her biological sex with friends and family, because they wanted to give Storm the freedom to determine her own gender (as of this writing, Storm identifies as a girl). When the Toronto Star picked up the story, the family immediately faced backlash. Critics claimed the family was attempting to raise a “genderless” child, and one commenter even called it child abuse. The controversy around gender self-determination is intense. But the reality is that gender is culturally enforced, and plenty of children already don’t identify with the gender they were assigned.
Still, most parents who identify as “gender neutral” don’t take this idea as far as the Stocker-Witterick family does. For many, gender neutral parenting remains unknown territory, and those who believe in it as a concept often stop short of refusing to gender a child at all. For those interested in gender self-determination, Jane Ward, on her blog Feminist Pigs, has offered some concrete ways parents can nurture self-determination.
Freedom of expression and play
If you are arguing that a little boy should be able to wear a pink tutu if he wants to, you’re arguing for that child’s freedom of expression. This idea is related to self-determination; however, it isn’t really the same thing, because you can do it while still gendering your child. And in my experience, that is what most people do. They still refer to children born with penises as boys, and those born with vulvas as girls, but assert that “there’s no such thing as girls’ toys or boys’ toys.” Sometimes this is done preemptively. Lucas-Stannard’s book has an entire chapter called “Creating A Gender Diverse Environment,” which is all about making sure your kid has access to a wide variety of toys, including those we typically think of as gendered, regardless of their assigned gender. Ward goes further and suggests all children have both dresses and pants until they can choose for themselves.
However, most of the time, the push toward freedom of expression comes from the kid. This is the pretty straightforward idea that if kids show signs of not conforming to traditional gender roles, we should support them. Many advocates of gender neutral parenting got there because they had a child who didn’t clearly fit into the binary-gendered world of childhood. When their daughters wanted to do masculine things or their sons wanted to do feminine things, parents were faced with a decision: should they police this behavior or embrace it? My favorite example of this is the song “William Wants A Doll” from the 1972 classic album/book project Free To Be You And Me. William’s parents are not OK with the idea of their son having a doll, but by the end of the song he does get one. His father comes around when he sees that his son’s desire for a traditionally “feminine” toy is actually masculine. “William has a doll, ’cause someday he’s gonna be a father too.”
These two ideas — gender self-determination, and freedom of expression — bump up against each other in weird ways. In practice, gender neutral parenting is often a somewhat random combination of both ideas, and parenting practices related to them. Most parents take a little here and a little there and default to standard gendering the rest of the time. Some parents shy away from toys or clothing they see as too heavily gendered, while others embrace the whole spectrum of colors and ideas. All of this makes it almost impossible to nail down a working definition of “gender neutral parenting” at all. Terms like “gender-liberal parenting” and “gender-radical parenting” try to better define what is actually happening, but those terms haven’t caught on.
But when we conflate things as different as “refusing to gender an infant at all” and “allowing a boy to have a doll if he asks for one” as both being gender neutral, we make it tempting to see one as nothing more than a more extreme version of the other. And it makes it easy for critics to claim that such parents are attempting to raise children “without gender.” Images of very drab play rooms where all the toys are unfinished wood come to mind.
These different parenting practices have different goals. One parent’s goal may be to not assume every child identifies with their biological sex. Another parent might want to allow their child more freedom than they had. Another may want to let their daughter learn about science and their son learn nurturing skills. Understanding that there’s a wide range of goals can help demystify gender neutral parenting for everyone. Ultimately, parents should be able to make more informed and conscious decisions regarding gender and gendered expression. And hopefully everyone else can take a breath and realize this parenting “movement” is no more a dangerous experiment than aggressive gendering is.