Not So Neutral on Gender Neutral Parenting

There is never a shortage of reactions to parents who attempt to raise their children in a gender neutral environment (i.e. raising children without the stereotyped notions of what is for girls & what is for boys). Responses run the gamut from confusion, shock, judgment, and disagreement, to support, acceptance, and understanding. But no matter what the reaction, everyone seems to have something to say.

Baby Storm & older brother Jazz. Photo via ABC News.com

Last spring, Kathy Witterick and David Stocker of Toronto made the decision to keep the sex of their 3rd child a secret, in an attempt to raise baby Storm in a more authentic gender neutral environment. While they never intended for their story to go viral, it did, sparking a plethora of articles that spawned thousands of comments, from folks cheering on Kathy and David, to those who were certain that this would ruin Storm’s life. Even I chimed in back in May with my own thoughts.

Sasha & his mother. Photo via The Mirror

More recently, the story of a little boy from the UK named Sasha has hit (filling up my inbox daily with my Google alert set for “children, gender,” naturally). Sasha’s parents, Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper, opted for gender neutral parenting, and seem quite pleased with the results thus far, five years out. Like Storm’s parents, Beck and Kieran chose not to reveal Sasha’s sex at birth, and only recently revealed it due to the 5 year old starting school. Yet, despite revealing their son’s sex (or perhaps, because of), they have been inundated with negative criticism from folks all around the internet who clearly know the best way to raise Sasha.

Personally, I (shockingly) remain neutral on all of this. I understand where these families are coming from, and I respect the concept of gender neutral parenting in general. I do feel that many folks (especially those who criticize it) frequently confuse sex and gender – already muddling a very complex debate. Every article that talks about these families, or the concept of gender neutral parenting in general, should start off with some sort of primer on the difference between sex and gender. If The Oatmeal hasn’t yet created some sort of pictograph on it, they should get on that!

EZ in his (still) favorite pair of BabyLegs

All that aside, we never set out to parent in a gender neutral way. Rather, we parented in a way that felt natural to us. However, natural to us meant dressing EZ in all the colors of the rainbow, allowing him to play with a variety of toys, and ensuring we never complimented him solely on stereotypical male traits. In retrospect, perhaps we were parenting in a gender neutral way, just without the need to label it. (So maybe not so neutral after all…)

As EZ grew up, he led the way and we followed. He was the one to let us know that his favorite colors are pink and purple. He was the one that has continuously requested we not cut his hair. He is the one that jumps for joy when I pull out the polish to paint my own nails, pleading to paint his own. 

We have responded in kind. We’ve allowed him the space and freedom to explore the concept of gender. He knows the biological differences between boys and girls (sex, not gender), and he’s constantly redefining and exploring the concept of gender everyday. I find that my own understanding of gender is constantly changing as well, and allowing myself to see it through EZ’s eyes helps tremendously.

I don’t understand why these two families (and potentially others like them) who have made the choice to not disclose the sex of their children constantly find themselves under attack. Well, I do understand it. I just don’t agree with it. I don’t agree that the discomfort of other people should dictate how others raise their children. Just because something is a stereotype doesn’t mean it’s right (and often isn’t). What is the true damage from not disclosing a child’s sex, and allowing him/her to explore gender in a different way?

How would those same folks respond to me? We DID disclose our child’s gender, but that didn’t change the fact that he is now a five year old boy that loves dancing around in homemade tutus while wielding a self-made LEGO laser. It doesn’t change that fact that he wears shirts covered with T-Rexs while a hot pink beaded hairband rests in his longish hair. He is not confused about who he is, or wishes that he was a girl. He just likes certain things…regardless of whether he “should” or not by traditional standards.

Many critics of gender neutral parenting fear the repercussions of what will happen if we simply rid ourselves of traditional gender boxes for children. They say that sex-conditioning is necessary for a society to function, and that gender-segregated boxes are crucial building blocks of civilization. While I don’t agree with such drastic claims, I’m also not calling for the dismantling of traditional gender norms. Instead, I’m more interested in perhaps enlarging those gender boxes a bit, and watching my son grow up has only solidified those thoughts.

EZ's box has grown since he was 1.5

EZ dictates his comfort zone and we work with it. In doing so we’re raising (I hope) a young man who is both comfortable and confident in his biological sex and gender choices. While many of his choices fit within the stereotypical gender norm, plenty do not – of his own volition. Yet, instead of perceiving himself as not fitting in, he’s created his own box. It’s bigger than the traditional gender boxes and more encompassing and inclusive. There’s less judgment and no “You can’t do that because you’re a __(fill in the blank here)__”

So, perhaps I’m more than a little neutral on gender neutral parenting. Labels aside, I’m all for growing bigger boxes, easing up on traditional stereotypes, and most importantly, allowing our children a safe, secure, and judgement free environment to grow up in.

14 thoughts on “Not So Neutral on Gender Neutral Parenting

  1. I object when a parent wants to interfere with a child’s play/clothing/friendships/life because of discomfort about gender roles. I don’t care if you call it gender neutral parenting or not, if you disclose a child’s gender or not, if you cut his hair or paint his nails or not. I just want children to have the space to be *children* without having to conform to Boy or Girl. And it makes me sad that it’s often so hard to find that space.

    I ask about gender and play (“Would you be upset if you came home to find your son playing with my pink scarf?”) during interviews for nanny/babysitting jobs in order to find out if this is an issue for these parents; I try to make it sound like I’m gauging boundaries so that I can respect them to get an honest answer. But that’s the one of only parenting decisions I can’t respect. So I don’t take those jobs. Ever. I wrote a whole rant about it: http://www.donotfaint.com/ugly_parents/

  2. The media loves to give a surface explanation of these kinds of stories. “Look at the strange family raising their child without a gender.” We all know it’s not possible to ignore a child’s gender. What is possible is to ignore the societal expectations attached to gender. We just have to keep talking.🙂

  3. It makes people uncomfortable because many people, even progressives, still associate gender norms with sexuality and think that a boy who plays with “girl” things will be more likely to be gay. It’s a homophobia I think a lot of people are unconscious of, but which is apparent in situations like these. I also think that people think these kids won’t know how to act in their society, and will be “out of place.” They miss the point that it’s our society and not children that need to be changed. I saw a video some years back that clearly explained that sex, gender, and sexuality are all on a spectrum and all separate from one another. It was so clear and concise and I wish everyone could understand that concept!

  4. Brava! (makes me giggle a little when I think of gender neutrality in languages that give EVERYTHING from a window to toothpaste a gender specification). I think you’re last line sums it up so beautifully- growing bigger boxes and creating a safe, secure, judgment free environment for our children to grow up in. My kids are older and I didn’t think much about the issue when they were younger- I simply allow my children to be who they are. Our path has included dresses and jeans, long hair and short hair…for my girls and my boy, as they chose. I’m sure I have biases I’m not aware of, I think we all do- but simply talking about things, thinking about them, moves us as a society to a place of more loving acceptance of all of us as we are.

  5. I, too, wrote a blog post about Baby Storm last June. http://wp.me/p1se8R-yS and another when “Little Riley” threw a fit in a toy store because she didn’t want the girls to be tricked into buying pink stuff http://wp.me/p1se8R-26b. I think kids are so much smarter than most of us give them credit for and, frankly, too many youngsters are raised in “bubbles” … protected from the cruel world of reality. If more parents use a gender neutral approach everyone would grow up thinking for themselves and being who they’re really supposed to be.

  6. Can someone point me in the direction of some longitudinal case studies on ‘individuals’ raised genderless. I am interested to hear the personal views of these experiments, and how it has/has not affected their life (especially their psychological wellbeing).

    Thanks>Andy

    • You know, I’m not aware of any case studies like this, but it certainly would be interesting to see. I think case studies like this would be mostly anecdotal because otherwise it would be very hard to control for outside variables (for things like relatives, friends, school, etc…) without it turning into a Truman Show type situation.

      I think the term “social experiment” is what initially rubbed me the wrong way when hearing about gender neutral parenting. While I don’t think any of these families feel they are experimenting truly with their children, many outside these families have that view point, and that certainly doesn’t sit well.

  7. Of course it gets called a social experiment by people who are uncomfortable with it. It has to be demonized somehow. Maude forbid it become acceptable for bodies with penises to play with dolls, and bodies with vaginas to play with trucks. The whole social order would collapse. /snark

  8. I completely agree! When the Storm controversy emerged two years ago, I wrote a post similarly opining that it seems as though gender-neutral parenting by pretending gender doesn’t exist seems to do the exact opposite of what the parents intend to do. If biological construct doesn’t matter, then it seems like a stronger stance to do as you are doing—let your child choose his/her interests, genatalia be damned! I’m always happy when I see parents raising their children in a true open fashion as you are, allowing him to find his own bliss rather than fretting about societal norms of masculinity or feminity. Kudos to you! I wish more parents would do this.

  9. Although it seems cool to raise children in a gender-neutral way, it is a bit foolish. Gender is not a social construct. What defines someone as a female or male is not merely their genitals. Their brain formation is also quite different.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3130534/

    Whether someone is raised in a gender-neutral manner or not, at some point they will hit puberty and their bodies will make even more evident whether they are a male or female.

    It seems silly to want to manipulate nature. Some people are born females and others are males. It is actually very simple. I feel that helping children to embrace this identity is healthier than raising them in a situation of gender confusion.

    While expecting boys to always like blue and girls to always like pink is ridiculous, it is even more ridiculous to act as if sex wasn’t a reality. Who are we kidding here?

    • I don’t think anyone is acting like sex isn’t a reality? At least, I’m not for my own family. I’ve said this many times: as of now my son is very confident and very comfortable with the fact that he is a boy. He identifies as a boy and loves being a boy. However, his definition of boy is a lot more complex then the narrow sociological definition of what “boy” is – that is the social construct I refer to. There are social “norms” that people attribute to boys and girls – blue = boy, pink = girl. Girls like princesses, boys like sports. Girls have long hair, boys don’t. None of those things define a person and none are related to their sex either. If there was more gender fluidity there would be less gender confusion imo.

  10. The issue I have with Storm’s parents is that the older siblings, particularly Jazz, exhibit very feminine traits. The parents are pleased about the love of long hair and pink dresses without accompanying hang-ups, but I have the feeling they would frown on a preference for action figure toys and denim or camouflage clothes. It’s like they disapprove of masculinity. Really, how might they react if the brothers started growing into masculine role play and more boyish looks? It could happen. As I child I ranged from ultrafeminine to tomboy who couldn’t be bribed to wear a dress. Children change, and I hope their parents won’t get stressed if the changes don’t fit with their liberal agenda.

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