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.
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.
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!
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 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.