10 Myths About Gender Neutral Parenting

I had a fabulously fun time on the radio yesterday talking about gender neutral parenting on OPB’s Think Out Loud, and while the session went great (you can listen to it at that link!), many topics came up we weren’t able to address in the time alloted. Many of those topics are fundamental misconceptions about what I and many parents mean when we say “gender neutral parenting“. To that end, in what I expect will be a number of upcoming posts on the subject, here are 10 myths (plus a bonus!) about gender neutral parenting, debunked:

Myth: You’re trying to do away with gender.

TRUTH: While I can’t speak for all parents who identify with the term “gender neutral parenting”, that is certainly not the goal of my family or those I know who are practicing this style of parenting. The last “wave” of gender-neutral parenting, in the 70s and early 80s, arguably had the goal of “androgyny for all children”, based on the belief that gender was entirely culturally created and imposed — and then, when (shockingly!) the kids had their own ideas, we as a culture appear to have thrown up our hands and said “to heck with it, it’s all innate!” The truth, which I believe the modern “gender neutral” (more accurately called “gender diverse”) movement is based on, is somewhere in between. Gender, it is true, is innate, and so to some extent is a desire for a traditional or nontraditional gender performance — but what gender performance looks like and what the culturally accepted gender roles are are almost entirely socially constructed, and thus malleable. Today’s gender neutral parenting is not about doing away with gender (if it ever really was), but about doing away with many of the unhealthy pressures around gender, and giving our children the freedom to figure out what gender means to them.

Myth: Your child will never learn about gender if you don’t teach it to them.

TRUTH: It’s always amused me, in a dark and Alanis-ironic sort of way, how the people who most argue that sex = gender also seem to think that gender is so fragile that any sort of variation in rearing practices will damage it. The truth is we all have some sort of gender identity (even if, for some of us, it’s a strong feeling of not having a gender at all, or if it changes over time), and all, in one way or another, perform that gender identity either according to or in a flaunting of our culture’s expectations (or, most often, some mix thereof). So of course our children will learn about gender, what gender means to us, what gender means to the people around them, and what gender means to their society.

But rather than telling them what their gender is in some sort of absolute, often coercive way, and giving them a narrow prescription of how they are supposed to perform that gender, we give them time and freedom to use their amazing observational and social skills to figure out gender for themselves, much as we might give them time to learn to walk — all the while modeling it for them, and trusting they’ll pick it up when they’re ready. Not on their own, or without guidance, but at their own pace, with an awareness that they might come up with answers we may never have thought of.

Myth: You’ll damage them. / You’ll confuse them.

TRUTH: In “traditional”, phenotypical sex = gender = gender performance families, it is guaranteed that 1-5% of children are confused and damaged. These are the 1-5% of children who are transgender, “gender variant”, or gender “non-conforming” — that is, whose internal sense of gender does not accord with the gender assigned to them based on their genitals, who may not fit neatly into the genders “boy” or “girl”, or whose gender performance preferences do not conform to their assigned or declared gender. Being raised in such an environment, with inflexible gender assignments and rigid gender expectations, is highly damaging for many of these children. Being trans* is not inherently, unbearably stressful; being trans* in a culture that rarely even acknowledges the existence of people like you and mocks them when it does often is, and is much more confusing for children, who aren’t even aware of what is happening.

On the other hand, there is no evidence that children raised with gender freedom and a celebration of diversity of gender expressions are damaged or confused at all. The key here is the difference between coercion — which can happen both toward strict traditional gender norms or toward gender-elimination or “androgyny” — and freedom. Coercion around gender is harmful for children; freedom is not and cannot be.

Myth: You’ll make your kid gay!

TRUTH: Oh, if only.1 The simple fact, proven over and over and over again both experientially and scientifically, is we can’t control, predict, or change our children’s sexuality.

(What we can do is make life easier for queer/non-straight children, by modeling for all our children celebration of various sexualities, and by being educated ourselves not just about straight and gay but the whole QUILTBAG2. We can raise confident queer kids and strong straight allies, and part of how we do both is by not assuming we know their sexuality until they tell us.)

But back to the myth, which comes from a conflation of gender performance and sexuality. That is, it is only a reflection of:

Myth: Gender = gender performance = sexuality.

TRUTH: There are many permutations of this myth, including the above “Dressing your boy in pink will make him gay”. Other variations include “How will she know she’s a girl if she dresses ‘like a boy’?” and “Oh, what a handsome little lady-killer!” They all rest on the conflation of gender (one’s innate sense of boy, girl, or neither/both/other-ness), gender performance (how one presents one’s gender through clothing and speech and movements and accessories) and sexuality (the gender[s] or lack thereof one is attracted to). These are three different things, and though sometimes they go together in ways we expect, they often don’t. There are femme lesbians and girly straight boys and trans girls who are tomboys and every possible variation under the sun — and then some. The thing is, people are not stereotypes, even those who appear to fit the stereotypes.

How does this relate to gender neutral parenting and especially to gender diverse parenting? One of the goals of this parenting style is to recognize that each of these things is different (and that phenotypical sex is yet another distinct category), so that our children can choose the combination that is right for them — yes, even if what’s right for them appears to conform to the stereotypes.

Myth: Gender neutral parenting means banning Barbies and trucks and princesses and Nerf guns.

TRUTH: Some parents do ban one or all of those things, and often for well-thought-out and highly personal reasons, but it’s certainly not required in order to practice gender-neutral (or especially gender-diverse) parenting. What is discouraged is only having one “type” of toy, whatever it is, or disallowing one “gender” of toy in favor of another (even if it’s cross-gender: that is, banning dolls, but not trucks or guns, for an assigned-girl).

Instead, a gender-diverse household tends to have lots of different kinds of toys, preferably ones that encourage open-ended imaginative play: for example, blocks to build a garage for Barbie to park her truck in, knocked down by a sudden Nerf attack! And if we find our children exclusively playing with one sort of toy in one sort of way, we might use Playful Parenting or similar tactics to encourage a broadening of play; but most children rarely get so stuck as to call for any sort of even subtle adult redirection.

Myth: Gender neutral parenting is impossible. / It’s all or nothing.

TRUTH: While 100% “gender neutral” parenting perhaps is impossible, even for the families who decline to share the phenotypical sex of their child and do not assign them a gender, there is a wide spectrum possible between that absolute idealism and the most rigid of “traditional” sex-segregated and stereotyped parenting. In truth, most “mainstream” parenting falls somewhere in-between as well, with very few parents completely disallowing all dolls or light colored clothes for assigned-boys and even fewer banning balls or blocks or pants for assigned-girls.

What most self-identified gender-neutral or gender-diverse parents do is try, as much as is practical or possible in their own lives, to move closer toward the “ideal” by turning down the sex-stereotyping and offering their children more options. In truth, many “gender neutral” families look not much different than many “traditional” families, especially past the infant months, whether due to following the child’s own preferences, gifts from more traditional family members, a bias in hand-me-downs, concerns about push-back from the public (especially in more marginalized families, who may depend on extended family or social services), or any number of other reasons.

Certainly as a child ages and comes into their own identity, it may be harder to tell a gender-neutral family apart from any other, which brings us to:

Myth: Gender neutral parenting is a failure if your girl wants to wear pink (or your boy refuses to).

TRUTH: All children are individuals, with their own preferences, and eventually with their own awareness of their gender and preferences about their gender performance. For many children, especially during a period shortly after coming in to a solid internal sense of their own gender (usually somewhere around 3-4 years old), this means wanting to align themselves strongly with what they perceive to be the cultural norms for that gender. Far from wanting to do away with this process, gender neutral parenting is all about leading up to this process in an entirely healthy way, for children of ALL genders and gender performance preferences, including the probably-majority who fall along “stereotypical” lines.

Thus, after years of wearing blues and browns and reds as well as pinks and pastels and purples, and with a closet full of similar diversity, when your 3-4 year old now-self-proclaimed girl wants to wear exclusively pink, you can know that it is her own knowledge of her gender, her personal preferences, and her awareness of her culture’s gender norms that are driving her choices, rather than highly segregated, sexist programming she might, in a more traditional household, have grown up with. And, you can know that just because this is her preference for now, it might not be reflective of her desires for all time, and you can use the tools of gender neutral parenting to continue to offer her an array of options, while honoring her choices, in the years to come.

Myth: You’re engaging in a social experiment with your child! / You’re indoctrinating them!

TRUTH: All parents “indoctrinate” or “experiment” with their children, in that we follow our own beliefs or our cultural memes and myths and parent accordingly. Everything we do with and for our children communicates to them our ideas about how the world works, how it should be, and what we want for them. The only difference with paths such as gender neutral or gender diverse parenting is that we are going against the current cultural mythos, that says boys and girls are two distinct, discrete genders that as such need to be given entirely different sets of clothes, toys, names, endearments, and role models — which is hardly a universal human belief itself.

Myth: Gender neutral parenting only benefits children who don’t conform to gender expectations.

TRUTH: While as previously mentioned gender neutral/gender diverse parenting is especially beneficial (and necessary!) for non-conforming children, it has numerous benefits for “stereotypical” children as well. For one, also as previously mentioned, it lets us know that if our children do conform closely to socially-approved gender expectations, this is authentic and is coming from within them. But also, many “normal” (cisgender and gender-typical) children are less strongly gendered than traditionally thought, and when raised in a gender neutral way care less about the “boy” or “girl”-ness of their clothing and activities than we might expect.

Further, as peer pressure increases and their awareness of gender norms expands, having a gender-neutral/gender-diverse base (meaning both their home life and the early years of gender neutrality) helps them question the “rightness” of culturally assigned roles and stereotypes, and the very existence of unnecessarily gendered products. And, gender diverse parenting helps prepare even the most culturally-conforming child to be more aware and more accepting of diversity, making them more supportive friends for their gender non-conforming peers.

BONUS Myth: Your children will hate you for screwing them up.

TRUTH: Well, maybe. But that’s pretty much a risk for any parenting path, most definitely including “mainstream” parenting. Considering the very little we have to lose, and how much we have to gain, isn’t it worth it to take that risk on something you believe in? Isn’t it worth trying some variation of gender neutral parenting?

  1. I jest!
  2. Queer Unlabeled Intersex Lesbian Transgender Bisexual Asexual Gay.
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32 Responses to 10 Myths About Gender Neutral Parenting

  1. Hah, re: the Bonus Myth. During our wrangling discussions pre-Tiny Tyrant arrival and in the early days of parenting, I asked the Wicked Fairy if he didn’t worry sometimes that our Freaking Out grandparents & parents could be right, and Tyrant could end up hating us for not teaching him to reproduce stereotypical anti-woman maculine culture. His response was “Between 13 and 18 he’s probably going to hate us anyway. Better to know what it will be for!”*

    *Untranslated from the original Snark.

  2. I think you explained things very clearly. Thank you!

  3. I was raised very girly and I still turned out “tomboyish”. My LO is being raised gender-neutral and she slays monsters with a sword and helmet while wearing dresses (she has named ALL dresses princess dresses). Children will be who they want to be, just give them the freedom to explore.

  4. Fantastic post!

    I’m definitely going to point people here when they’re confused by this whole “gender-diverse/neutral” thing.

    Thanks!!

  5. I love this. It’s clear, to the point, acknowledges that everyone can do it differently and yet have it still be a laudable goal. I’ll be sharing!

  6. Amazingly insightful and succinct. (You may chuckle; but I tend towards hyper-verbosity. So this all seems quite concise and to-the-point!).

    Being trans* is not inherently, unbearably stressful; being trans* in a culture that rarely even acknowledges the existence of people like you and mocks them when it does often is, and is much more confusing for children, who aren’t even aware of what is happening.

    Yes. This is applicable to so many variables of affiliation and identity, too.

    I’m a big fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a proto-Victorian, and, indeed, proto-feminist, text (this was one of my primary areas of focus in grad school, so bear with me!), and recently had the opportunity to see one of the live, cinema “simulcasts” of the National Theatre’s new production of the Frankenstein play.

    Although the piece was a little muddled, on the whole, the opening sequence, which depicts the Creature’s enigmatic birth, sped-up acquisition of self-awareness, and swift rejection by society (largely, yes, because of his non-conforming, “off-putting” physical attributes and behaviors) is a fantastic synthesis of the trials all of us, as humans, face, in a more gradual, insidious sense, as our internal sense of self butts up against the dictums of our culture.

    And it seemed everyone watching that fifteen minutes-or -so of theatre could really “get” the allegory and project themselves onto the character. When the at first childlike Creature is abused and rejected, it moved some people to tears: not just, I believe, because they felt sympathy for the Creature himself. But because they identified elements of their own journey in his struggles.

    Sure, this was an audience of mostly economically privileged people — and people who would be inclined to go to a play in the first place, at that. But I think it would be received as such a universally resonant message if it, somehow, was able to have a longer reach …

  7. Wonderful! I wish the people who need to read this would actually read it. There are so many people who are thoughtlessly spewing these myths without regard to the truth.

  8. I so need a quilted bag that says QUILTBAG. This thing is not on Etsy. Opportunity awaits you fine artsy peeps!

  9. Wonderful post! I’m having a debate with local friends about the gender neutral thing and all they can say is that the kid will need counseling and be confused. There is this idea that raising a child gender neutral is “doing” something “to” them and that we should let them “be themselves”. I don’t know how to explain that when being yourself is confined by overwhelming gender stereotyping then how yourself is it?

    I also needed to hear Myth:Gender neutral parenting is a failure if your girl wants to wear pink (or your boy refuses to). I happen to be a girly girl (by choice or stereotype?) and I’m almost afraid my daughter will like pink and this will label me a gender neutral parenting failure. The fact is that there is nothing wrong with being a “typical” girl or boy if you know you have options and you can question the paradigm that demands it.

  10. Thank you so much for writing this. Linking! Sharing! Loving!

  11. “Well, maybe. But that’s pretty much a risk for any parenting path, most definitely including “mainstream” parenting. ”

    Reminds me of the advice a friend gave me just before xCLP was born. She said that all kids are embarrassed by their parents, just by the fact that they are their parents, so it wasn’t worth stressing out that my own personal weirdnesses would embarrass the little one. I’ve found that a great way to defuse at least some of the worries on that score.

  12. You are so right on. Thankyou for being here for those of us who are just beginning to understand all of this. You are TRUTH.

  13. I wish I’d had some of these guidelines when my child was growing up. Very well explained, and I’ll bookmark this as a go-to website for my new-parent friends!

  14. Just stumbled upon this article. Very well written, thank you :) I’m wondering if there are some more practical tips out there for gender neutral parenting (how exactly does one refer to their child, for instance, in gender neutral terms? How does one *speak* to a child who is being raised in such a manner, particularly before they appear to favor one gender? etc.)

  15. I find mysel over & over playing to stereotypes & indoctrinazation I received growing up. It’s taking work to rethink this all & this debunking myths really clarified gender neutral parenting for me.

    It also shed light on what myths I have a hard time letting go of. Being raised to think something is “wrong” no matter how right you *know* it is has made for lots of inner conflict. I dont want to pass that on to my children.

  16. Good discussion starter, Arwyn. I feel like each of these stereotypes could use a post from you going into greater detail with some explanations of real life scenarios. Maybe in the future?

    My son has a Barbie that he bought for another child’s birthday (I let him pick what to get) but he refused to give the other child. One of my happiest moments as a mother was when my father-in-law was over, and I thought he was going to say something about Noah playing with a barbie, but I came in to my father-in-law brushing Barbie’s hair with him. :)

    Don’t worry, I tell him that women don’t look like Barbie just like no one looks like Elmo.

  17. Thank you for a very well-explained, thoughtful, articulate post.

    My own daughter has identified herself as female (not always with words, but very clearly with actions) from the time that she was a young toddler. I struggled with it, honestly. I bought her clothes in all colours of the rainbow, and she wanted to wear only pink and sparkly things.

    Eventually, I realized that I didn’t have to impose gender neutrality anymore than I had to impose gender performance. I only had to respect her decisions, and give her choices. Do I think that outside influences factored in to her choices? Yes, and many of them came from outside our home. But I still strive to do my best to provide diversity, honour my children’s preferences, and get out of the way. I think it’s all we can do – whatever parenting issue we’re discussing, to be honest.

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  19. It’s helpful to see that the ‘gender does not exist’ misunderstanding happens elsewhere. I’m beginning the process of coming out as a trans guy. The reaction from many of my more open-minded friends is that it doesn’t matter to them/gender is a construct anyway. They don’t understand that it does matter a great deal to me and that, while I don’t fit all male stereotypes, I do sometimes want to ‘play the game’ of gender presentation because it’s part of my authentic feelings, even if it is also part of the stereotype. Nonetheless, expectations of boy-dom are often just as misplaced for me as the ones I grew up with about how to be a girl. Gender diverse parenting would have made such a difference for me and also for all the well-intentioned people who have never questioned assigned roles because they happened to fit them.

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  21. OMG QUILTBAG!!!! Awesome.
    Great post, I will be sharing!

  22. We should start up a gender-neutral parenting group in PDX. That would be fantastic!

    • Anne Marie — This intrigues me, though I’m not able to take on starting any more projects right now. But email me? arwyn at raisingmyboychick dot com.

  23. “Myth: Gender neutral parenting is a failure if your girl wants to wear pink (or your boy refuses to).”

    I really needed to hear this from someone else because I do feel like a failure sometimes. My two year old son is obsessed with cars and trucks and balls and has been since the very first Weeble “car” (barely more than a platform on wheels http://tinyurl.com/3e29sqf ) arrived in our house when he was about 9 months old. Now our house is full of cars and trucks that he’s been given by my in-laws and they’re the first thing he gravitates towards at other houses. He has blocks and puzzles and dolls and a stroller and they all get played with sometimes but it’s mostly all about the cars. I cringe when people say things like “he’s such a boy” but in a lot of ways he is a stereotypical boy. Oh well, we’ll just have to make sure to watch a lot of “Free to be you and me” as he gets older.

  24. Absolutely fantastic article. I’m glad that someone can express this method of parenting with such a clear, articulated view. The more intelligent we appear as a group (and more friendly as well) the higher chance we have of spreading our idea’s. I will definitely use some of your points in the debate I’m currently holding with a friend. I was raised in a gender neutral home, and I thank my mother for that every chance I get. I am comfortable with my sexuality, who I am, and most importantly how I express myself. Also, as many have said before me, thank you for the section Gender Neutral Parting is a failure if your girl likes pink (etc). It is a great fear of mine that my little girl or boy will grow up only to like pink or cars, and so fourth and that I will have failed at being gender neutral. This has opened my eyes a little wider. Great article!

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  26. scholasticamama

    Oh, I love gender-diverse! I’ve always shied away from gender-neutral, not because of the myths stated but because I just don’t really like the word neutral. Yes, I am that petty. But I do like gender-diverse – that’s what my child really is! She is who she is – I just need to give her the space to be that person, and the fortitude to make others give her that space as well. I did struggle with pronouns, etc, for a while, as another poster brought up, but I decided that it was ok for us to use them, but show her the wonderful variability of the human spectrum.

  27. Respect your children for the individual human beings that they are. You have chosen the responsibility of guiding and teaching young human beings to becoming the best they can be with the talents and skills they have and to be responsible for their words and actions.
    You only have a few years out of their lives in which to accomplish this. Let them play with whatever toys they want because it’s how they learn to play not with what they play that’s important.
    It’s all learning for chrissakes. Just let your young human beings be themselves. But, always, hold a net under them in case they fall as they learn.
    As far as gender and sex… well, human beings come in all different forms and manners. That is the truth of human beings. Yeah…let’s celebrate!

  28. I am so glad I found this site! I am a 25yr old woman who is gender neutral. I just never really knew there was a name for people like me. I can appreciate the female form but my sexuality is definitely heterosexual and I am happy with my body so I knew I wasn’t transgender. I do tend towards male hobbies and interests like gaming, but I don’t feel like I’m in the wrong body. I DO wish that people wouldn’t ask me out based simply on my looks, but what are you going to do? I try not to encourage it by wearing my hair plain and not wearing makeup but it still happens…I guess I just never knew someone could be gender neutral naturally!

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  31. After reading this article, I’m happily surprised that I was raised in quite a ‘gender neutral’ manner. I’m a girl, but as a child I had relatively short-ish hair, was dressed in denim overalls , played with blocks and ‘tools’ as well as dolls and ‘kitchen’ sets. As I grew older, I was obsessed with Pokemon and make-believing Legend of Zelda scenarios with my best friend! I was encouraged to pursue whatever career path I desired, which was originally science; a more male-dominated field. I’m now doing a more female-dominated course now, but that was my own choice. My parents rock :)

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