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. 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 QUILTBAG. 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?