My son has a firetruck: gender-neutral doesn't mean genderless


I was recently interviewed for an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about gender-neutral parenting:

Ariel Meadow Stallings, 35, who runs a blog called offbeatmama.com, has observed that gender-neutral parenting has become a hot topic of discussion among parents. In February, a reader posed a question about whether or not to wait to find out the sex of her baby. In two days, more than 150 comments came in, many favoring a stereotype-free environment.

Stallings, who has a 17-month-old boy named Octavian Fetz Stallings, has strong feelings against "handing down an identity" to children, in her case shaped partially by the fact that her mother and mother-in-law are both in same-sex relationships. Stallings is determined to give her son a "gender-neutral start-off."

"So many assumptions about gender roles are just entrenched in our culture," said Stallings. "Being gender neutral encourages people to pause and think about their perceptions."

In the discussions that have come from the article, commenters have fretted about how gender-neutrality is somehow denying a child from having a gender identity. I see this as people confusing gender-neutral with genderless.

Sure: a very few parents do get into truly genderless parenting (see Baby Pop or Baby Storm). For me, however, I'm not trying to raise an androgynous child — I'm just looking to raise a little boy who understands that he can play with a firetruck or a My Little Pony. (And no, I'm not going to force him play with a pony or deny him a firetruck. I provide options and let him make his own choices.) I'm aiming to raise a son who doesn't blink twice when he sees a little girl who loves Star Wars.

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Photo by Flickr user hellosputnik, used by Creative Commons license

For me, I'm not interested in removing gender from the equation — my goal is to support my son making his own decisions about his identity. When he wants to play with his firetruck, lemme tell ya: dude plays with his firetruck!

That said, this is one of those issues people LOVE to argue about, and I just can't muster up the energy to debate. If gender-neutrality isn't your thing, that's cool by me. I'm not here to convince anyone that my thinking on the subject is correct. One of Offbeat Mama's core values is that "Every parent, every kid, and every situation is different. We do not believe in dogmatic parenting philosophies or judging those who make different decisions."

Different perspectives on this topic:

Updated 5/26:

Offbeat Mama was quoted in this piece on the Today Show about Baby Storm and gender neutral parenting. You can watch our tiny clip below, or click here to see the full segment.

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  1. "For me, I'm not interested in removing gender from the equation — my goal is to support my son making his own decisions about his identity."

    This! There's a big difference between genderless and, I don't know, gender-inclusive?

    1 agrees
  2. I think this is a great way to look at it. I will allow my daughter to be whoever she truly is – and if that means that she wants to play with Barbie dolls and wear pink all the time, well, so be it. I don't understand why so many so-called feminists resist the idea of girls being into "girly" things. It perpetuates the notion that "boy" things are better, and therefore that the feminine is less than. It drives me nuts.

    3 agree
  3. If you have a son that wants to play with a my little pony, taking it away from him and forcing a fire engine into his hands isn't going to stop him from wanting the pony; it's just going to mean he has to clip clop a fire engine around sunny paddock. I don't think gender-less parenting can really work properly, because as you can probably all remember, developing a strong sense of gender (even if it isn't the one that matches your body) and preferences is a big part of growing up. Gender-neutral parenting, to me, is just an extention of teaching that it's okay to like the things you like, even if some of your peers won't like it, or won't agree with it.

    1 agrees
  4. My son just turned 6 and for the past year has loved all things girl. He likes to dress up in his little sisters clothes and walk like a model (which he does extremely well). He likes Barbie movies and dolls. His biggest obsession is all things airplane though. My husband and I let him buy girl toys and let him dress up at home. We don't however let him dress like that to leave the house. We are hoping this is a phase and that it will pass soon. How far do you let this go?

    1 agrees
    • I think you let it go until he gets tired of it or he grows up, whichever happens first. Assuming, of course, that he's not hurting himself or anyone else, which sounds like the case. If it is just a phase, he'll grow out of it; and if it isn't, he'll know his family loves and supports him for who he is even if most of society doesn't.

      1 agrees
    • I agree with Lore. Does it matter if it's a phase or not? My son loves to wear tutus and hair clips. We don't let him wear tutus to school because it's appropriate for dance class, just like a swimming suit is for swimming class. But he can wear the hair bows anywhere he'd like because there's no reason that shouldn't be acceptable. I don't treat this as a phase anymore than I treat his other personality and character traits as a phase. He may change in many ways throughout his life in ways I can't predict, and as a parent I find it exciting to be with him in this process.

      2 agree
  5. I have a 3 year old son and for a while there I was a single mom. He didn't have dad's shoes to put on and ended up trying out my heels and I'm cool with that. If my little boy wants to grow up and be just like his mom then by all means. I let him help me cook, he can work a vacuum and also knows the difference between the sound of a motorcycle and truck when it drives by. I love my child and I figure he will be who he is regardless of what toy he plays with as a tot. That being said I love that the gender stereotypes are beginning to be left behind, as a matter of fact in Target the other day I saw a kids play kitchen that was brown and blue instead of the pink and white ones that were everywhere when I was a child.

    1 agrees
  6. I really really support how you're raising your son and I think it's a really thoughtful way to parent him. I do have question though. Have you thought about how things will change when he is school age and surrounded by kids who weren't raised this way? How do you handle the gender roles that he'll learn just by being integrated into society as it is right now? Really curious to hear how you feel about this and if you've thought about how you'll handle those things as he gets older.

    1 agrees
    • I want to clarify: I'm NOT against gender roles. Of course my son will encounter kids raised in different ways — for me, the goal of childrearing is giving your kids tools to interact and learn from their peers. Of course he'll get all sorts of messages from other children and people around him — it's a big world out there, and I don't have any desire to somehow isolate him. The best I can do is give him the critical thinking skills to make his own decisions, and respect the decisions of those around him.

      Where we live (Seattle, WA) this kind of philosophy isn't radical — we live in a progressive neighborhood in a liberal city. In terms of the parenting I see around us, we're actually pretty moderate in our values. We live in an urban neighborhood with lots of gay and lesbian families their raising children — I expect Tavi will meet kids who are both more conservative and more liberal in their views about gender and identity.

      It's also worth noting that I'm second generation gender-neutral: I was raised by hippie parents who dressed me in brown corduroy. I've experienced first hand the ways that being raised gender-neutral impacts your identity because, despite growing up in grubby boy clothes, I now have pink hair and love my glittery eye-shadow and rainbow platform heels. Does this mean my parents failed somehow, because I don't wear brown cords every day? Nope: I see it as a total success, because I understand that the ways I (and others) express my femininity is a choice instead of a default. That's all I want for my son, too.

      Tavi may end up the butchest, most stereotypical boy you've ever seen — and that's fine with me, as long as he knows that I'd love him just as much if he were a Princess Boy. My hope is that this also leads to him having a greater respect and understanding of those who choose to express their gender in nontraditional ways.

      3 agree
  7. My 2.5 year old son spends most of his days playing with cars, trucks and most recently dinosaurs. He also does it while rocking hot pink toe nails this week. Last month they were black.
    Since I'm a stay-at-home-mom, he spends most of his time home with me. So if I paint my nails, he naturally wants to have his painted too. I have no issue with it and I'm lucky to have a husband who, even though he's in the military, takes no issue with it either. Nixon (our son) is young and is just enjoying life.

    We went to the beach with friends this week and Nixon proudly showed off his "pretty pink piggies" to my friend, who was amazed that my son sat still long enough to get his toenails painted. Her daughter is the same age and has never had her piggies painted. Nixon told her she needed pretty piggies too.

    I grew up a tomboy. Covered in mud, skinned knees and one of the boys for as long as I can remember. Now I still love sports, but own and love high heels and can apply liquid eye liner. I plan on letting my son do whatever makes him happy for as long as he's happy and not hurting anyone around him.

    2 agree

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