I feel neutral about gender-neutral parenting

Guest post by Rodrigues

I see no gender confusion in this photo of Jonah
I see no gender confusion in this photo of Jonah
“That is a girl’s name.”

This is what my stepmother, Dora, replied when I told her I would be naming my son Jonah. I was five months pregnant, and had just seen the grainy boy-parts on a sonogram. Dora, recently emigrated from Colombia and suffering hearing loss, may not have understood me, so I repeated, slowly- Jonah, from the Bible, whale, prophet, male. Dora shook her head, clearly upset. “That is a girl name. You are having a boy.”

We argued over whether Jonah was a boy’s name for days. Proof piled up, and Dora conceded that Jonah was traditionally male, but “sounds too feminino.”

It was the first time I encountered a wave of emotion in response to the gendering of Jonah, who at the time had just grown sex organs visible by sonogram. The threat in Dora’s mind was clear: my son would be intimately linked with something feminine, and it would devastate his male identity. It was the same concern expressed by my mother-in-law, proclaiming “boys learn to pretend with guns,” when I showed her Jonah’s toy kitchen; it was the worry of an uncle who demanded we cut toddler-Jonah’s shoulder-length hair, “before its too late, before he’s confused.”

In three years of parenthood, I have collected plenty of anecdotes to promote the philosophies of gender-neutral parenting, of raising a child devoid of gender-stereotypes. Yet I found myself questioning the very possibility of raising a child who would not form his identity, at least in part, around typical lines of pink and blue, dolls and footballs.

I was a gender-neutral zealot when Jonah was born — the time when it was easiest to be. I chose what he played with, since he could only play with things in a one-foot radius of his body. I chose what he wore, where he went, even what he saw to a large degree — I could simply turn him around if I found something developmentally undesirable in any direction.

But then came walking, play dates, afternoons with grandma, and gifts from grandpa. I couldn’t erase the words “boys don’t like dolls” from my son’s mind after he’d heard it from another preschooler. I didn’t have the heart to hide the arsenal of birthday-gifted excavators, footballs, and Hot Wheels in order to create a balance of gender-typical and gender-neutral options in the toy box.

I knew that gender was slipping into Jonah’s life as he grew increasingly autonomous, but when I took a developmental psychology class, I really began to feel hopeless. I read studies showing that the ratio of gender-typical and gender-atypical toys, clothing and activities are a small facet of the gender identity picture. These categories are easy for parents to premeditate their approach to gendering: even with the reduced influence I already have in Jonah’s life, I still choose his clothing, decide what gets thrown out of the toy box, and direct most of his daily activities. But early childhood psychologists believe we gender our children in subtle, subliminal ways. We are more likely to handle a baby boy roughly, and to talk longer to a baby girl. Studies show that, while my son may own a toy kitchen, his father is more likely to play ball or wrestle with him, unintentionally reinforcing ideas of appropriate male activities.

Keeping this in mind, I resolved to pay closer attention to my own gender stereotypes and behaviors. But even then, I had to come to terms with the limited effect my efforts might have, especially for the next few years of Jonah’s life. Theory on childhood identity argues that from preschool until about age 7, children’s identities are naturally and strongly attached to categories: that only from the adherence to categories early in life can children learn to explore and rebuke them as they gain the power of abstract thought. Boy or girl is a category children identify early and often cling to dearly, which can be disappointing to parents who vigilantly protect their child’s gender-neutrality. Then there are hormones and biology, which scientists believe do hold sway in the overall tendency for a boy to smash dinosaurs together and a girl to rock a baby doll.

I went through a period of downhearted, gender-neutral disillusionment. To me, it became another Sisyphean effort of motherhood, as pointless as my gender-stereotypical battle to keep dirty clothes in the hamper. When I read about a Swedish couple determined to raise their child completely gender neutral—with only themselves, the child and a caregiver knowing the sex of the child—I have to admit I scoffed a little at their idealism. Practicalities make their effort seem impossible. What will they do when the child goes to school, and has to choose a bathroom to enter? Someday, the child will have to quickly reconcile itself with a facet of identity other kids have been sorting out for years.

But as I read about the Swedish family, my cynicism lightened as I read the cynicism of others. Who were these people, one reporter asked, to raise their child as a social experiment?

For all my questions and doubts concerning the viability of a gender-neutral society spawned by gender-rebuking parents, I can’t condemn the Swedish couple for trying to this extreme. After all, what is parenting other than a collection of our best hopes for the future, channeled into the actions of raising a child?

All parenting is a social experiment. It is an experiment with no control group, one we each perform individually yielding results assessed individually. It is an experiment where we may not get the results for decades, when our children have grown into a stable identity. Jonah will go out into a world of gender stereotypes, but I can continue to construct a home life where gender doesn’t limit his interests and expressions. And if I wait 25 years to hear him say, “Boys can like dolls, too;” I’ll still say the experiment was successful.

Comments on I feel neutral about gender-neutral parenting

  1. I guess I don't totally understand this. What's wrong with a boy playing rough or liking footballs? Or a girl liking dolls and dress up? There's nothing that says they can't like both. But I don't understand the need to eliminate ALL gender.
    My daughter loves playing with her toy dump truck as much as with her dollhouse. She can be happy & not feel like she HAS to be girly without losing out on the fun of trying to wear mommies heels and bracelets.
    Maybe it's just me.

    • I don't think there's anything wrong with boys liking footballs or girls liking dolls. I think the issue gender neutral parenting tries to address is the early conditioning kids receive that says that there's something wrong if they fall outside of traditional gender lines. I don't think I state that girls shouldn't like dresses, etc, but instead am trying to deal with balancing exposure and openness to gender typical and gender atypical items, characteristics and activities.

      I'm actually working on another article that follows the same idea you're talking about. When I first read about gender-neutral parenting, I thought the aim was to minimize the limitations kids see on the possibilities for their identity "imposed" by culturally assigned gender stereotypes. The longer I am in the academic/feminist/university world, the more I am realizing that the new idea is that gender is, in and of itself, a limiting and negative social construct that should be eradicated… not just the harmful stereotypes but as a facet of culture altogether. Besides thinking this is impossible, I don't really think its warranted or wanted. There are things about being a woman my husband will never experience, and gender is the cultural expression of those differences. But there is no way I could go into the biology, psychology and sociology of the greyscales of sex and gender in the space of this piece.

      • I'm glad you said that elimination of gender is not necessarily warranted or wanted. I would see as ideal the acceptance and respect of certain gender qualities by both genders. For example, I don't see it as productive to try to eradicate boys' predilection to roughouse, chase each other and play with guns – just because women don't understand it (and young kids tend to spend more time with women then men – moms, caregivers, daycare and primary teachers – mostly women). It is a precursor to other qualities, and it should be respected but chanelled, although I don't wish to pretend to know the best way to do that. Same with girls tendencies to play with dolls, i.e. to nurture – this is a feminine strength that we would do well to see more in the world, even if its simply to give women who choose that as their guiding role more of a voice – the countless women who are mothers, who care for others as their primary occupation. Feminism itself often denigrates these qualities in favour of more masculine ones.

    • I agree, while I will let my child play with whatever he/she wants … if it turns out that my daughter's favourite activity is her dollhouse or my son's favourite activity is his dump truck, well then I'd view that as a legitimate choice (though I would try to expose my child to as wide a range of activities as possible).

      I remember so clearly as a little girl that in addition to dollhouses etc, I also loved lego and playing detective (catching pretend bad guys with my pretend spy tools) and pretending I was the captain of a pirate ship and I also had a little toy workbench with plastic tools that I loved and a complicated train set with matchbox cars. I'm pretty sure my mother was not enlightened enough to even consider raising me gender-neutrally yet somehow despite that I didn't feel hindered if I wanted to play with "boy" toys. So I suppose that's why I'm not so worried about my kids – they'll have opportunities to try out as many different activities as possible, and then they can choose which ones they want, regardless of whether it fits in with a stereotype or not.

      As for hair, I think I'd keep both gender's hair fairly short (until they were old enough to request otherwise), but then again that's because I live in tropical Queensland (Australia) and its way too hot and humid (either you need to tie your hair up all the time, or cut it so that its not on your neck).

  2. What gets me is that people apologize to me profusely for mistaking my daughter for a boy, as if they've inadvertantly insulted her… the thing is I call my daughter George, she's almost bald, and she's usually dressed in unisex clothing. If I really minded, I'd put a bow on her head, or pierce her ears, or dress her in solid pink, but still people act like they've just scarred her for life.

    With that said, My mom wanted me to be a boy, and then when i wasn't, she figured she'd turn me into a tomboy. much to her shagrin, I'd put dresses on at every oppertunity and obsessed over barbie and makeup.

    Our approach is this: Being "traditionally feminine" is not at odds with being "traditionaly masculine"… She can wear her "just like daddy" t-shirt with floral pants, I can sew a coverall and make a tiny tool kit for barbie.

  3. @ R C … it's not a big deal, I seriously doubt these parents are a true representation of the general population of Sweden or Switzerland. I think she just confused the name, not the demographic.

    And, I hope to have a mix of sexes in my family, that way the girls can make their brothers play dress up and house, and the boys will encourage the girls to be more rough-house(y) athletic. And everyone will play with third generation care bear toys!!

  4. Really great post. It's interesting to see the shocked looks on my step daughter's faces when they've learned for the first time that, for example, their father does the laundry infinitely more than I do or that my best friend is a guy or that I always wanted to restore an old car. It leads to some great conversations though.

    Thanks for posting this.

  5. I have a 7 year old boy that when he was little loved trucks and trains, but also loved wearing my shoes (heels, boots, whatever) around the house as well as putting on make up as well as playing with a doll. Now he is a sensitive, rough housing, baby loving "warrior" (his new thing.) I feel like I've unintentionally succeed because he doesn't care if a toy is 'made' for girls or boys. He's not afraid to say what he likes and doesn't like. So while he's wielding his toy swords, he's wearing his pink beaded bracelet and I couldn't be happier.

  6. I have struggled with the gender projections of people onto my son too. Before he was born I got really tired of people saying things like "oh, he'll be papa's little daredevil" and "just wait until he gets his first truck". Not because I don't want him to be a daredevil or anything like that, but because I would ALSO like to hear "Just wait until you see him in his first school play" and "he'll be mama's little angel". I don't have a problem with him rough-housing and wressling and playing with trucks, but I don't want him to be limited by other people's expectations. I want HIM to decide what he wants and who he is. And so far so good – he's a daredevil who lives to wressle with his papa but he's also a sweet and sensitive little boy who loves to swap shoes with his little girl cousins.

  7. This is the first time I have been exposed to the idea of gender neutral parenting. It really got me thinking about my own situation and my son. I am a single mom who owns my own home. I do everything, from cooking, to laying hardwood floors, to paying the bills and doing the laundry. There is absolutely NO separation in my household from what a man does and what a woman does. If it needs to be done, it gets done. I never realized it, but in that aspect, isn't that somewhat gender neutral parenting? I guess it is a lead by example type of mentality. We wrestle like the best of them and turn around and draw pretty rainbows (la di da). This article makes me want to explore this subject more….Thanks for that.

  8. This is one thing I have never worried about, and I am surprised so many people do. After all,

    “Girls are told they are cute in their dresses, and boys are told they are cool with their car toys. But if you give them no gender they will be seen more as a human or not a stereotype as a boy or girl.” <— I was told I looked cute in my outfit and cool with my car toy. My mom raised me like a lil'girl, but I still became a tomboy. It was just accepted as who I was, and it wasn't a gender put on me from others. I just liked both cars and cute clothes. And mud. And guns. And Little House on the Prairie.

    I think genetics will play their role, and as long as I am loving parent it won't matter if I dress my little boy in blue instead of pink… He will still turn out the way he was meant to turn out.

    • Exactly! I had a boss who has 4 boys, 1 one of the boys has always been interested in traditionally "girly" stuff. As much as my boss wanted his boys to be rough and tough, he and his wife NEVER once told his young son to be more manly. When he wanted to go out for Halloween as Fiona (Shreck), he went out as a princess, when he wanted a doll house for Christmas, he got a dollhouse! And his parents aren't your non-traditional parents, they are just understanding, good and loving parents!

  9. I really enjoyed this article. I had learned about this when I was pregnant, and I decided to have some of this in my parenting. My daughter LOVES wearing skirts and dresses and playing with toy cars. My mom has actually told my daughter that she couldn't have this dinosaur flashlight because it was a boy toy. My daughter was just over a year old and we were going to a birthday party for another little boy (which is why we bought the dinosaur flashlight). When the little boy opened his dinosaur flashlight, all the kids loved it and my daughter was so happy about it! She had helped pick out the toy and she looked really proud to see everyone playing with it….of course she thought it was her toy so it was a little traumatic to leave it behind. Anyways! My fiance and I went out the next day and bought her a dinosaur flashlight, my mom wasn't happy about it but I really don't care.

  10. I really enjoyed reading this. For me the gender lines are very blurred even now that I am a grown up. Growing up my mom battled depression so my dad took on the motehr role and my mom tended to take on a more fatherly role. I spent the majority of my time with my dad learning to work on cars or weld of play in the mud. At the same time my mom would take me shopping and I would buy pretty clothes and shoes. I'm not sure if this had any affect on my sexuality as an adult but now I classify myself as pansexual and I find myself attracted to just about any one. I like men, women, and then I have also found myself chasing people that don't call themselves either. I think the way I was raised has a lot to do with what I associate with which gender.

  11. In our attempt of onset gender neutrality we are not learning the sex until the child is born. This time in the womb will honestly be the only time our babe is free from expectations. It also guarantees we are not over-run with blue or pink at the baby shower. The book we are reading is Elena Gianini Belloti's "Little Girls: Social Conditioning and Its Effects on the Stereotyped Role of Women During Infancy." There really is nothing you can do about outside influences because they will be there and as parents we will have our subtle biases. All you can do is work to raise an engaged compassionate child. Good luck to you and to Jonah.

  12. I agree with an earlier poster that having siblings of a different sex really helps. My older brother would play with my kitchen/food toys with me and I would steal his Legos and wear his hand-me-down clothes. My favorite toys were dinosaurs and animal figurines, but my most beloved childhood possession was a Cabbage Patch doll (which I think was supposed to be a boy but I always called it Wendy).

    As an adult, my life partner (male) has long hair and wears kilts, and I have super short hair and steal his clothes. He had an older sister, maybe that's it… I think some of us were raised more gender neutral than we might think… But I agree that it's important to be consciously aware of the issue.

  13. I'm always learning new things that I suddenly have to be aware of once this kicker kicks it's way out of me! (ugh… that sounds painful…) And you know what? I love it! I'm in college so philosophy, psychology, and sociology is all around me, now I get to see it all first hand in my baby!

    I first learned about GENDER in a sociology class last year. At first I thought, "what in the hell is this incredibly awesome-lesbian-pregnant woman talking about?" and then it started to make sense. OH! Sex and gender are different things… wow! In my conservative home town, nobody told me that! So now, I'm even more excited for this baby to get out and help me sew stuffed animals, whether it's a boy or girl! I also like this idea of gender-neutral parenting. I think I"m going to try to incorporate this by having my child make his/her own toys, that way anything can be made, boy/girl doesn't matter cause it's unique and special…and I just really want some stuffing right now… ^-^

  14. My parents were very much into gender-neutral parenting. So when my sister and I dressed our brother in frilly dresses, their first reaction was 'quick let's get the camera.'

  15. I find it interesting the need we have to put a label on something that fundementally about opposing labels. At it's core isn't "gender neutral parenting" really just about tuning into your child and encouraging them to be true to themselves? I don't think I am practicing "gender neutral parenting" by having my son take guitar lessons and my daughter karate lessons. Nor do I feel like I am placing gender expectations on my children when I encourage my daughter to paint and tell my son he is good at math. My son like music and math, my daughter likes art and "kicking butt". As a parent (I feel) my goal is to help them find their strengths-their passions-and to develop those in appropriate ways. That's just my 2 cents at least.

      • Exactly. If my daughter happens to decide she wants to be a ballerina, I'm not going to refuse her exploring that interest just because it coincidentally fits in with a label invented by society. I'm also not going to compile a "safe list" of activities that I decide can be considered "gender neutral". I wish we could just do away with labels altogether. Activities shouldn't be "feminine", "masculine" or "gender neutral", they're just things humans can experience.

        Similiar to how people keep labelling me a "feminist", when if it was men getting paid less per hour for equal productivity then morally I would protest on their behalf too (I protest because I identify with the HUMANITY of the oppressed, not the race or gender). Life we be so much simpler if society accepted that I can be me (Naomi) and you can be you (whatever you want that to be), and the labels end there.

    • I agree with the labeling. One of the things about gender-neutral philosophies is that, instead of balancing gender-typical and gender-atypical activities, items, etc in a child's life, it often seems like it seeks to create this new category, which items, activities and characteristics must pass what I think of as the "gender neutrality litmus test". I am much more on the side of offering a kid open exploration of everything, within the limits of safety and values. For example, there are no toy guns in our house, not because they are gender stereotypical, but because I just can't encourage my kids pretending to shoot anyone or anything.

  16. When was pregnant I considered gender neutral parenting … I have several transgendered friends and recalled some of their stories about growing up. And I thought, "what if my child is transgendered? I don't want to contribute to zie not feeling comfortable in hir's own skin at home!" But the truth is, I couldn't even be gender neutral for myself, and was not equipped to enact gender neutrality at home. I finally brought it up to my husband, who suggested that we raise her as the girl that she anatomically appeared to be, but follow her cues if she determined she was otherwise. We felt it would be easier for us to let her know we loved her and would support her no matter what her gender identity than it was to ignore her sex altogether, or keep it a secret. (Not to mention, we live near and spend a lot of time with extended family, and training them to be gender neutral would be impossible and cause problems.)

    Later, I read about Jazz, the little girl who was born a boy, and I was really struck by how the parents responded. That's the kind of love I'd want to express for my child.

    I DID feel like I could raise a child in a sexual identity neutral household, though (not sure if that's the right terminology.) We don't assume she will be heteronormative, and even though she's just a toddler, we openly talk about different types of romantic relationships. Again, we don't assume she won't have any type of sexuality. We just leave the door open and hope that we can make it clear to her that she is free to be who she wants to be.

  17. This post really opened my eyes to how I really DON'T treat the boys and girls in my school differently. I'm just as quick to give a boy a baby doll and show him how to rock it and hug it as I am to show him how to smash a truck against the wall. I'm just as comfortable roughhousing with a little girl that I care for as I am to help her put on the purple tutu and tiara.

  18. You know how I feel about this from discussions on Married Me. I tried to be more gender neutral in the begining, but I grew tired of people calling my daughter a boy if I dressed her in anything but head to toe pink. Now, I rarely do that, mostly just for family events, but I still like to throw a bow on her sweet little head.

  19. This conversation reminds me of a beautiful segment on NPR's This American Life. Two 8-year-olds, Lily and Thomasina, meet at a conference for LGBTQ families and become best friends; it's incredibly touching. The theme of the episode is "Somewhere OUt There." Lily and Thomasina's story is featured in Act II, although Act I is hilarious and awesome and totally worth a listen, too.


  20. Thanks for the post. As a gender-variant, non-parenting adult, I love to hear that posts about parents giving their kids more options and comment threads with gender-neutral pronouns. And I would echo hsofia's sentiment about following the child's cues & just how important that is. Allowing your tomboy to express a love for trucks and your fey son to like pink is important, but your uber-girly daughter will tell you when she wants tutus. A child can both have hir/her/his particular gender identity validated AND be taught to respect and love the gender expressions of others (i.e. recognizing in 25 years "Boys can like dolls, too."). And sometimes gender non-conforming looks, to the innocent passer-by, a lot like gender conforming (http://www.femme-cast.com/).
    One of my favorites: http://labelsareforjars.wordpress.com/

  21. i hope this is not inappropriate in that it leads off-topic. this issue leads me down a whole different road, because for me the bottom line about all of this is about the concepts of "imposing" and "allowing" self discovery and acceptance, and the area in which i feel the most anxiety about my kid and my parenting in the longterm is the heavily loaded arena of religion/atheism. the gender thing i am less worried about than i thought i would be before zixi arrived, as she is quite clear about her identity and so confidently expressive of her wants and needs that i am no longer worried that i am imposing gender identity upon her in the least. now that she is old enough to start actively caring about traditions like holidays, i am feeling conflicted about santa/easter bunny/tooth fairy and holidays that are based in religion for most people in much the way i see being described regarding gender dynamics by everyone here. so, i'd love to see a new thread open this can of worms, inspired by and with similar respect and thoughtfulness as the gender thing is being addressed…

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