By Devin Morrissey
“Is it a boy or a girl?” That seems to be the question driving the new craze of gender reveal parties.
Many people have an intense preoccupation with gender, to the point that parents will claim to know their baby’s gender before they’re even born. Because of how sex and gender function in modern society, labeling an unborn child’s gender will influence the way others treat and view them before they enter the world.
For instance, girls are often valued for their looks, while boys are praised for their intelligence. Girls are told to sit still, while boys are encouraged to participate in the world around them. These gender roles impact children for the rest of their lives and can even have lasting consequences to their health and wellbeing. In order to prevent unfair treatment and potentially even discrimination because of gender, some parents are choosing to raise their children as gender-neutral.
Gender neutrality means something different to each person but, in general, raising a gender-neutral child involves bringing them up to be free from traditional gender constraints. Some parents may avoid forcing any kind of gender or stereotypes on their children, some may choose to use the pronouns “they” and “them.” and others still may simply want their children to be able to explore their identity as a person without any influence or imposition from their family or friends.
Of course, raising a gender-neutral child is easier said than done. Parents can control much of the environment at home, but other adults, children, and society at large still have strong opinions related to gender that can influence their child. Parents should think about and plan carefully for safe, effective ways to raise their gender-neutral child.
What Parents Can Do
First and foremost, parents must consider where they want to raise their child. Though they may face close-minded people regardless of location, parents need to live in a neighborhood that is safe for and accepting of people outside of the gender binary. There are plenty of other important things to research about a neighborhood or area, but in addition, parents should ensure the current residents won’t reject non-cisgender individuals.
Look into hate crimes committed against people who are part of the LGBTQ community; the Matthew Shephard Act requires the FBI to track hate crimes based on gender and gender identity. Research the various schools in the area, from daycare to high school, and ensure there are diversity initiatives in place to protect students from bullying and discrimination because of their gender identity. In general, parents need to ensure that their family will be physically safe and able to thrive where they live.
Parents who raise a gender-neutral child should be prepared to have many discussions about their choice. They may be asked to explain personal beliefs or to answer invasive questions that others may feel entitled to — though, keep in mind they aren’t. Neither parents nor their children are required to educate others or answer questions about raising a gender-neutral child. However, these questions will likely come, and parents should be prepared for them.
Hopefully, more of these questions and discussions will come from a place of ignorance or misunderstanding than narrow-mindedness. Parents will have to explain to everyone, from doctors, to loved ones, to other parents, that their child uses certain pronouns and does not identify as a boy or girl. They should be clear and firm from the beginning. It may take family members and friends time to adjust to the idea of gender-neutral parenting, but those who matter will adapt.
The only person parents need to explain gender neutrality to is their child. Most children don’t fully comprehend gender roles until around seven years of age, but parents of gender-neutral children should begin having conversations about them sooner. Their child may have questions about why they aren’t a “boy” or “girl” like their friends or be curious about what being gender-neutral means. They may ask why only girls can wear pink or only boys can play with certain toys. Parents should be honest and open with their children in these conversations. It’s healthy and natural for children to explore their gender identities, and parents can help their child do to so in a safe and accepting environment.
Parents actually play a huge part in the mental health of older youth who are not cisgender. Teenagers who are transgender experience a higher risk of mental illness than cisgender youth, and often, parents can make a huge difference in their lives. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that youth who are LGBTQ were significantly less likely to self-harm or attempt suicide if their parents were accepting of their identity. Parents who begin having open discussions about gender with their young children can make a life-saving difference in their lives.
The concept may be new to some, but raising a gender-neutral child is becoming a more widely recognized practice. Some parents may even be incorporating elements of gender-neutral parenting into their own families, such as by letting their child dress in clothes deemed only appropriate for the opposite gender. Whether parents completely embrace gender neutrality or take what they want from it, they are still raising their children to have a healthy relationship to and understanding of gender.