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Should We Raise Gender Neutral Children?

Updated on June 5, 2019
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We don't really know whether raising kids as gender neutral from birth will have a positive or negative impact on them.

One-size-fits-all

You are born male or female or the .5%-1% who are born intersex/ambiguous (hermaphrodite). The question is whether biological sex qualifies as an adequate form of identification or is self-assigned gender a superior classification?

With more and more focus on gender (the state of being male or female in relation to the social and cultural roles that are considered male or female) and its social implications, just how much does the psychological identity of oneself supersede physical characteristics and to what effect?

We are understanding how gender and sex are not one and the same and this has opened up many new topics around gender such as gender-neutral parenting trends.

If we're looking to our children to determine their own gender, do we have the right tools and insight to measure what exactly makes a male, a male (gender-speaking) and a female, a female or a genderqueer, genderqueer?

Certainly not trucks versus dolls or their preference for pink over blue are adequate tools of measurement.

Is it even possible to provide a truly neutral environment?

Is this parenting style right for all chikdren?

We've always really known there are more feminine (effeminate) men and masculine men and tomboy traits in girls and everything in between- that's nothing new.

What's new is we want society to be aware and accepting of our personal gender idiosyncrasies. People want their gender to be recognized as a distinct part of their identity. And with gender-neutral parenting some parents are hoping to provide a smorgasbord of gender options to their children, perhaps leveling the playing field between genders in our society.

Girls and boys are innately different and we must change the environment so that those differences don't become limitations.

— Leonard Sax, M.D. Ph.D
Gender-netural Expression in style
Gender-netural Expression in style | Source

Gender In Society

Differences in boys and girls/ men and women undoubtedly exist in the majority. Experts agree eliminating gender differences should not be the goal behind gender-neutral parenting.

Girls and boys/ men and women should be valued equally (for their differences) rather than one gender having substantially more value and advantage in some aspects. We haven't reached this in western society yet and many other societies across the world. There are still significant setbacks for the female sex.

So what is the goal of gender-neutral parenting?

First and foremost, children should not be used as pawn in neither political nor social agendas by their parents. I'd argue that this is a form of child abuse as we can see in the case of "Desmond", an 11-yr old boy who's mother purposefully raises him gender-queer, admiring their lifestyle, she says. She's watched all the episodes of Rupaul's Drag Race with her young son.

Exploitation of children in the LGBTQ community has caught the public’s eye.

Many parents would agree exploitation is not a good example of gender-neutral parenting, or any parenting for that matter, when the parents' agendas are enforced upon their child.

Our lack of laws on this are astounding as well, but clearly due to lack of knowledge on the science and topic of gender. A state like New York where this boy was allowed to dress in drag and dance for dollar bills on stage in a gay bar is not an informed state, but a socially permissive and appeasing state that would rather allow an anything-goes approach to gender rather than a rational and knowledgeable approach.

In relation to gender discussions, we also have to take into account those who identify with the opposite gender of their assigned sex (more on this in "Gender Identity Disorder and Gender Dysphoria" section) or those who may simply be more or less feminine or masculine than their assigned sex.

Would raising gender-neutral children actually relieve the significant gender gap between the sexes' perceived value?

Does gender-neutral parenting interfere with normal identity?

We are exploring new territory by having these types of gender discussions.

Our goals as a society should not involve raising children as social/cultural guinea pigs, but it starts with the parents setting examples.

Gender-neutral Nursery
Gender-neutral Nursery | Source

How To Raise a Gender-Neutral Child

Raising a gender-neutral child has caught the attention of parents since celebrities such as Kate Hudson, Pink, Adele, and Angelina Jolie announced that they were raising their children without gender stereotypes.

Interesting to point out that stars such as Kate Hudson and Angelina Jolie have used society's gender stereotypes to their advantage, influencing their careers and perpetuating stereotypical sex appeal in our culture.

Perhaps we can agree that raising children always begins with the parents setting examples. If you wish to truly provide a gender-neutral "environment" for your child, you can't be party to, or perpetuate, gender stereotypes yourself.

In my opinion, parenting that relieves gender stereotypes begins with the parents, not the children, but parenting dynamics across the board nowadays are more child-centered than parental by nature.

If the parents do not want children to act and react in stereotypical ways then the parents should begin with not being influenced by those stereotypes either.

If we are to minimize gender stereotypes, especially for women as sexual "objects", we should focus on adult women who essentially set the example for their children and how women are to be perceived.

Calling an over-sexualized cultural stereotype of women, a "celebration of sexuality" may enhance a woman's celebrity status and/or relationship status, but does nothing for progress in social/cultural progress gender equality. Women have more to offer than their bodies!

Raising children requires setting examples for them- that's a big part of it.

In raising a gender-neutral child, a parent would typically not associate certain clothing, colors, or toys specific to the actual gender of their child. Boys could wear dresses and nail polish. Girls could be, well, tomboys. Some parents may opt out of using pronouns around the child, calling the child "they" (theybies) or "baby".

The big store brand, Target is even cashing in on this trend/gender-agenda by not labeling their clothing and toys by gender, and even offering gender variant clothing lines.

The big question is whether this has any merit. Is it harmful? Is it effective at all? Is it better for the child? Is it natural?

Are we attempting to alter the environment when gender is biological by nature?

Unknown Mental Health Effects
Unknown Mental Health Effects | Source

Gender-bending Gone Wrong

Let's explore a true story about why gender is important and how our gender identity affects us.

David Peter Reimer was born Bruce Peter Reimer on August 22, 1965. After a botched circumcision, his male genitalia was all but mutilated. A medical decision was made to reconstruct David (at the time, Bruce) and raise him as a girl.

The entire case was recorded by psychologist, John Money. He was a pioneer in intersex interventions at John Hopkins University. He was also a proponent of gender neutrality and gender as more than a social construct.

At the age of 22 months, Bruce underwent sex reassignment surgery (SRS) and with the approval of Money and his team at John Hopkins, Bruce became "Brenda".

This would be the first recorded case of its kind- gender in relation to biology and environment. Because Bruce/Brenda had a twin brother.

According to John Money, "Brenda" adjusted accordingly and her brother was the typical male child.

Brenda, who later became David ultimately reported it wasn't until about age 9 that he knew something was really wrong, but Money and his team continued forward, giving Brenda estrogen so that he/she would develop breasts.

With yearly check-ins and reports, Money and his team deemed the project a success. Only one problem, things weren't what they seemed. Money was actively pursuing his own agenda, that gender was both malleable and social/culturally influenced.

Had he really gotten the results he wanted?

It wasn't clear whether Money covered up Brenda's maladjustment and his/her subsequent suicidal thoughts by age 13 or the parents contributed to the colossal misrepresentation of Brenda's results-- they were reported to have lied to Money's lab staff. Either way this was one of the worst "experiments" in gender-bending ever.

Bruce/Brenda later transitioned back to identifying as a male and changed his name to David as he felt his life resembled that of David and Goliath. David tried to maintain a normal life, even marrying a woman with 3 children with whom he later separated.

But in 2004, David took his life.

From this story, we can see that gender does indeed matter. Gender is not forcibly changeable. And even parents may not be qualified in providing a non-bias influence/environment to adequately raise a gender-neutral child and for that child to truly choose their gender amidst constant signals, perhaps inadvertent, influences.


What exactly makes a girl, a girl and a boy, a boy
What exactly makes a girl, a girl and a boy, a boy | Source

Should We Raise Gender-Neutral Children?

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It All Matters (More and Less Than You Think)

There is no such thing as a neutral environment.

By this fact, everything and yet none of it matters. Everything contributes to our identity (including how we are raised) yet none of it really matters in terms of gender since gender identity surfaces regardless of how a child is raised (in the example of David Reimer).

In other words, kids eventually figure out where they belong on the gender spectrum.

Likewise, a gender-neutral upbringing makes little difference on gender identity, but the parent's misinterpretation of their children's behavior may be the biggest threat to the child's wellbeing.

A young girl could have the most feminine mother who takes her little girl to tea parties for little ladies, puts hours into playing dolls and dress-up with her daughter, but at the end of the day, that girl will gravitate to what appeals to her and feels right.

In the same respect, even if dump trucks and bulldozers appeal to her as much as unicorns and lipstick, this in no way determines her gender either. Sometimes we mislabel or misread preferences as gender identity. She may just be a tomboy.

In addition, adults are rarely aware of their own unintentional bias. Unawareness of our own bias' is easily more problematic than how sensitive to gender we raise our children.

A gender neutral environment is not only impossible, but reckless, as I'll soon discuss other biological differences between girls and boys beyond their sex/genitalia and stereotypical behavior.

It's important for kids to be comfortable playing with all people, even if they are different from them in one way or another.

The Biology of Gender

Physical differences between boys and girls are not only in genitalia or stereotypical preferences.

Leonard Sax, author of ‘Why Gender Matters”, has scoured the research as a psychiatrist who has helped many parents manage gender-related concerns.

Sax reports, ‘Boys have less sensitive hearing than girls (this can be mistaken for behavioral issues early in life) regardless of the gender they identify with. Boys, no matter which gender they affiliate with, do not respond as favorably to soft-spoken individuals. If we ignore the child's physical differences aside from gender, we could cause unwanted effects.’

Gender-neutral parenting relies on the premise of not acknowledging the differences in genders even when there clearly are some that go beyond the stereotypical.

It becomes apparent that gender differences are beyond identity, social constructs and stereotypes. We in fact need to consider other biological differences no matter the gender agenda just to better understand our children and their needs.

Psychologically, it's been shown effeminate/feminine boys for instance adjust better if they are taught to relate to other boys regardless of their feminine preferences.

Effeminate boys often want to be friends with other boys, but feel they are not accepted by them. This is also to do with more feminine boys needing assistance and parental guidance to be able to associate with other boys regardless of their gender identity.

Peer relationships are important, and not only with other girls that they feel they have more in common with, but with other stereotypical boys.

This has nothing to do with changing the effeminate boy, but rather helping them relate to their physical-gender peers so that social isolation doesn't become an issue.

When they do not get the chance to enjoy stereotypical male activities, these are the boys who tend to have issues in adolescence and become socially isolated.

Conversely, Sax also notes, girls who show tomboy/masculine traits fair better socially so this is less of a concern in girls.

And now we know the color of a nursery and types of toys they play with pale in comparison to important biological data that may go overlooked at the child's expense.

In this respect, gender-neutral parenting reflects more of a trend than a substantially sound method for raising children.

Tough girls and sensitive boys.
Tough girls and sensitive boys. | Source

Avoiding The Gender Trap

In my opinion, raising a child gender-neutral raises more issues.

For one, there's not a clear defining practice of this method. Some parents believe it consists of raising their children without stereotypical girl/boy items and activities. And once a child chooses from the traditional girl/boy roles for themselves, the parents then roll with that choice.

This plays into the social/cultural rules that the movement is trying to avoid-- determining gender identity based on gender rules/roles, and still abiding by those rules and roles.

Other parents believe raising their children this way is essentially letting the child flow from one stereotypical end to the other- a little boy that wears nail polish and plays rough-and-tumble.

I know of such a boy who grew up to resent his parents for letting him wear nail polish when he was teased over it relentlessly as a child. He felt his parents should've known better than to set him up for ridicule. He didn't care one way or another if he wore nail polish, but the amount of teasing was not worth supposed "gender exploration".

I've also seen a grown man dressed in women's clothes take his male child into the store to buy him nail polish when the kid was vehemently against it.

The blurred lines of what gender-neutral parenting looks like can wreak more havoc than the progression of a well-meaning agenda.

The good news:

The archaic ways of raising girls who only received dolls as gifts and should always be "proper" while boys were taught to "man up" and shoot a BB gun before age 6 are long gone throughout most of our culture where it doesn't serve a purpose.


Is It a Girl or a Boy or a Bias?

If a boy is tough by our standards and a girl is equally tough, does that make "tough" a criteria in identifying as male or female? Girls can be rough and tough, can they not?

The same parents who do not wish to impose gender bias on their children, do not seem to be phased by imposing other biases such as their taste in food (vegan, vegetarian, etc), beliefs, politics, religious or lack of religious beliefs, likes and dislikes, and other expectations on their children.

Furthermore, parents inadvertently push their children in academics and extracurricular areas that are not best suited for their child's personalities, temperament, or natural ability, but reflect the parent's desires/bias/preferences.

All of these bias aspects affect a child's overall identity so why is it gender identity is what parents are most concerned about?

Fear.

In the 50's a boy grew up like most other kids his age. Although, he liked stereotypical feminine activities and toys. This was very out-of-character to the strict gender norms of that time.

A certain fear may arise in the parents of this boy, and back then they would have hid his preferences or tried forcing him to "become a man".

In the 21st century the same fear of the unknown has reemerged differently.

Now we read about stories of kids and teens attempting and committing suicide over gender variance. The fear surrounding gender and sexual orientation in children/teens still boils down to people who don't know enough about psychological gender conditions and those truly effected by them. They fear it might be their child who will try committing suicide. No parent wants that, but we can't parent out of fear.

Open to explore or gender-neutral parenting has little to do with gender though as much as it has to do with fear of the unknown still.

What if our kid is affected by gender anomalies? We don't want them committing suicide.

Some parents are hyper sensitive to this fear so much that when their son who has no gender anomalies wants to wear a tutu at age 3 and happens to love glitter too, they rush to conclusions and begin buying him girls toys and relating to him as a girl.

The backlash from peers is the root of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and poor self esteem in those with gender variances. We need to know more about this so that we can prevent suicides.

It is not that they do not fit in with the stereotypes but that they were not taught how to relate to their same sex so this keeps them in a box, so to speak. And they feel isolated.

Sometimes the parents fear encouraging stereotypical activities due to the 1950's model.

The truth is that the gender the child affiliates with does not have to change or be influenced to change simply by guiding an effeminate boy for instance in how to relate to both girls (which he would already) but also other boys.

This was especially helpful in one case where the parents of an effeminate boy who was being teased, encouraged him to sign up for football- not to "be more like a boy", but to make friends. His previous friends had been girls which worked out fine until he hit middle school and the girls wanted to be with other girls exclusively.

He joined the football team and found a position he was actually good at all the while feeling very accepted by his male peers and staying true to himself. (Lenoard Sax, M.D. PhD. Why Gender Matters)

A boy who relates to girls predominately will experience some social isolation in middle grade and teen years as girls and boys choose social groups based on their sex/genders and his prior friends that were girls will gravitate to other girls.

It's been shown in studies that it is helpful if feminine boys are shown how to relate to their peers. Parents can do this by encouraging (not forcing) their child into various activities related to their same sex.

Parents become afraid to take the feminine boy on a rough and tumble motorbike excursion (or sign him up for football) when he'd rather watch makeup tutorials. Taking them to experience something else or find stereotypical activities they enjoy isn't to force them to align with another gender, but to help them relate to their peers. This in large, relieves peer pressure and suicidal notions.

We ought to be teaching our children there are all types of boys and girls. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions about their gender identity because they demonstrate characteristics typical of one sex or the other.

Should We Raise Gender-Neutral Children?

In the grand scheme of things, the neutral color scheme in your baby's nursery or clothes and non-gender specific toys will not contribute to their gender preference one way or another.

This means, to orchestrate a "non-influence/neutral" environment is not only an oxymoron, but also irrelevant.

It is our duty as parents to guide our children; not to give up when things get difficult, be flexible, focus on personality and not stereotypes, not to let their limitations (perceived or socially constructed) get in the way of their potential, and to focus on their likes/dislikes and choices aside from gender.

"It's probably better to emphasize the irrelevance of gender by making sure choices and opportunities aren't restricted by gender." Gina Rippon, Professor Cognitive Neuroimaging at Aston University, UK.

This doesn't take gender-neutral parenting to accomplish.

My daughter's pink nursery, for instance, is a thing of the past as she reaches the age where she is expressing her own separate likes and dislikes. Just as I did at her age- after ruining enough pairs of tights to unequivocally let my mom know I preferred jeans.

Who Am I?
Who Am I? | Source

Gender Identity Disorder -- Gender Dysphoria

Lastly, we should discuss what's behind the fear-- a lack of understanding about kids/people with Gender Dysphoria. People with this condition feel their assigned gender and sex do not match their own perception and experience.

What's more is that other psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar also entail symptoms of Gender Dysphoria. Right now we do not know what proportion of transgender people are transgender as the result of another psychiatric disorder.

A good clinician will follow up with an evaluation after a client's admission (or parent's assessment of their child) to determine if a disorder is involved. But sadly, many more will not.

This topic is highly controversial due to some people being motivated to learn about it through science and data and others, such as activists, who are only focused on beliefs.

Currently treatment for Gender Dysphoria includes surgical intervention (sex reassignment surgery) to match the physical sex with their corresponding gender identity. Certainly this is not the only way to relieve discomfort with this disorder, but we are lacking answers as we seek to understand more about this condition.

It becomes increasingly difficult to scientifically study gender as social agendas insist on more politically correct standards that are more restrictive than ethical standards in science.

We are doing a great disservice to this group of people searching for relief and help. With answers, we may find alternate ways to manage those who do not wish to get surgery or prior to their ability availability to get surgery.

Considering gender-neutral parenting, parents should be aware of the science available. Many studies report that boys who wish to be girls in childhood do not usually want to be one by the time they reach adulthood- about 89%. In other words, for the majority of boys who claim to want to be a girl, it is just a phase. Some gender clues are misread even by parents.

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