Earlier this year, a Canadian couple made headlines when they announced that they had decided to keep the sex of their most recent child, Storm, private. In an email announcing the birth, the family explained that their decision is “a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime.”
My initial reaction to this was that it seemed rather extreme, and I was unpleasantly surprised by the amount of support that this family was receiving. Call me traditional, but I like to think of children as either boys or girls. So I felt uncomfortable, dare I say threatened, by the thought of a budding movement that so blatantly rejects orthodox child rearing. Reading about baby Storm inspired me to look into the concept of gender neutral parenting, so that I could better understand why this trend is rapidly gaining support.
The basis of the argument in favor of gender-neutral parenting is the psychological fact that there is a distinction between sex and gender.
Sex is biological, determined by genetics long before birth. It is also binary, meaning that, with few exceptions, everyone fits into one of two categories. On the other hand, gender is an aspect of identity. In fact, many would argue that gender is entirely socially constructed. Unlike sex, it can be described as a spectrum. Most people fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, as they are neither completely feminine nor completely masculine. Thus, an individual’s sex is known at birth, while his or her gender is discovered and developed as he or she matures.
Proponents of gender-neutral parenting claim that people should encourage their children to be who they genuinely are, rather than force them into society’s gender-based stereotypes. This is a process that begins before the child’s birth. In fact, it is not uncommon for those of this mindset to hold off on learning the sex of their baby until his or her birth, so that eager friends and relatives are not tempted to bombard the family with pink or blue onesies. This is essentially what Storm’s parents have done, though they have taken this approach to a whole new level.
One reason that I was initially bothered by this concept is that it seemed like such parents were forcing their children out of one stereotype only to put them into another. But when put into practice, gender-neutral parenting does not mean forcing boys to play with dolls and girls to play with trucks, as I had originally assumed. Instead, these parents decorate the nursery in earth tones and give young toddlers blocks, play-dough, and other toys that are generally considered gender neutral. When he or she old enough, they allow him or her to select the genre of toy that he is most comfortable with. So, if a boy wants to play with a doll because he is sensitive and nurturing, then parents do not discourage this by forcing him to play with a Tonka truck. After all, these are certainly good traits. However, if he chooses to play with a truck by his own accord, then that is fine too.
It should be clear that gender-neutral parenting is not an attempt to raise gender-less children. This would be impossible, as we all have a place in the gender continuum. Rather, its central ideal involves encouraging good and healthy traits in children, regardless of whether or not such traits typically match the stereotype of their sex.
I will not go so far as to say that I have been entirely won over by the concept of gender-neutral parenting. It is unlikely that I will make up my mind on this matter until I have children of my own. However, I no longer feel threatened by the idea, and believe that it should be given ample consideration.