What Exactly Is Gender-Neutral Parenting?

Dec 26, 2017 at 11:06 a.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

Pink is doing it. Scandal's Katie Lowes is doing it. Adele is doing it. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt did it together (and are now, presumably, doing it separately.) Bryce Dallas Howard, Russell Brand and Majandra Delfino are at it too. They’re all raising kids without the confines of gender stereotypes. And it’s not just a celebrity fad; many other parents — you know, those of us who don’t share our parenting approaches on the pages of People magazine — do exactly the same.

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Gender-neutral parenting comes in countless variations, such as raising a child "genderless" (not revealing their sex or assigning them a gender at birth, thus allowing the child to identify their own gender at their own pace) at the top of the scale. A Swedish couple made headlines in 2016 for announcing their decision to keep the sex of their child, Pop, a secret from all but their closest family members. Storm Stocker-Witterick, born in 2011 in Canada, caused a stir around the world when the Star profiled her parents’ decision not to publicly reveal her sex. By the age of 5, Storm had decided to identify as female.

However, gender-neutral parenting can also mean simply encouraging a child to play, dress and express themselves free from societal expectations. That means providing many different toy options and letting kids play with whatever they like, be it a dollhouse or a truck. It can also mean keeping their clothing and room colors gender-neutral, allowing them to pick their own clothes, etc.

"Gender-neutral parenting is simply a commitment to being conscious about the ways in which gender norms can be limiting/hurtful/harmful to boys and girls — and to men and women," explains practicing clinical psychologist, Northwestern University professor and author Dr. Alexandra Solomon. "Parents who practice gender-neutral parenting strive to grant their kids access to a wide range of choices and experiences by making an effort to avoid labeling things as 'for you' and 'not for you' based on the child’s biological sex."

Many of us aren't aware of the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) messages we are given — from the moment we are born — about who we should be or should not be based on the sex assigned to us at birth.

"Parents who practice gender-neutral parenting are committing themselves to being mindful of those messages and the impact that they have on all of us," says Solomon. "These parents work to notice the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that gender norms and gender role expectations shape what we grant our children access to. They're trying to give their kids access to a wide spectrum of the human experience."

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According to child psychologist Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, gender-neutral parenting comes from a place of love. "As parents and indeed, our society, become increasingly aware of the perils of not accepting our children for who they are and further, that your sex at birth — determined by your genitalia — does not determine your gender, the choice to parent from a gender-neutral place really is about ensuring your child doesn’t have the experience of feeling ostracized by the very people meant to love him/her the most," she explains.

So how do you parent with a gender-neutral approach? You can do it every day in many little ways, says Solomon, and it goes deeper than offering girls toy dinosaurs to play with and letting boys wear pink. Primarily, it's about how you respond to your children's choices and behaviors. For example, imagine your 3-year-old son cries at the doctor's office because he's scared. Instead of telling him to "man up" and saying, "Boys don't cry," you could say something like, "You’re really scared right now, huh? Let’s slow down then. Let’s sit here for a bit and talk to the doctor. Let's learn about these different tools and what they do. Maybe you can even watch the doctor look in my eyes and ears first."

Rather than fearing that catering to emotions and allaying fears will make their biologically male child “soft,” the parent trusts that because they are showing empathy as a parent, their child is learning how to have empathy for himself and for the people around him, explains Solomon.

Gender-neutral parenting is about immersing a child in an environment where all options are present, with ongoing open dialogue about the social assignment of gender roles, adds Lapointe. For example, if your child makes a comment like, "That's a boy's toy" or “You throw like a girl,” use that to invite discussion rather than reprimand or confirm.

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The bottom line, says Lapointe, is that no harm can come from gender-neutral parenting; the only issues are likely to come from other people who remain indifferent or opposed to the approach.

Solomon sees this frequently with grandparents, who grew up in a different era and are often convinced gender binaries keep us all safe. "That's the slippery slope with rules, roles and norms. They do work for some people sometimes," she says. "For some boys, playing with trucks and wrestling is the most authentic expression of who they are. But for other boys, being forced to play by a set of rules that were imposed on them means that life is a series of invalidations, a series of messages that say, 'It’s not safe to be who you really are. You need to fake it in order to belong here.'"

But with time and effort, entire family systems can change for the better. "A grandpa who grew up during a time when gender boxes were even more rigid than they are today may find it really healing to 'play house' with his grandson," says Solomon.

"Children need to be accepted for who they are," says Lapointe. "As parents, our job is to see and hear the child exactly as they come to us and cherish them for every little bit of their own uniqueness."

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