Should You Be Using Gender-Neutral Language With Your Kids?

Short answer: Yes.

Glad we dispatched with this important question so quickly. Feel free to click away to this story about the most popular gender-neutral baby names. Oh, you’re still here? Hmm, well I was going to talk about gender-neutral words for your spouse’s sibling and the World Atlas of Syntactic Structures, if you’re into that. But before I start, let’s get on the same page about a few things.

Yes, gender-neutral language and family terms exist.

Despite the assertions of grammar sticklers and mansplainers, language is messy, mushy and never completely baked. It’s less of an item with defined boundaries and more of a Bronte-esque foggy morass. Which is what makes it so great. It’s fluid — like gender! Case in point: The Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the stodgiest yet most official sanctifier of the English language, makes revisions on a quarterly basis; its most recent update pumped the dictionary up by 1,400 new terms, including such gems as “Twittersphere” and “bae.” So, language is nothing if not ever-changing and adapting.

No, 2019 did not invent them.

Gender-neutrality in languages is not new, and it’s not weird. Some languages have three or more “genders” — while some are entirely lacking gender. As linguist Gretchen McCulloch wrote for The Toast, “of the 257 languages surveyed in the World Atlas of Syntactic Structures, 112 of them have some system of grammatical gender. That’s 43%.”

Unlike words such as “bae,” “bromance” and “cannabis cafe,” gender-neutral pronouns are not new to the English language. Shakespeare used “they” with singular antecedents, as did Chaucer.

Q: Which came first? Societal gender norms or linguistic gender norms? (A: Shrug!)

The relationship between language, meaning, and culture has been a popular and confounding matter for folks in anthropology, sociology, linguistics and philosophy for potentially close to as long as language has existed. So, let’s merely agree that language and culture have a complex bond, and that how we view the world is affected by language and our language is affected by how we view the world.

Teacher fired for refusing to use trans student's gender pronouns
Image Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

As our culture has shifted to create greater space for women and queer/trans/nonbinary folks in schools, the workplace, the halls of government, and in new relationship structures, our language has shifted as well. As early as 1901, the marriage-neutral honorific “Ms.” was proposed as an equivalent to Mr. — and though it had been batted around since the late 1970s, the gender-neutral “Mx” only recently joined the honorific ranks (it was added to the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 2017). We have grown increasingly comfortable with inclusive terms for roles like police officer, fire fighter, meteorologist, and congressperson. In more intimate settings, “partner” (rather than girlfriend or boyfriend or husband or wife) has gained so much ground that it’s now meme fodder.

“It’s going to sound simplistic but, the words you use matter,” Efrén Pérez, a professor of Political Science and Psychology at UCLA, tells SheKnows. Last month, Pérez and co-author Margot Tavits, a professor at the University of Washington St. Louis, published research on how our use of gender-neutral pronouns actually affects gender equality and tolerance IRL.

“A lot of the initial pushback to the gender-neutral pronoun was ‘how could this really matter? It’s the P.C. police going crazy,'” Perez tells SheKnows. But, “what our evidence shows as well is…meaningful shifts” in how we speak about gender and how we act.

The researchers conducted three large-scale experiments in Sweden, following the effect of introducing “hen,” a much-talked about gender-neutral pronoun. What they found was that having — and using — this available gender-neutral pronoun made people less likely to default to a specific gender when they spoke and when they self-identified.

“Language makes associations of things or categories mentally salient for you,” Tavits tells SheKnows. “It makes certain associations front of mind.” When you undo those associations or expand to allow for inclusive, neutral options, speakers form new habits. Tavits and Pérez’ research demonstrated just how readily male-coding comes to mind as a default (ie, many people, when speaking about a generic or unidentified person, will default to male pronouns, saying for example, “if a traveler is delayed at the airport, he would be best advised to…”). The research participants also showed more favorable attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals after being introduced to the gender-neutral pronoun.

“Research shows that anti-LGBT sentiment is rooted in people’s traditional view of gender roles,” adds Tavits, whose first language is Estonian, which effectively has no linguistic gender. If you think men should be/act/appear Y and women should be/act/appear X, then those who don’t conform to X or Y cause a sense of violation — linguistic or otherwise. But expand the linguistic possibilities, and you create space for other ways of being.

“If the roles don’t exist, then the people who don’t fit the roles aren’t violating anything,” says Tavits. By removing baked-in expectations, you’re linguistically creating space for a broader range of possibility.

If the introduction of “hen” could have a marked effect on Swedish adults, imagine the impact linguistic shifts could have on children.

That’s where parents — and, honestly, all adults — come in. Alongside movements for gender-inclusive pronouns, members in the queer community and beyond have begun raising the issue of inclusive family terms. Do they exist, should we be using them, and can they make a difference? The answer, as you may have guessed by now, is a resounding “yes” on all counts.

In English, we already have some of these gender-neutral family terms: sibling, parent, cousin, child, grandparent. Yet there are gaps. What do you call the nonbinary sibling of your parent, for example? Auncle or Untie has been proposed, but I failed to encounter anyone using them. Frankly, more widespread in usage is a gender-inclusive term for your sibling’s child, “nibling” (versus “niece” or “nephew”). Nibling was coined in 1951, but now, as child-free millennials obsessively post about their siblings’ kids, it has grown in popularity. Alternately, the Tumblrsphere has offered us “chibling” or “sibkid” for child of a sibling; “grandy” for any grandparent; “titi” or “zaza” or “nini” in the place of “aunt” or “uncle” or any parent’s sibling.

Where words fail us, we must create new words. It’s weird, but it’s also pretty darn normal.

“There are still plenty of folks that get weirded out; it’s not something they’re accustomed to,” adds Pérez. “But in Sweden, they practiced, they made it less weird, and now it has shifted their culture.”

Basically, practice makes…well, if not perfect, then less weird. Let the Swedish “hen” be our guide as we let the next generation lead us into the wild (although not quite unknown) non-binary.

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