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Should I try raising my child genderless?
I think it’s a great idea, and my wife and I have been raising our twins (currently 7.5 months old) this way. We generally refer to it as “Gender Neutral Parenting,” as this tends to raise fewer hackles and more accurately describes our actions. So far we have received only positive or neutral responses from people, which was pleasantly surprising given the vitriolic responses described in the Storm story. Then again, we live in a fairly progressive part of the US and haven’t had any newspaper articles written about us, so maybe not so surprising.
I should be clear though, that as with all parenting choices, you should do what you feel is right for your child, as every child and every parenting situation is unique. Below, I’ll lay out some of the key reasons we chose to raise our kids this way, and then talk about what it’s been like in practice.
I’m taking a lot of this information from the wonderful book Gender Neutral Parenting: Raising Kids With The Freedom To Be Themselves by Paige Lucas-Stannard, and encourage anyone interested in this subject to read it, as she goes into a lot more detail than I do here.
Why Is Gender Neutral Parenting A Good Idea?
The main reasons (detailed below) why we chose to follow this path are:
- It acknowledges the current understanding of gender, sexuality, and sex as continuums rather than binaries.
- It helps us as parents overcome our cognitive biases and hopefully reduce those biases potentially harmful impact on the development of our children.
- It is a constant reminder to treat our children (and everyone else!) as individuals and not make assumptions based on their assumed membership of some group.
Paige Lucas-Stannard says it well when she says: I have 3 children and I want them to be able to fully explore and embrace their true identity and be respected for it. That’s what Gender Neutral Parenting is all about.
It Acknowledges The Realities Of Sex/Gender/Sexuality
First I’ll define what I mean by each of these words:
- Sex: a label placed on a person based on their reproductive organs
- Gender: A social construct used to categorize people into male and female groups. Gender Identity is the internal feeling of belonging to one, both, or neither of these groups.
Sex is commonly misunderstood to be a clear cut distinction: if you have a penis/testicles, you’re male, if you have a vagina/vulva, you’re female (this is an individual’s phenotypic sex). Some people also refer to an individual’s karyotypic sex, which is the chromosomal configuration of their sex genes (XX for female, XY for male). Reality isn’t nearly so obvious. Both a person’s phenotypic and karyotypic sex can fall anywhere in between the 2 conventional extremes, with examples including:
- Presentation of both penis and vagina
- Vulva with internal testes (and vice versa)
- Triple X Syndrome (XXX)
- Klinefelter’s Syndrome (XXY/XXXY)
- Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome
- 5-alpha reductase deficiency
- And many more
Buzzfeed did a great video about What It’s Like To Be Intersex.
Depending on how you draw the distinction, intersex individuals (people who’s phenotype and/or karyotype don’t fall into the conventional 2 buckets) make up between .018 percent and 1.7 percent of the population, with the latter figure being the more widely accepted estimate. To put this in perspective, that means that of the 360,000 births worldwide every day, upwards of 6,120 intersex babies are born daily.
So clearly sex is a continuum, with people who are completely male to people who are completely female and everything in between.
You know what your child’s genitalia are like, and that’s about it. And that’s fine.
So what about gender? Unlike sex, which while murky is based on observable, quantifiable facts (chromosomal makeup, genitalia, etc.), gender and gender identity exist only in our brains. This makes the whole subject a bit more complicated. No one single physical characteristic can be used as an indicator for gender.
The most straightforward method of “assigning” gender is by asking an individual what gender they identify as. This can be anywhere from woman to man and everything in between (and some other less obvious categories such as pangender, agender, etc.). Here is an interesting essay exploring the thought that some people are cisgender (identify as the same gender they were assigned at birth) by default; ie. they don’t have a strong gender identity and just go with the societal flow.
What seems to be most likely given the evidence is that gender identity is a combination of societal and biological factors. You can separate gender dysphoria to some extent into physical dysphoria and social dysphoria. Physical dysphoria meaning the feeling that gendered parts of your body should be a different way, somewhat akin to things like Phantom limb sensations and Body integrity identity disorder. Social dysphoria meaning the feeling of needing to fit into a certain gender role, and be recognized as a person who is legitimate in that gender role. Any given trans person probably experiences both to some extent, but may experience much more of one or the other.
Anyway, if we take Gender to be how someone identifies, then it clearly also lies on a spectrum (with some options lying outside of it). To give a sense of how many people identify as transgender, a recent study estimated about 0.3 precent of the adult population in the US, or roughly 700,000 people.
To put a sobering spin on this, a 2012 report found that 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Other reports have found between 25 and 43 percent. This means that even on the conservative side of things, the chance of a child being trans and attempting suicide at some point is .075 percent, or roughly one in 1300. To put this in perspective, that’s about the same as the chance that your child will die from drowning or fire/smoke inhalation. If you could do something different in your parenting to reduce that chance, something that had lots of other benefits, why wouldn’t you?
So What Does All Of This Mean For Parenting?
In terms of sex, it means that even if your child has unambiguous genitalia, they could still be intersex and you may not know for sure for many years. Regarding gender, since it’s determined by a person, you really can’t know what gender a child is until they’re old enough to tell you. So you know what your child’s genitalia are like, and that’s about it. And that’s fine.
As much as we’ve been socialized to want to know a child’s sex and/or gender, other people have no need to know, and you as parent really just need to know how to take care of their genitalia.
Everyone is biased. It’s part of how we’ve evolved to interact with the world, but they can have harmful effects. Gender bias means making assumptions about a person based on their perceived gender. There is a clear difference between women, on average, and men, on average, across many different traits, but the distributions overlap (see What are Overlapping Bell Curves and how do they affect Quora questions and answers?). And in infants, many of the assumed differences on average are not actually there, at least initially (eg. there are no statistical differences between the amount of social eye contact of newborn boys and girls). Some examples of gender bias include:
- Mothers respond differently to facial expressions of 3-6 month old boys and girls
- Mothers of 11-month-old girls underestimated their performance and mothers of boys overestimated their performance
- Faculty participants rated male applicants as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant
As well as all of the myriad statements any parent will have heard such as “Oh, boys are more physical” or “Girls are more social.” Gender Neutral Parenting provides a constant reminder to check your assumptions and attempt to remove your biases from your interactions with your children.
So how does this impact your parenting?
It means constantly checking in on your actions and thoughts concerning your child and asking yourself “Am I acting/thinking this way because I’m assuming my child is going to identify as a boy (or girl)?” or “Would I be doing/thinking this if my child had different genitalia?” Basically just making sure you’re reacting to reality and not assumptions, which is a good thing to practice for overcoming cognitive biases in general.
Treating Your Child as an Individual
Statistics, stereotypes, and assumptions have little to no value when dealing with someone as intimately as you deal with your child. I would argue that they have very little value in any relationship longer than a few minutes, but that’s another topic. You are most likely to allow your child to “fully explore and embrace their true identity and be respected for it” if you communicate with your child to determine who they are and how they feel. Rather than limiting their options based on what girls or boys “usually” like, explore everything!
Everyone is biased. It’s part of how we’ve evolved to interact with the world, but they can have harmful effects.
Our kids are only 8 months old, so we haven’t yet tackled things like explaining these concepts to them, how to react to people gendering you in public, etc. so it’s mostly been about how we interact with them and the world. Here are a few key thoughts on the experience thus far:
- Our kids have gender neutral names, presumably all this would be more difficult if you had a clearly gendered name (although some classic names aren’t as gender specific as you might have thought)
- It’s really hard to avoid using gendered pronouns, but you get used to it after a month or 2. We tried various gender neutral pronouns, and they all sound awkward and are hard to remember. We ended up deciding to just use our kids names or used “the” (eg. “Phoenix put the food in Phoenix’s mouth” or “Phoenix put the food in the mouth”).
- You get asked the gender of your baby(ies) a lot. Most people don’t actually care though, it’s just part of the social script of seeing a baby. As soon as you go off script, most people just move on. Our usual response is “We’re waiting until they tell us.” and that works pretty well. We’ve also got some really positive responses from people who thought it was really great.
- Lots of people are sure they can tell the sex of your child(ren). They guess incorrectly roughly 50% of the time
- I find that it really helps me be present. Every time my mind goes off on a tangent, imagining what they’ll be like when they’re older, I remember that they really could be anything and my focus is better spent right here with them.
If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend Paige Lucas-Stannard’s book, it lays all this and more out in an easily digestible manner. We used it to help convey the concept to our parents and other caretakers of the kids. If you’re interested in a slightly drier, more academic read, Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender Fluid Parenting Practices by Fiona J. Green & May Friedman was also informative.
Along with being a writer, Nate Sharpe is a juggler, engineer, pole-vaulter, and adventurer. You can read more from Quora below: