Gender-neutral parenting: an in-depth guide

Many parents-to-be are frustrated by the social limitations of gender stereotyping. They don’t want their girls to only play with tea sets and dolls or their boys to be dressed only in blue pretending to be policemen and playing with diggers and trucks. Gender-neutral parenting gives children free choice and nurtures creativity, self-awareness and identity awareness. Here we explain the ins and outs of gender-neutral parenting, explore the misconceptions, and the positive benefits in detail. This is your guide to doing it yourself!

people-1435764_640Gender Neutral Parenting (GNP) is a popular trend practiced in numerous countries including Sweden, USA, Canada and the UK. For parents or soon-to-be-parents interested in this method, however, exploring the inner workings of this process can be quite tricky. To help you get started the right way, here are the things you need to know.

What exactly is GNP?
GNP might be best defined through the words of Christina Kotsamidis-Ventouras, an early childhood educator and mother of two. She says gender-neutral parenting is “about destroying the senseless limitations society has placed around our children based on their gender and allowing them to develop and thrive without having to be squeezed into a box or category.”

Simply put, GNP is allowing your child to choose activities/clothes and language without enforcing gender restrictions. For instance, letting your son be a princess at a costume party, or not keeping your daughter from playing with toy guns and construction trucks. GNP is NOT about actively proposing such behavior, rather, it is just supporting your child in whatever his/her preferences may be. By letting their child chose freely many modern parents practice this element of GNP without realising.

Other aspects of GNP include using gender-neutral pronouns such as hen, ne or spivak when referring to a person, giving your child a name that is gender neutral, dressing your child in gender-neutral clothes or giving hen the option to wear clothes for both genders and not defining your child’s gender with a short haircut for a boy and a long style for a girl.

Many people, parents or not, tend to have misconceptions about gender-neutral parenting, with the most popular one suggesting that it encourages homosexuality at an early age.This belief is simply untrue – there is no evidence to suggest any link between gender and sexuality. To clarify, Sophie Dunstone, as well as other clinical psychologists, states that sexuality is separate from gender identity. This is backed by research: one study in particular, in the journal Pediatrics, found that 85% of youth unconformed to gender grew up as heterosexual; leading to the conclusion that homosexuality results from biology and genetics, not environment.

The discovery of gender identity in children is fluid until as late as 7 years old. The prominent psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg proposed in his Theory of Gender Development that there are three stages to this process.

Gender labeling: occurs at around 3 years old. In this stage, children can label themselves and others as boys or girls, but they do not view gender as permanent yet.

Gender stability: at around 5 years old children acknowledge that gender is stable over time, but may still be swayed by appearance or activities. For instance, a woman may be seen as a man when she's doing what the child perceives as a 'masculine' activity.

Gender consistency: at around 6 or 7 years old children fully recognize that gender is permanent over time and across situations.

So there are no proven negative impacts of gender-neutral parenting.

Why Choose GNP?
Gender-neutral parenting has many advantages. Children who are not restricted by gender constraints are more likely to develop skills in the following:

1. Creativity: increased choices in creative play enhances a child’s ability to be creative.
2. Insights and interests: letting your child play or study as pleased will lead to broader interests and insights later on in life.
3. Social understanding/empathy: becoming familiar with both genders’ activities means your child will gain the ability to interact well with boys and girls.
4. Self-awareness/self-esteem: GNP gives children greater understanding of who they are and want to be. This natural emergence of gender awareness will boost the child’s self-esteem and reduce the risk of having an identity crisis in later years.
5. Be confident leaders: studies have shown that children with freedom of choice are more likely to become leaders due to increased confidence.
6. Understanding of gender equality: a high regard for gender equality will develop in your child which they will carry into adulthood.

Learning and implementing the basics
UK media group, Independent, published a piece about GNP, highlighting the couple Joe and Gabriella Haughton-Malik, along with their five-year-old twin boys who were playing wearing princess dresses with painted nails.

When asked about why the parents chose the GNP approach, the father responded by explaining that what matters most is the happiness of their twins, and that gender identity, in comparison, is of little value. Joe said, “My hope for them in the future is that they’re happy. Other than that, I really don’t care what they do or who they are, as long as they’re good people and they’re happy. That’s all I want for them.”

The core principle of GNP is just like normal parenting – wishing and doing what parents’ feel is the best for their child.

The Challenges
There are some challenges when implementing a gender-neutral parenting approach. For example in the UK our culture follows a gender defining mindset through the pronouns we use in everyday language: his, her’s, he, she.

Sweden addressed this issue by officially adding a new pronoun to their vocabulary. Hen is now being used as a gender-neutral pronoun, created especially for their growing trend of GNP. There is yet to be a regularly used gender-neutral pronoun in UK culture, however our awareness is progressing through continued references in popular culture (cartoon programme Futurama used the pronoun Shklee to refer to a gender-neutral alien) and as gender fluid and non-binary awareness is raised by celebrities such as Tilda Swinton and Miley Cyrus.

Changing our mental mindset can be challenging but for children there is less preconceived expectation. Other gender-neutral pronouns that can be used are: they, ne, ze, xe, and spivak.

boy-1003793_640Getting dressed: finding clothes for your child is not always straightforward, given that most clothing stores have separate sections for boys and girls and clothing themes and colours are specifically designed with gender in mind: pink and purple for girls, blue and darker colours for boys. Fortunately, there are now a lot of unisex clothing brands such as Tootsa in the UK, as well as Molo, Polarn o Pyret and Hei Moose. There is also a movement working to challenge gender stereotyping on the high street. Campaigning organisation Let Toys Be Toys (lettoysbetoys.org.uk) are amongst the voices on social media who recently challenged The Gap about a new line of T-shirts where boys are depicted as little Einstein’s in the making and girls are social butterflies. Let Toys Be Toys have pointed out that this is rooted in sexist principles that restrict ambition in girls whilst boys can strive to be geniuses. They also pointed out an ironic twist: Einstein is spelt wrong on the t-shirts.

Let Toys Be Toys have been instrumental in getting high street retailers Debenhams, Boots and The Entertainer to take down their boys and girls signage on the shop floor and getting M&S to pledge to make all their toys inclusive.

Names: finding a gender-neutral name for your child can be limiting however there are still lots of names to choose from. Sabrina Cruz, founder of a community of parents and children who support and practice GNP, named her son Micah. Other popular gender-neutral names include Alex, Harper, Andy, Nico, Charlie, Jordan, Riley, Sam, Max, Jesse, and Taylor.

Social pressure: The biggest problem of GNP is societal pressures, especially in school. Jason Lau, a father of two daughters, states, “My eldest daughter is often teased by other girls because she likes to play tag and soccer with boys at school.”

To counter this dilemma, parents need to be extra supportive. Find picture books that explore gender identity and spend time reading them with your children and talking about the concepts. Encourage your child to play with boys and girls, and have lots of conversations with them to help expand their understanding. Kotsamidis-Ventouras says, “We [mum and son] engage in discussions which aim to empower, not conform. A phrase that we often use in our home is that ‘there are many different ways to be a boy or a girl’.”

If you are finding a lot of negative attitudes are coming home with your child from school, try engaging the school in a conversation and asking them to challenge these attitudes. Let Toys Be Toys offer guidance on this as well as provide template lesson plans as well as a 10-step guide to challenging gender stereotyping in school. See http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/schools/ for more information.

Now that you have basic knowledge, you can explore gender-neutral parenting and give your child enriched choices. This path can be bumpy, but with the right mindset, as well as unending love and support, you can yield numerous positive effects and maximize the potential of your child.

Article by Allyson Yzia, who can be reached by email at alysonyazia@gmail.com

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