What You Need to Know About Gender-Neutral Parenting
More and more parents are becoming aware that tired pink-and-blue stereotypes don’t always serve us, and are turning to some form of gender-neutral parenting. If you’re interested in gender-neutral parenting but aren’t sure where to start—or maybe you’re nervous about being judged—read on for expert advice.
Gender-neutral parenting is a parenting style that aims to avoid imposing gender norms or stereotypes on a child. This allows them to explore their own interests and identities without being told that certain things are “for boys” or “for girls,” notes Rebecca Minor, MSW, LICSW, a licensed clinical social worker and gender specialist in private practice. “The focus is on raising a child without rigid expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth.”
There are no definitive rules to gender-neutral parenting. In some cases, parents even choose not to tell extended family, friends and others what baby’s sex is, adds Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, a family counselor and professor and chair of the counseling and higher education department at Northern Illinois University. “This practice is designed to keep other people from placing gender-based stereotypes and expectations on a child,” she explains.
There are many ways in which parents can practice gender-neutral parenting—and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Minor points out a few ways in which you can incorporate gender-neutral parenting:
- Decorate the nursery with neutral colors. You can start practicing gender-neutral parenting when you’re pregnant and decorating the nursery, using colors and themes that aren’t gendered. (That doesn’t mean it has to be beige or boring!)
- Use gender-neutral language. You could use gender-neutral pronouns like “they/them” for your child until they express a preference. You could also choose a gender-neutral baby name, adds Degges-White.
- Choose a variety of toys and activities. This means “allowing your child to play with dolls, trucks, kitchen sets and building blocks equally,” says Minor. Moreover, you can let your child pursue any sport or activity in which they’re showing interest, whether it’s cheerleading, football, baking or dancing, adds Renée Goff, PsyD, PMH-C, a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Orchid Wellness & Mentoring in Cincinnati, Ohio.
- Don’t choose clothing based on “boy” or “girl.” There are lots of cool gender-neutral baby clothes brands. You can also let your child develop their own color preferences for clothes (and other things), not defaulting to pink for girls and blue for boys.
- Expose your child to diversity. Introduce your child to a wide range of stories, media and role models that include people of all genders doing a variety of activities. Check out our list of LGBTQ+ children’s books for babies, toddlers and preschoolers.
- Let your child experiment. “Encourage your child to express their feelings, play in various ways and explore different roles regardless of gender,” says Minor.
- Challenge stereotypes. If somebody gives your child a gendered compliment (“strong like daddy” or “pretty like mommy”), you can gently add on or counter with something non-gendered, suggests Minor, like, “and strong like mommy too!”
Keep in mind that practicing gender-neutral parenting doesn’t have to be all or nothing: Many of us were raised with gender stereotypes, explains Goff—but many of us are also already practicing gender-neutral parenting without calling it that.
“For parents wanting to practice this with babies and toddlers, you’ll be working on deconstructing your own stereotypes in which you were likely raised,” says Goff. “For example, if you think about your child whose birth sex is male, what will your response be when they ask for a Barbie? Is your initial reaction to dissuade your child to something geared more toward ‘boys?’” Pay attention to your body language when you have these conversations with your child, she advises.
If you’ve chosen to practice gender-neutral parenting, you may at some point deal with misunderstanding or judgment from others. Minor says that when she discusses gender-neutral parenting with those who are new to the concept, she finds it’s crucial to approach the conversation with “empathy and evidence.”
“I explain that this parenting approach isn’t about denying the child’s biological sex; it’s about offering an environment where children can explore and express their own interests and identity without the constraints of traditional gender norms,” Minor says. “It’s about allowing them to develop naturally without the boxes that society traditionally tries to place them in.” When it comes to judgment, she says it helps to be confident and clear about the reasons behind choosing gender-neutral parenting. “I often discuss the positive outcomes of such an upbringing, like higher self-esteem in children and a decreased likelihood of them feeling pressured to conform to stereotypes,” she says.
Minor recommends finding support among like-minded people. “Having a network that shares your values or understands your parenting approach can offer tremendous emotional support and serve to reinforce that your choices are both valid and normal,” she says. And if you’re faced with persistent negativity? “I believe in setting firm boundaries,” she says. “It’s essential to communicate to others that while you may be open to discussing your parenting philosophy, you anticipate respect for the decisions you make for your family.”
If you’re facing judgment, it could be time to do a little soul-searching, says Goff. “If the judgment upsets you, figure out what upsets you the most about it,” she says. “Does it make you doubt your decision? Is it causing others to not include you and your child in activities? Is it others’ lack of trying to understand?” Once you figure out what upsets you most, you can work to counteract it. “Remember, when someone else is judging you, it speaks more about them than it does you,” she adds.
When figuring out whether gender-neutral parenting is right for you and your family, it’s important to consider its considerable benefits, but also the potential criticism you might face.
Consider that gender-neutral parenting has shown to be positive for children’s development. “Kids who are encouraged to explore the world freely are often more curious, have more varied interests that allow them to try out different things, are able to respect others who are different from the mainstream and are often more confident as they develop due to their parents’ support of them along the way,” says Degges-White.
Of course, you or your child might face some degree of backlash from extended family members and others who are steeped in traditional stereotypes. “Helping prepare a child emotionally to deal with bullying or rejection is important—and this can be done through educating the child about others’ limitations, recognizing when trouble is brewing and finding a way to defuse it, walk away from it or get help dealing with it,” says Degges-White.
It also really helps when both parents are on the same team when it comes to adding elements of gender-neutral parenting to how they raise their kids, she adds.
Gender-neutral parenting has its challenges, but ultimately it contributes to building more empathetic and understanding communities that are free from the constraints of gendered norms and stereotypes.
“It’s a path chosen out of deep respect for your child’s individuality,” says Minor. “Amid societal norms and external judgments, your focus remains on nurturing a child who is confident, happy and whole.”
Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, LCPC, LPC, LMHC, NCC, is a family counselor and professor and chair of the counseling and higher education department at Northern Illinois University. Her research explores development over the lifespan with a focus on women’s relationships and women’s developmental transitions.
Renée Goff, PsyD, PMH-C, is a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Orchid Wellness & Mentoring in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her doctor of psychology from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
Rebecca Minor, MSW, LICSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and gender specialist in private practice. She focuses on working with trans and gender-nonconforming youth through their journey of becoming and expressing their truth, and she works through a trauma-informed and resilience-oriented approach.
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