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How to Raise a Child Without Imposing Gender Stereotypes
The freedom of self-definition is a person’s greatest and most precious liberty. And yet, one of the most defining features of a person’s life is often imposed on them before they have even developed a consciousness of self. It works to define their familial and social roles before they draw their first breath.
That attribute is gender. And in an era in which gender reveal parties coincide with generations that are increasingly questioning the importance of gender roles in society, it’s prompting many parents today to adopt a strategy of gender-neutral parenting.
In the 1990s, theorist Judith Butler rocked the world of feminist scholarship with her ground-breaking work on gender “performativity.” According to this theory, gender is neither innate nor biologically determined. Rather, it is a social construct that is imposed on the child, beginning in infancy, a construct that the child internalizes into their sense of self in those crucial early years of identity formation.
However, as Butler argues, gender performance is very rarely a matter of personal choice. Instead, it is often borne of the child’s unconscious desire to receive reward and evade “punishment”, from social disapproval to ostracism and beyond, for those who fail to conform to accepted gender norms.
The idea behind gender-neutral parenting is to free children of these restrictive social roles and constructs, allowing them to explore and shape their own sense of identity on their own terms. In the end, the theory claims that children raised in this way will have higher emotional intelligence and a stronger, healthier, and more satisfying sense of self.
Strategies for Gender-Neutral Parenting
Gender-neutral parenting strategies are as diverse as a child’s own needs and goals. Though there is no right or wrong way to do it, there are a few basic steps that parents can take to avoid imposing gender stereotypes on their children.
An important place to begin is where the child will spend most of their time: the nursery. Opting for a “gender-neutral” color palette, such as yellow and gray, aqua, coral, or even the classic black and white, is a terrific first step. Similarly, stocking the child’s room with an assortment of toys, including not only those that might be described as gender-neutral, but also a blend of “boys’” and “girls’” toys will allow the child to discover their own interests and preferences.
Next, as the child grows, acquires language, and begins experimenting with their sense of identity, ensure that those around them follow their lead. For example, gender-neutral pronouns should be optioned and spoken of openly, and parents should be willing to adjust how they address their child as preferences change, even if pronouns specifically stay the same. It’s not unheard of for preferred gender identity to change as children grow, learn, and evolve as they “try on” different self-identities.
In this moratorium stage, parents will likely need to be particularly vigilant about the child’s social circle, ensuring that those closest to them understand how the child self-identifies and how to be supportive. For example, on special occasions, such as the child’s birthday, parents might alert party guests regarding the child’s current interests. This can help guests in gift-giving, such as avoiding giving a child a doll when they would much prefer a monster truck. At the same time, parents should be having open discussions with their children about how “gendered items” such as toys don’t necessarily “belong” to only one gender or another. Dolls aren’t just for “girls,” trucks aren’t just for “boys,” and so on. The conversation regarding gifts should be well-rounded, and include everyone involved.
Unfortunately, the level of support, love, and acceptance that is demonstrated through gender-neutral parenting cannot protect a child from every hurt, especially when they are exposed to different aspects of society that may not have the same opinions about gender and gender constructs. Research shows that depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are common among children and adolescents, impacting nearly 8 million children aged 6-17 in the US alone — but when it comes to gender-nonconforming children and adolescents, studies show that more than half experience depression.
The challenge here is in recognizing the signs, and acting appropriately. Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), for example, frequently manifests in anger or apathy. There are few abilities keener than a parent’s instincts, and when a parent senses something off in their child, seeking the support of a professional is of utmost importance. However, in doing so, it is critical that the practitioner one chooses is prepared to support, respect, and practice the gender-neutrality in which the child has been raised.
Gender identity is one of the most intimate parts of self-conceptualization, and parents are increasingly opting to allow their children to determine their own, rather than imposing it upon them. Such a strategy may not always be an easy one, but for many families, the approach will provide an important tool for raising emotionally intelligent and highly self-actualized children.