What’s So Wrong With Gender-Neutral Parenting?

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gender neutral parentingIf you ever want to induce eye-rolling among contemporary parents, just throw out the term “gender neutral parenting.” It seems that for every mother in the press who chooses to debut the sex of her child five years down the line, comment threads across the parenting blogosphere brim with terms like “social experiment” and “loony.” But whether we’re talking about filling a house full of fire trucks and Barbie dolls or lining your son’s closet with a bunch of ballerina tutus, the topic of going gender neutral divides even the most self-identified progressive of parents.

“Gender-neutral parenting” is a vast terrain however, which encompasses an array of parenting tactics with the hopes of disseminating gender stereotypes in the home. Child therapist Brenna Hicks tells me that it is a relative term which can cover everything from letting your son pick out a “girls” shirt in a department store to encouraging math puzzles in your toddler daughter.

“Gender neutral parenting is purposeful choices made by parents to reduce or eliminate societal pressure to conform to assumed sex-based standards that children will operate under,” explains Hicks. “This can include emotional and social behaviors, clothing, toys, interests, academic achievement, etc. What can be considered extreme to one is mellow to another, so it is difficult to accurately define.”

So Shiloh Jolie-Pitt may be assumed as the recipient of gender-neutral parenting thanks to tabloid narratives of her androgyny. However, if we’re going to split hairs, anyone who has ever encouraged their son to empathize with others or told their daughter that she could run for president has practiced gender-neutral parenting simply by avoiding gender stereotypes. As are those who have allowed their daughter to choose a superhero-themed birthday party or indulged their son’s love of My Little Pony.

Hicks describes gender-neutral parenting in its “purest form” as “providing choices to children rather than allowing culture or society to dictate what should be done,” which gives the child the freedom to pursue his or her own interests regardless of gender.

Dr. Christine Milrod also uses the term “gender-inclusive parenting” in her practice, as well as “gender-permissive parenting” to convey the same idea.  She tells me that gender-neutral parenting, at present, is by no means a “majority movement.” Yet, she too recognizes the hostility in response to more extreme cases, particularly with regards to those parents who have withheld their child’s biological sex from communities. When considering how such parenting tactics will ultimately impact the child, Dr. Milrod says that depends entirely on the individual child. She tells me that there are no validated longitudinal studies of 100% gender-neutral parenting. However, if you think an early offering of glitter or princess garb alone is going to give your son a complex about his gender identity, science can’t back you up on that claim.

Dr. Milrod tells me that regardless of how many pink mani/pedis you take your sons to, gender identity is innate. However, you may be expanding his idea of how boys can behave in society with those spa visits. And that might not necessarily be a bad thing if you’re looking to develop his idea of what masculinity can be or how it can be expressed beyond culturally-sanctioned machismo.

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