If 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.
"Gender identity -- the feeling of knowing if we are male or female is in the brain, independent of what others say," she explains. "This is borne out in the thousands of transgendered children worldwide who are reared according to their biological sex and assumed gender identity, but despite any type of environmental cues, socialization, culture, etc. emphatically state that they are the opposite gender. Gender role, on the other hand, is largely a cultural construct, with biological input. So children form an opinion of gender roles based on the culture and society around them, whereas gender identity will be experienced internally without being affected by any external cues."
Hicks identifies parents who keep their child's biological sex under wraps as having good intentions, but in her professional opinion, the disservice to the child could be great. She describes the child in question as "unfortunate collateral damage" in a process that is quite difficult to pull off in actuality given the child's eventual entry into society.
"The problem lies in the long, tedious and often difficult process of affecting such change, with the child as the unfortunate collateral damage," says Hicks. "One family's decision to fight the status quo does not alter the operational standards by which our world lives. We use sex and gender to make sense of our lives, and until society is more open to variations in the definitions, any attempt at change will be met with scrutiny and difficulty."
Dr. Milrod too describes the effort as "unrealistic" given what even the most vigilant of gender-neutral parents will unconsciously bring into the home with regard to their own gender.
However, those parents looking to go with a less extreme approach of gender-permissive or gender-neutral parenting would do well to examine themselves and their behavior rather than just the toys they buy. Dr. Milrod points out the difficulty in completely eradicating all gender from the home given whatever stereotypical behaviors the parents might exhibit. She says that parents can present a gender-inclusive environment simply by serving as examples for what a girl or boy can be.
"Start with your own behavior, analyze it, make some changes and then introduce a variety of perspectives in the family system. Children learn from their parent's example. If gender neutrality is key, then you as a parent must also abandon all forms of gender roles in order to be an example to your child. Some of that may work for you but I don't think you the parent will be able to abandon every single gender role cue in the long run."
Nevertheless, she doesn't think gender-neutral parenting will be moving into the mainstream any time soon, nor does she lose much sleep over the strategy. In her experience, she doesn't find the approach to be a balanced issue in the media by any means, as the conversation surrounding gender-neutral parenting continues to be polarizing, striking a sensitive nerve in many. After all, start chatting about how gender is a social construct at a playgroup and people will look at you like you're nuts.
"I think it could make parents uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Some parents, particularly those who espouse a gender-inclusive environment for their child might experience strict gender-neutrality as a form of childrearing fascism. Others who simply enjoy perpetuating gender stereotypes for personal reasons or ignorance might also feel that gender-neutrality is some kind of plot."
Hicks cites a similar reasoning, adding that no parent wants to consider the ultimate ramifications of keeping children's behavior to such limited categories. However, on the flip side, "No one wants to feel responsible for a girl growing up thinking she can't become an engineer or a boy believing he can't become a nurse."