‘You just want your children to be happy:’ How Gender Neutral Parenting is breaking stereotypes


Zoe Haworth

‘You just want your children to be happy:’ How Gender Neutral Parenting is breaking stereotypes

By Brooke Pawlling Stennett

Joanna Woods said she could see the moment her son realized something was wrong. Eight-year-old Tom was wearing a shiny, sparkly bracelet and kids at the local McDonald’s had started to stare. He was getting uncomfortable. He put his coat back on in an attempt to hide it, but Woods saw the damage had been done.

“It’s just a piece of jewelry,” Woods, a U.K. resident said. “It shouldn’t be like that. He did not wear [the bracelet] outside again.”

When he was younger, Tom wanted a toy kitchen, but they were all pink and all the toys Tom wanted were “for girls”—pink and more pink.

“You go in the shop[s] and clothing for instance—this is the boys clothes, this is the girls clothes,” Woods said. 

One day, Woods picked Tom up from playing at school and he was in angel wings, a sparkly skirt and a builder’s hat. That was where her journey with Gender Neutral Parenting started, Woods said.

Following in the footsteps of the U.K., parents in the U.S. have embraced GNP, with numerous articles posted in U.S. Health News, Parents.com and Vogue. At its core, GNP is about giving children the freedom to make choices about themselves by eliminating gender stereotypes in dress, play and behavior. For some parents, that means never formally revealing the sex of their child or letting them choose their own pronouns. For others, it is letting their daughter wear camouflage shorts and dangling earrings, or their son playing tea party in a fireman costume, as long as the choices make them happy. 

“Putting a child into a neutral box is just as bad as putting them into a girl or a boy box,” said Corissa Howington in a Nov. 28 email interview. Howington is the manager of Facebook page  “Gender Neutral Parenting,” with more than 9,000 likes. “The point of Gender Neutral Parenting is to give children all the options and let them work it out for themselves.”

Gender stereotypes often boil down to what is considered feminine and masculine. Christia Spears Brown, author of “Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes” and professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky, raises her two children with limited gender references, though she does not identify her parenting style as GNP. Instead of saying, “Come on, girls,” she would say, “Come on, kids.”

Brown said she tries to limit how many times she references gender or lets any gender signs in toy shops determine when she shops. She does not seek out the “girl” version of a superhero when her oldest daughter wants a figurine. Gender-segregated birthday parties are not allowed: She either invites the whole class or one or two kids.

“In some ways, it is the small things like how I read a book, and in some ways, it’s the bigger things, [like] making sure we have a wide selection of toys at all times, regardless of gender,” Brown said.

 Genes and hormones do play a part in creating boy-girl differences, including the fact that boys are more vulnerable early in life because they mature more slowly than girls, but girls face greater challenges out in the real world, including the perceived contradiction of ambition and femininity, on top of pressures of child-rearing, according to Lisa Eliot, a neuroscientist and author of the study “Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It.”  But, Eliot wrote, there is little evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.

“Simply put, your brain is what you do with it,” Eliot wrote. “So it’s all biology, whether the cause is nature or nurture.”

Over the course of the last five years, GNP has seen a growing trend in Google searches, according to the search engines’ data. Initial interest in the topic was low in 2011, before hitting a high of 64 on a scale of 100 at the peak of popularity. 

The year 2013 saw a steady range of 20 to 30, with occasional peaks of popularity hitting 47 or 61, while 2014 saw a new high of 86 before dropping back into the 20s. 

In contrast, 2015 skyrocketed, reaching 100 percent popularity after a week of ranges between 40 and 78. In the last twelve months, GNP’s popularity has stayed consistent, only dropping below 25 twice.

Gender neutrality in clothing and toys in the U.S. has also skyrocketed in recent years. The superstore chain Target took down gender-based signs in stores, according to an Aug. 7, 2015, press release on its website, after parents raised questions regarding the gendered signs.

“We know that departments like Toys, Home or Entertainment suggesting products by gender is unnecessary,” the statement read. “We heard you, and we agree.”

Additionally, Target released a “gender neutral” kids clothing line filled with greens, reds and the occasional teal and pink that is still sold on its website. But, the reality of gender neutral clothing is that girls have more leeway to put on “masculine” clothing, but typically, boys do not have the same freedom, said Lee Jacob Riggs, a licensed counselor in Chicago, who works extensively with members of the LGBT community. 

Quirkie Kids, a company that sells gender neutral t-shirts, aims to eliminate this idea with shirts that say “Still a boy!” and “Free to wear pink!” along with similar choices for girls. 

Martine Zoer, owner of Quirkie Kids, originally moved to the U.S. from Holland, a place where boys have more freedom to play with “girl toys” or wear pink, including her nephews, she said. After launching her gender-neutral clothing line on Kickstarter in 2014, Zoer said she received hate mail from angry parents, which included an email saying that making children wear her t-shirts was child abuse. Another said she was a “frustrated feminist who was trying to turn her kids gay.”

“That part of [selling gender-neutral clothing] is very surprising to me,” Zoer said. “Just the idea of boys wearing pink—I cannot wrap my head around how that would be scandalous to some people.”

In Sweden, schoolteachers are being trained in gender neutral teaching methods, and Sweden has also added the new pronoun “hen” to the Swedish lexicon, which can be found in the gender equality section within the country’s official website. In the U.S., a presentation given to principals and counselors at a North Carolina school recommended avoiding he/she pronouns, instead calling children students and scholars. 

Some other schools are embracing gender neutral policies, including Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, which adopted a gender neutral homecoming court by eliminating the practice of electing a boy as “king” and a girl as “queen.” Similarly, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the university eradicated the longstanding tradition of king and queen and embraced the entire gender spectrum as candidates.

Shortly after Target phased out its gender-based signs, NPD, an industry analyst survey, found that only 31 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement, “The toy industry perpetuates gender stereotyping and should be marketing every toy to both boys and girls.”

In the U.K., a campaign called Let Toys Be Toys aims to combat gender-specific marketed toys by petitioning retailers to make their toys inclusive to all genders. According to its website, 14 retailers “have made changes or promised to do so.”

For Estephany Arroyo, a mother and psychology student at the University of Chicago, gender-specific toys had become her family’s norm. 

While shopping together, Arroyo said her 5-year-old daughter typically reaches for the pink toys, and her grandmother will sometimes encourage her by saying, “That’s a girl one.” Shortly after starting grade school, Arroyo said her daughter came home telling her that pink is for girls and blue is for boys.

While Arroyo does not identify with GNP, she tries to be gender inclusive with her daughter despite what she may be observing in school.

“I want her to pick out whatever color she wants, not just because it matches her sex or what [society is] used to,” Arroyo said.

According to Brown, by the time children are 7 years old, they are acutely aware of gender roles. Kids at that age give basic reasons as to why things are the way they are, Brown said. For example, Brown cited that boys may say girls are not good at math and science because girls are naturally not good at those subjects, or boys do not stay at home and take care of babies because boys are not nurturing. However, these are misconceptions about the innate abilities of different genders.

“If we can give them as parents different explanations, [it] helps them see how gender should not be determining how people are treated,” Brown said.

After coming across other parents who were practicing GNP, Woods said she found that many parents were put into gender “boxes” when they were young and felt uncomfortable with themselves as they got older, specifically LGBT parents who remained closeted until later in their life. 

“From a parent’s perspective, you kind of think, ‘Well, we do not know what our children’s sexual [identity] is going to be,’ but you also don’t want them to grow up thinking there is a stigma in any way because as a parent, you just want your children to be happy,” Woods said.

According to Jacob Riggs, the LGBT community would have a vastly different experience of identity exploration if, from birth, gender was something they had agency to define on their own.

“Almost all of us were assigned a gender at birth and most people have not questioned that,” Jacob Riggs said. “Gender Neutral Parenting sort of shakes the foundation of how people understand themselves.”

For Quinn Savard, an author and teacher from Massachusetts, raising a gender neutral child has taught her an important lesson: Never take anything at face value.

“We are a society that takes the outside of a person and thinks: That is who they are,” Savard said. Her daughter wears earrings and kitten shirts, but her attire is traditionally boyish—short hair and camouflage shorts—and is happy wearing both.

But, Savard said, she also harbors worries: What could happen if her daughter goes to the girls restroom and someone tells her she does not belong there and if she will give up this piece of herself she finds so great to fit in with her peers.

“I just want to equip her with everything that I can to send her out and be OK,” Savard said. “I just really want her to be OK.”

To change the mind of society is a long process, and it shows in the sparkly bracelet that drew the attention of passersby at that McDonald’s with Woods and her son. It was only a bracelet, and yet Tom never put on a sparkly bracelet again.

“That’s just the world we live in,” Woods said.