More and more parents are deciding to raise their kids gender-neutral. Experts explain what it is, when parents should start, and how it affects a child's development.

By Alana Bracken
Updated May 27, 2020
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When parents are expecting, the question they hear constantly is, "boy or girl?" Some have decided to veer away from an era of gender reveal parties and pink or blue baby showers in favor of raising their child gender-neutral. Celebrities like Kate Hudson and Angelina Jolie have expressed support for raising their kids beyond gender stereotypes, and Sweden has even incorporated the gender-neutral pronoun "hen" into their language to address inclusivity.

illustration of child sitting in a sandbox. the sandbox is shaped like male and female gender symbols that are interlocked. the child is sitting in the area where they overlap.
Credit: Illustration by Sara Gironi Carnevale

While six states—California, Colorado, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington—and the cities of New York and Washington, D.C., allow parents the option to label gender as "X" on birth certificates, there's still significant pushback in the United States over this parenting style. While advocates for gender-neutral parenting emphasize a focus on personal identity, others fear it can confuse them and subject them to social turmoil.

To understand how gender-neutral parenting can affect a child, it's essential to grasp the basis for it and the degrees to which it's applied.

What is Gender-Neutral Parenting?

Gender-neutral parenting can take many forms. Some stricter applications of this parenting style can keep the child's gender hidden from the outside world until they are ready to identify as male, female, or non-binary (not exclusively identifying as male or female). The most famous example of this is a family covered by the Toronto Star in 2011, who wouldn't reveal the gender of their child Storm Stocker-Witterick. As their dad explained at the time, "If you really want to get to know someone, you don't ask what's between their legs."

Other iterations don't take gender-neutral as literally, instead exposing their child to toys, clothes, and activities that cross gender lines. Christia Spears Brown, Ph.D., associate chair of the department of psychology at the University of Kentucky, is a gender-neutral parenting expert both in her research and within her own family. She uses this parenting style with her two daughters because she doesn't think the alternative best serves their future.

"Our society that is so gendered is not really setting our kids up for success. Gender-neutral parenting thinks about fostering good skills or traits for all humans to grow up with," she explains. "So that then they'll be successful no matter what society is saying they should or shouldn't do."

In her book, Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, Dr. Brown discusses the stricter gender-neutral parenting practices of the Stocker-Witterick family and agrees with their principles. On the other hand, she explains that eliminating gender completely from the equation can subject a child to extreme criticism in modern society, and there is a way "to deemphasize gender in dealing with individual children, but to recognize—and work with—the world we live in."

When Should You Start Gender-Neutral Parenting?

Gender-neutral parenting typically begins as early as possible, whether it's opting for an androgynous color for the nursery or steering away from toys that have a particularly gendered slant. How parents navigate those first few years is critical, says Darby Saxbe, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.

"We know that children are shaped by early experiences really profoundly, at the level of the brain, the body, health, and well-being," she notes. "The effects of caregiving, even with small variations, can have a significant impact."

When trying to approach gender-neutral parenting with infants, keep in mind baby clothes create a point of contention. Girls' onesies will be pink and say phrases like "daddy's little princess," while boy's bibs will be blue with "rough and tumble" embroidered on top. Dr. Saxbe says that this phrasing and color coordination creates gender biases before kids can even conceptualize what self-identity is, let alone have a say in it.

"Even at an age where babies don't really have any secondary sex characteristics and they're all basically bald, we're looking to label, sort them, and give them a lot of expectations about how they're supposed to behave and what they're supposed to be," she explains.

Strategies for Gender-Neutral Parenting

Since children hit a critical period of conceptualizing gender identity around age 3, gender-neutral parenting is most successful when parents offer a wide range of options. Dr. Brown mentions not limiting her daughters to the girls' section at the store when shopping for clothes and toys.

Vocabulary is also a valuable element to gender-neutral parenting. "With my daughters, I don't say, 'Come on girls, let's get in the car.' I don't use labels in my language unless it's really specifically needed.”

Beyond vocabulary, Dr. Brown has aimed to point out gender stereotypes for what they are so that her children can learn to navigate them as they get older. "When they were 3 and 4, and we'd be looking for socks, and all the girl socks were pink while the boy socks were blue, I'd say, 'It's a shame they only make girl socks in pink,'" she says.

With her daughters now 10 and 16, Dr. Brown stands by her decision to raise them with these tools, as gender-neutral parenting has shaped them into individuals with vast interests and a willingness to combat gender stereotypes. She even notes that these same conversations have evolved from pink socks to TV shows they watch together.

"Now it's me talking about how I wish the camera on the TV show didn't zoom on a woman's body part as if it were all that was important," she says. "It's the same message; it's just evolved as they've gotten older."

Helping Gender-Neutral Kids Deal With Bullies

As kids graduate to elementary school, this societal drive to identify by gender only grows stronger, and classroom settings often contradict gender-neutral values. The concern of bullying, in particular, deters a lot of parents from this mentality once their kids reach school age—especially if they express themselves in a gender-fluid capacity.

"I think it's important to acknowledge that they may get bullied at school," says Dr. Brown. "But then help kids have coping strategies and ways to deal with kids that might say something."

Dr. Brown notes that role playing strategies to diffuse a bullying situation is a way to help them feel in control when faced with the potential social consequences they might have.

"Say to your son, for example, 'This is a great backpack, I love this pink backpack. But if someone says something about you having a pink backpack, what's something you can say back?' and help them come up with concrete comebacks, making it into a joke or something to diffuse the situation," she says.

Gender-Neutral Parenting's Effect on Personality and Sexuality

Dr. Brown notes that gender-neutral parenting requires understanding the implications of these gender biases and how they affect both girls and boys.

"For example, it's good for all people to be nurturing and caring toward others and be able to take each other's perspectives and be considerate," she says. "The problem is we foster those in girls, and we don't foster them in boys."

In recent years, there has been a profound shift in the toy section toward more STEM-oriented play sets marketed to girls. These toys aim to combat gender stereotypes and empower girls to explore more technical, traditionally "boyish" interests.

On the other hand, there is an unspoken taboo that prevents marketing traditionally "girl" toys to boys. Dr. Saxbe believes that this mindset not only devalues feminine qualities, but also presents a disservice to boys. "We want girls to play with a chemistry set but we don't want boys to play with dolls or tea sets. But in fact, learning how to care for others, taking turns, and interacting socially might be really important values for building a better society," she says.

When a boy veers from stereotypical masculine behaviors—playing with dolls, wearing dresses, or the like—it is often met with homophobic rhetoric. However, a study in the Pediatrics journal found that about 85 percent of gender-nonconforming kids identify as heterosexual by the time they enter adulthood. "Kids that lean toward those interests are perfectly valid," says Dr. Brown. "Just because you don't see it on television or just because it isn't talked about a lot—it's a perfectly normal part of being a kid."

What We Could All Learn From Gender-Neutral Parenting

Gender-neutral parenting in any capacity has a common goal: to create a worldview that doesn’t allow societal expectations to dictate who a child can be. It’s about making conscious parenting choices that don’t isolate a child on a pink or blue path.

Even if a kid chooses hobbies and toys that society expects of their gender, Dr. Brown says it's important to veer away from choices that play into more toxic stereotypes and discuss with kids as they grow their motivations for wanting those types of toys.

Ultimately, gender-neutral parenting is a style that all parents can apply at some level.

"Yes it’s pushing back against gender stereotypes but the goal is always on what are good skills and traits to have," says Dr. Brown. "And I feel like that’s a good way to keep it from being about your beliefs about gender and more about what is really good for humans, what helps people be more well-rounded individuals."