Should You Raise a Gender-neutral Baby?

Here is what you should know about the gender-neutral parenting trend and if it's right for you.
Alexandra Grablewski

Blue is for boys and pink is for girls--that's what most of us were raised to believe. But some parents are taking the opposite approach to parenting by choosing to raise their children gender neutral. In fact, Sweden took a big step last year in addressing this trend by adding a gender-neutral personal pronoun "hen" to the country's vocabulary. A children's clothing company in Sweden has done away with its designated boys' and girls' sections to become a gender-neutral outlet, and a toy catalog in the same country featured a boy in a Spider-Man costume pushing a pink baby carriage.

Although the Swedes are embracing this parenting style, it's still a controversial topic here in the United States. Although some think it's a great way to encourage a child to embrace his or her true identity, others believe it will confuse the child and alienate him socially. Here, some common questions and answers about this parenting style.

What exactly is gender-neutral parenting?

There are different degrees of gender-neutral parenting. Some parents take an extreme approach. One couple from Toronto still hasn't revealed the gender of their 3-year-old, Storm. According to the Toronto Star, Storm's parents wrote in an e-mail to family and friends, explaining that their decision was "a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a standup to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime (a more progressive place?)."

Parents who want to practice a lesser form of gender-neutral parenting might simply encourage their children to play with both "boy" and "girl" toys, keep clothing and room décor neutral, and allow their children to pick their own clothes--even if that means their son goes to school in a tutu or their daughter goes out dressed as Spider-Man.

Lisa Cohn of Portland, Oregon, is raising her kids in her family's version of gender-neutral parenting. "We definitely avoid stereotypes about Mom doing the dishes and Dad mowing the lawn. That's not what our kids see at all," Cohn says. "I generally let my youngest son wear pink if he wants to, and he often appears in public wearing a headband. And I'm very careful about how I talk about girls and boys--and don't choose books that stereotype men and women."

Learn about four different parenting styles to see which one fits with your philosophy.

Is it healthy for the child?

It depends on whom you ask. "A major pro to raising a gender-neutral baby is that you will be allowing your child to develop without the artificially created limitations that society has placed around gender," says Israel Martinez, a licensed clinical social worker. "As human beings, we crave to make life simpler and new information easier to digest. So we naturally want to establish categories, or boxes, that everything needs to fit into." Unfortunately, Martinez says, these gender norms are too limiting and can make kids feel like they have to be something they're not--and this can keep kids from being as happy and healthy as possible.

For Jane Ward, an associate professor of Women's Studies at the University of California, Riverside, the decision to parent her son this way was an easy one. "Raising a child under these strict gender guidelines is denying them an entire world of colors--they become tracked into the characteristics of their biological sex." Ward's 4-year-old son has grown up wearing both jeans and dresses, plays with all types of toys, and, until recently, had long hair. He told his parents not long ago that although he identifies with being a boy, he doesn't want to give up wearing girls' clothes.

But other experts--like Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a psychotherapist based in Beverly Hills, California--disagree. "Every boy and girl child must make a strong identification as a male or female person. Without it, the child feels lost and confused about [his or her] own identity. Gender and sexuality are only aspects of a person's identification. The goal is for clarity. Without male or female gender, clarity the child is not a full person."

Does gender-neutral parenting affect sexuality?

Most research supports the idea that homosexuality is the result of genetics and biology, not environment. And according to a study in the journal Pediatrics, 85 percent of gender nonconforming youth identify as heterosexual in adulthood.

How does it affect a child socially?

Strict gender-neutral parenting is difficult to do if your child is in day care or school, says Marni Axelrad, Ph.D., an adolescent psychologist at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. "If you're not going to have your child in social situations with other kids--if he's just at home with you or a sitter most of the time--then it's possible."

People do get nervous with the unfamiliar, though, and your child's dress or play style might open up difficult questions from classmates and friends that their parents will have to address. So don't be surprised if it causes issues with those parents--and for your child socially.

Cohn definitely worries about her 5-year-old son being teased. "While I like that it teaches kids to buck stereotypes and that they should follow their hearts and intuition, they can be teased for dressing or acting like the stereotype of the other sex. And I think the teasing is a big issue--I don't want my kids to be teased."

Dr. Axelrad agrees that parents shouldn't base their decisions on what others think, but cautions that the decision to raise a gender-neutral kid shouldn't be done to "make the child an agent for social change. It should be done to help the child develop [his or her] own identity, regardless of what [his or her] gender is."

How does it affect playtime?

It shouldn't. In fact, parents of gender-neutral kids typically encourage their children to play with all types of toys. "The healthiest thing is to have a variety of toys available--cars, dolls, et cetera--and let the children decide what they want to play with," Dr. Axelrad says. "Parents also want to encourage imaginative play on all levels, not just specific to a child's gender."

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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