"I'm interested in doing gender creative parenting for my future child, but my partner feels that it would confuse our child and cause anxiety in having to choose their pronouns/gender on their own. Do you have any advice? I have friends currently raising a non-binary child and both parents and tot are very happy with the situation!" (Question submitted to email@example.com)
Parenting is one endless decision after another—doctor or midwife, home or hospital birth, cloth diapers or disposable, swaddling or not. Deciding whether to raise your kid gender open or not is another decision in that long list of decisions you need to make with your partner. Just because you have a lot in common with your partner, doesn’t mean that you see child raising in the exact same way. You each bring your own values, history, and experience to that partnership and parenting is one of the areas where somehow you must make these decisions together despite coming from your own unique point of view.
Parenting in general comes with a lot of unknowns and because there hasn’t been any research on how gender creative/gender open parenting affects kids and because a lot of people haven’t seen the results of kids being allowed to define their gender from the get-go, some parents may worry that gender open parenting might create confusion or anxiety or perhaps bullying from other kids. So, what can you do about it when one parent wants to leave their child’s gender open to self-determination and the other parent is hesitant? Here’s some advice/comments from parents who have done it:
Recognize that assigning a gender can cause anxiety/confusion
Many parents have the experience of assigning a gender to their child, and gendering that child has caused confusion, anxiety and even harm, especially when that gender assignment doesn’t match who they end up identifying as. As one parent says, “ We wish we had raised our 4 year old as gender neutral from the beginning. We didn't switch until 3, when he began telling us he did not identify with the gender he was assigned at birth. We switched to neutral everything to give him time to explore. a year plus later, he is now confident in his gender identity, and he tells adults all the time that they were wrong for calling him his assigned gender. it has caused a lot of heartbreak and stress with family, friends, schools, and others to break their constructs and stereotypes, and we could have prevented that by doing it from the start. I wholeheartedly believe gender neutral parenting is the right thing for kids, and will do it with my next child. I wish I could turn back time and do better for my kid,”. Another parent states “If you tell a child "you're a girl" from the instant they're born, it could take decades of confusion and self loathing and isolation for them to figure out that they're actually a boy. If you tell your child "you can be whoever you are, keep us updated on that process" they’re likely to find out information like that about themself sooner, and a lot less painfully.” Another parent sums up that regardless of whether you assign a gender or not “The truth is the baby will have to decide how they relate to gender on their own anyway, starting gender open is just more honest about it.”
Recognize that assigning a gender leads to sex-role stereotyping by adults
Gender isn’t something that matters to infants and toddlers in their very early days. During this time period, gender open parenting focuses more on creating a space where other adults accept that the child’s gender hasn’t yet been determined. The reason this is important is to create an environment with the least amount of stereotyping as possible We know from many studies that when adults “know” the gender of a child, they both characterize and treat that child differently based on sex role stereotypes, often subconsciously (https://www.newsweek.com/why-parents-may-cause-gender-differences-kids-79501_). Watch this interesting experiment that highlights this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=nWu44AqF0iI
We also know that even the labeling and classifying of “boys” and “girls” in the classroom leads to the children adopting stereotypical ideas about what boys and girls are like and are capable of, even if their teacher hasn’t said anything directly supporting these sex role stereotypes ( https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-pink-and-blue/201403/the-way-we-talk-about-gender-can-make-big-difference)
One benefit your partner might see is that raising a child gender open, even if your child would have identified with a sex assigned at birth, can result in more options for gender expression and less believing of sex role stereotypes, and that’s just based on what you say to other adults. So one option could be raising them open until the child is interested in their own gender identity, and deciding what you might tell them at that point. Some people might say “We don’t know your gender, you can decide for yourself” and other parents might say “Most people think you’re a boy/girl because of how your genitals look, but what do you think?”.
Show your partner that kids who have been raised gender open are confident in their gender identity
Perhaps showing your partner that many kids who have been raised gender open don’t have anxiety or confusion when it comes to their identity. Remember, using they/them pronouns for kids since birth isn’t assigning them a non-binary identity, it’s just leaving the door open for them to define themselves. If a trans kid can define their own identity despite being told repeatedly they aren’t that gender, then certainly kids can arrive at their own gender identity when leaving their option open. When my child said they were a girl, I responded “Okay, you’re a girl. You can be whoever you are- a girl, a boy or non-binary, and I’ll love you just the same”. When my child said they were a boy, I responded “Okay, you’re a boy. You can be whoever you are- a girl, a boy, or non-binary, and I’ll love you just the same” and when they told me they were non-binary, you can imagine what I said. 😊 Now that my child is 4.5 and has been consistently identifying with a particular gender identity for about a year, I sometimes ask them if it bothers them when other people misgender them. Because of their confidence and having a gender identity that has been theirs to decide from the beginning and supported 110 per cent at home, kiddo responds “It doesn’t matter what other people say. I know who I am”. Giving my kiddo this support and freedom has resulted in more confidence, and less anxiety. Just like you wouldn’t pre-determine a kid’s sexual orientation, profession, personality, interests, gender open parenting lets their gender identity emerge by following the kid’s lead.
Keep sharing and talking
One parent who has been in your exact situation suggests: “Keep at it - if you can. Keep sharing resources. Open the conversation around it occasionally (like, once a month or whatever). Ask if they mind you listening to a podcast about theyby parenting around them. Show them the insta story of public theyby profiles to help normalize it. Make it clear that you’ll be using they/them pronouns for the baby, even if they won’t be. That you won’t be telling your friends the genital structure your kid has, even after birth. My husband was all sorts of scared about it. But he came around. “ Another parent concurs “My partner didn’t come on board until our babe was literally born and then because of everything we had talked about and upon meeting our kid felt an enormous amount of responsibility to respect this new person and their autonomy. Keep sharing and talking!”
You can still do gender open parenting, even if your partner isn’t
If none of the above suggestions put your partner’s mind at ease, some parents will continue to use they/them pronouns for their baby and say they don’t know the baby’s gender, while their partner genders the child. It might not feel like ‘true’ gender open parenting, but in this society, your child is bound to be gendered by someone at some point anyhow whether it’s a grandparent who has seen the genitals, or a caregiver doing a diaper change, or just the person in the park who uses ‘she’ because your kid has long hair. You might want to figure out with your partner though how you are going to deal with talking to other adults about your child’s gender or genitals, even if they are gendered by one parent. Regardless though, by you using they/them pronouns, you are still creating a space for your child to be exactly who they are, even if other people aren’t. Good luck!