Disclaimer: Throughout this article, we will be using the terms “sons” and “boys” to describe children who were assigned as “male” by birth, and “daughters” and “girls” to refer to children who were assigned as “female” at birth. We understand that sex and gender are two different things, and that your children may choose to identify as something other than their assigned sex, but for the sake of simplicity and consistency, those are the terms we will be using. If you would like to learn more about gender identity, visit our article Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.
In recent times, it has become much more common and socially acceptable for parents to raise their children in gender neutral ways. As queer rights, feminist movements, and gender equality take on a greater social relevance, many caregivers no longer expect their children to behave stereotypically “masculine” or “feminine;” children may even be praised for going beyond their gendered expectations (e.g., boys who can cook well or girls who are fit and athletic). Raising your kids without expecting them to conform to gender norms may allow them to develop a broad potential in many areas, rather than only allowing them to explore activities that are appropriate for their traditional gender roles. For example, if you are raising a girl, she may have the potential to become both a great mechanic and a talented dancer if you do not narrow her choices down to only those that are gender conforming.
If you decide to raise your children gender neutrally, it is important to keep in mind that you will not be able to completely shelter your child from the gender norms of society. Socialization takes place beyond just the home environment. Children’s personalities are also shaped by their experiences at school, in public areas (e.g., shopping malls, adventure parks, etc.), at their friends’ houses, at day care centers, and in many other social environments. Even if you do a good job staying away from normative gender expectations at home, you cannot manipulate every other factor that plays into your child’s development. In addition, children often have a tendency to imitate their same-sex parent.6 If a boy sees that his dad likes to spend time in the garage fixing his car, the boy may learn to develop an interest in mechanics because he looks up to his dad as a role model, even if his parents did not push him into pursuing this hobby.
As parents, you play an important role in your child’s upbringing, regardless of whether or not you can control every factor in their development. From birth, many parents tend to lead boys and girls on different tracks, fostering dependence in girls and independence in boys.6 These different gender roles can take females and males in very different directions in life and can sometimes even impede close female-male relations.6 If you wish to raise a child as gender nonconforming as possible, the following are several crucial guidelines to help you out.
1. Do Not Succumb to the Gender Expectations Trap
In other words, refrain from having social expectations for your children based on their sex. This tip might sound very obvious considering you have already decided that you do not want to abide by gender binaries when raising your children. However, it is often a lot trickier than most people think; this is especially true when considering the minute unconscious actions, biases, or inclinations we tend to adopt when approaching others. For example, because females are generally viewed as the more delicate and sensitive gender, when a little girl comes home from school crying, her parents may be inclined to comfort her, ask her what is wrong, and encourage her to talk about her feelings. Although scientific observations show no behavioral differences in baby boys and girls, most parents tend read into gender scripts and shelter girls more.6 Seeing her parents reacting this way teaches the young girl that it is okay to be sensitive and express her feelings in the future, because she knows she will receive a positive reaction when exhibiting these behaviors. Even though the parents may not be aware of it, they are conditioning their daughter to talk and think more about her emotions, especially sad and negative emotions, as well as adopt more verbally expressive traits of the “typical” female.
On the other hand, males are generally expected to be tougher and covert about their feelings. If a young boy comes home from school crying, his parents may comfort him and ask him what is wrong, but they might be less inclined to give him as much attention as they would if he was a girl. Instead, they might expect him to stop crying sooner and reward him for doing so. This is because boys are stereotypically expected to be “strong and hearty,” so parents tend to roughhouse them more.6 As a result, boys are not taught to think and talk about their emotions (especially sad emotions), causing them to become increasingly rowdy while girls become increasingly social and verbal.6
A key point when parenting gender neutrally is to ask yourself why you are choosing to treat your child a certain way before you approach them. Are you giving your daughter special attention and comfort when she comes home crying because you believe that children should be comforted when they are sad, or are you doing this because you feel inclined to nurture her more due to the fact that she is a girl? Would you comfort your child this same way if they were the opposite sex? Once you can answer these questions, it will be easier to figure out whether you are treating your children in certain ways because it is gender conforming, or because you truly feel this is how all children should be treated regardless of sex. Remember, many of these behaviors are unconscious and involuntary, because they are so engrained in our society. As a parent who aims to raise gender nonconforming children, you have to pay extra attention to these minute biases you may have.
If you would comfort your daughter and encourage her to talk about her feelings when she is crying, make sure you treat you son in the same way next time you see him cry. If you would distract your son from crying instead of comforting him when he falls and scrapes his knee, make sure you do the same for your daughter. The key is to ensure that you are acting this way because you believe this the best way to behave as a parent—not because it is what you think you “should” do based on the child’s sex. It may be hard to differentiate between the two at first, but if you keep reminding yourself of the reasons why you wish to raise gender neutral children, it can help motivate you to strive to keep actions unbiased. Enforcing the same rules and providing the same opportunities to all children is essential if you do not want your children to think they grew up disadvantaged in certain areas because of their sex. Here are several examples of ways you can break the gender binary:
- Encourage your sons to be considerate and to talk about their feelings. Boys have the capacity to be just as empathetic as girls, but tend to mask this as they grow older due to the social pressures to be “masculine.” By not imposing this gender stereotype on your sons, you can help them openly express their feelings without feeling ashamed or uncomfortable.1 Allowing their ability to empathize develop can also help boys find and better maintain valuable friendships and/or relationships in the future. It may also hone their overall communication skills.
- Protect girls against stereotypes of what females “cannot do”. Very often, girls grow up hearing stereotypical phrases such as “girls cannot do math and science,” “girls should not be rough in sports,” or “do not hit like a girl.” Telling someone that they “hit like a girl” as an insult implies that females are the weaker and subordinate sex. It is important that you teach your children why using this type of language is sexist and harmful. If girls continue to grow up hearing these condescending messages and are not taught to ignore them, studies show that these stereotype threats can worsen their performance and boost their anxiety simply because they are taught to believe they have gendered limitations (e.g. if a girl is told that females are bad at math, she is likely to perform more poorly on the math test than if she was told nothing before she took the exam).1 Encourage females as early as possible to explore subjects such as math and science, and allow them to roughhouse with their peers, play sports, build things, etc. Teach young women that they have the potential to be as skilled as males in any area so that they do not feel limited because of their gender.
- Do not use on the phrase “boys will be boys” as justification for not punishing boys. Many people rely on the belief that boys are be inherently programmed to behave in ways we define as masculine to excuse males from being disciplined for certain behaviors.3 Because boys are expected to be more aggressive and rowdy, many parents are less quick to react when their sons behave violently, or make striking comments such as “I’m going to punch you in the face!” The problem with using the phrase “boys will be boys” is that it is misinformed thinking that avoids the problem.3 By justifying boys’ aggressive behaviors by attributing it to innate or biological impulses, you are ignoring environmental factors (such as media influences, messages at school, family, etc.) as well as individual factors (impetuous thinking, personality, nutrition, etc.).3 Hence, boys may grow up with an expectation of not having to suffer from the consequences of their impulsive and harmful behaviors. This can lead them to have nonchalant attitudes towards acts such as rape, cheating, abuse, or the like. Using this phrase allows harmful behaviors to remain unexamined and possibly worsen overtime.3 As parents, you should take initiative and discipline your sons whenever they misbehave. Once again, it is important to constantly remind yourself that you must treat your children fairly regardless of their sex. Using the phrase “boys will be boys” contradicts the purpose of wanting to raise gender neutral children because the usage of this phrase prompts children to construct gender stereotypes and generalize the idea that males should be treated differently than females.
- Avoid overprotecting your daughters. Some parents tend to restrict girls from taking risks at an early age. Research shows that as babies, the physical abilities of girls are often underestimated and, therefore, they are discouraged from crawling too far away from their caregivers, for fear that they might hurt themselves. (1) Allowing girls to take realistic risks at a young age allows them to develop a sense of confidence as they flourish and thrive in social exploration and play. As they age, this suppressive bias is sometimes evident in the way that parents tend to restrict girls from going out more than boys, for the fear that they might get hurt, raped, pregnant, kidnapped, etc. As important as it is to care for your children’s safety and admit that females are more at risk of attack than males are in society, it is critical not to inhibit your daughters’ recreation in youth by teaching them that they are unable to venture out into the world because of their vulnerabilities as females. Instead, educate them about these risks and on what they can do to be safe. If you are concerned about your daughters getting pregnant or contracting sexually transmitted infections (STI), you could talk to them about the risks of being sexually active and inform them of contraceptives they could use. Here is an article you may find helpful: Talking to Your Child About Sex. If you are worried about their physical safety, you could consider enrolling them in self-defense classes, buying them pepper spray, or finding a safety app that will allow you to pinpoint their location. Educating them on ways they can protect themselves rather than restricting them from activities for fear they may get hurt teaches girls that, although society displays many threats against females, they should not let this stop her from being afraid to explore and pursue the world.
2. Expose Your Children to All Types of Settings and Activities
Aside from not having different expectations of your children based on their sex, it is a good idea to expose your kids to as many different options in life as possible, including ones that oppose gender stereotypes. You should provide equal amounts of exposure to various activities, career options, toys, color choices, and other forms of expression that are stereotypically expected of either females or males. Doing so will allow your children to develop a wide range of interests and potential career opportunities so they will not feel constricted to certain options in the future because of their gender.
For instance, you can let your daughters play with action figures, building blocks (such as LEGOs), or toy cars when they are young, instead of limiting them to dolls, doll houses, or mini baking kits. A review of childrearing practices presents data that suggests gender stereotyping, including choosing stereotypical toys based on children’s sex, may limit females’ occupational choices and aspirations.4 Teaching your daughters to only play with dolls, baking kits, and role playing games such as “house” or “secretary,” puts them in a cycle where they are encouraged to aim for undervalued professions such as childcare, secretary positions, or social work. The women who end up in more reputable science and engineering fields usually cannot dedicate as much time to their families as they would like, because these professions do not value domestic matters as much and require more time spent at the work place. So women in those fields tend to not stay very long.5 As a result, women, especially if they are mothers, are underrepresented in STEM fields and are often left to choose between being a stay at home mom or choosing a career that would require spending less time at the workplace.
By letting girls play with toys like building blocks, you are allowing them to develop the creative spatial skills and problem solving skills they need to excel and remain interested in STEM fields later on to break this gender cycle.1 On the other hand, letting your sons play with stereotypically female toys such as dolls, baking kits, play houses, etc. prepares them to be nurturing caregivers (and desire to be caregivers) when they grow older. Exposing your children to atypical toys and activities for their gender unlocks their potential in a broader spectrum of interests and gives them more freedom to blossom in areas that would not have otherwise been an option.
Below is a list of suggestions that can help guide your parenting decisions in terms of choosing which activities or forms of expression to direct your children towards:
- Mix and match the colors you dress and associate your children with (do not always dress your daughters in all pink or decorate your sons’ room in al blue)
- Encourage girls to play with action figures, toy cars, building blocks (such as LEGOs), video games, and other stereotypical boy games
- Let boys play with dolls, baking kits, play house sets, diary journals, sewing kits, and other stereotypical girl toys
- Play basketball, softball, and other active and rough sports with your daughters
- Enroll your sons in ballet, art, baking or cooking, or yoga classes if you can afford to
- Rotate house chores; switch it up so that boys get to clean, cook, do the dishes and laundry while girls can mow the lawn, and do yard work or handy work
- Ask your daughters for help when the TV or other technical devices (such as light bulbs, heaters, refrigerators, etc.) are broken so that they can build knowledge and confidence when handling these objects as well as develop an interest in mechanical equipment
- Teach boys about skin care and cosmetics such as make up or painting nails (keep in mind that letting boys wear make up or paint their nails may attract more attention from others, and may lead to judgment from their peers, teachers, or other family members. Please refer to paragraph titled “Be Prepared to Face Different Reactions” below to learn more.
- Encourage girls to explore and practice construction by building bird houses, tables, or bookshelves with them, or letting them help out a family member or family friend who works in construction
3. Let Your Children Choose
So far, we have discussed many ways that you can break the gender binary and create new opportunities for your children. However, it is important to distinguish the difference between keeping your children’s options open and forcing all of your decisions onto them. Oftentimes, young children do not have a concrete idea of what their favorite hobbies, interests, or activities are because they have not had time to explore their different options. When parents enroll their children in piano, swimming, or karate classes at a young age, they are helping their children gain a better sense of what their passions or expertise are, since they have not yet formed this foundation. By encouraging your children to choose and explore non-stereotypical activities, you are also guiding them to discover their passions and interests but in a gender nonconforming manner—which means the children have more options to choose from and may have a harder time choosing.
To give your children more autonomy in their decisions, you can let them choose from their options instead of making the choices for them. For example, instead of coming home from the store with a Barbie doll for your son, you can take him through both the boys’ aisle and girls’ aisle at the store and ask him which toys he would like to buy. Your job as a parent who aims to raise children in a gender neutral way is to broaden his options by encouraging him to consider picking the gender atypical toy from the girls’ aisle—an option that would not generally appeal to him unless he is encouraged otherwise since messages in society and the media are still largely gender conforming.
If your son refuses to play with Barbie dolls and would prefer to play with toy cars instead, let him. You cannot force your children to like something that they have no interest in. Instead, try kindly telling him that he does not have to play with Barbie dolls if he does not want to, but if he ever wants to play with toys that he sees girls playing with, that is perfectly okay. Explain to him that toys are not strictly made for “just boys” or “only girls,” and that playing with a toy that other boys do not usually play with (e.g., Barbies) does not make him weird or abnormal. Make sure your children understand that this concept is the same with clothes, hobbies, sports, activities, and so on. Compassionate communication is a crucial factor in parenting gender neutral children. If your kids are not taught that there is nothing wrong with behaving or dressing differently from other kids who look like them, they may end up conforming to gender scripts out of fear of being mocked or singled out, or, they may end up resenting themselves for being different from everyone else. Which leads us to our next guideline:
4. Communicate Compassionately and Effectively With Your Kids
At a certain point in their lives, your children will realize that the toys they play with, the movies they watch, or the hobbies they are interested in are different from those of other children of their same gender. This realization may affect them negatively if they are not educated about this topic in advance. An important aspect of raising androgynous children is to communicate effectively and compassionately with them, since many of the actions you are encouraging them to take part in deviate from the norms they will see in society. As parents, try to use your best judgment on when the appropriate time is to speak to them about certain topics pertaining to gender roles and gender identity. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, it would be a good idea to speak to your children about deviating from gender roles once they are old enough to make their own choices. At an early age, inform them that being involved with toys, activities, or sports that typically associate with the opposite sex does not make them less of a boy or a girl, regardless of what their peers might think. Keep the conversation open, non-judgmental, and encourage them to ask questions and form their own opinions.
Once they grow to be a little more mature, such as around their preteen ages, you can speak to them about the topics of masculinity and femininity and how it may affect their identities. Teach boys that being “a man” does not mean they have to devalue or compete against females. Many boys grow up thinking that because they are male, they have to adopt masculine traits and be better than females at certain tasks. A lot of males feel ashamed if they lose to females in sports, or if they are less competent with handling electronics. This idea derives from traditional male gender roles that expect males to be more athletic and dominate females in certain tasks in order to be considered “manly.” Society typically portrays males in positions of power and control while females have supporting roles.6 If you want to successfully raise children to be as gender neutral as possible, reach out to them about these topics before they form their own misconceptions from their social surroundings.
It is encouraged to educate your children about feminism, and that being a woman does not mean they have to adopt traits of delicacy or prettiness. Girls do not always have to wear dresses, braid their hair, paint nails, or talk about boys—they have so much more to offer to the world aside from their looks and associations with males! Instead, teach them that they can grow up to be great leaders who can excel at the same things males can excel at, whether it involves teaching, being an astronaut, or competing in the Olympics. Discuss issues of gender equality, women’s rights, and women’s liberation with them once they are mature enough to grasp these comprehensive topics. By raising your daughters to be gender neutral and encouraging them to pursue activities and dreams that are not typically expected of females, you are restructuring societal scripts by empowering young women to have confidence in themselves and their worth.
5. Pay Attention to the Media You Expose Your Children to
The media is a very powerful outlet that can greatly influence our thoughts, actions, and behaviors. Children tend to look up to and imitate superheroes and TV characters from their favorite films and shows. With such an influential effect on their thoughts and behaviors, the movies and shows you let your children watch can affect how they form perceptions of gender roles. A lot of research has been done on how media affects children’s gendered behaviors and stereotyped views of females and males. One study compared kids who were heavy TV viewers with kids who were light TV viewers and discovered that children who spent more time watching TV had more stereotyped views of female and male behaviors.7 Another study found that when kids watch commercials of females in non-stereotyped roles, these kids develop less stereotyped views of both females and males.7
Thus, it is important to pay attention to what you are letting your children watch as well as how much TV they are watching. If you let your daughters watch only gender conforming movies and shows, such as princess movies, or shows where females take on submissive, stereotypical roles, this is very likely to influence her to be more gender conforming to stereotyped views of females. Consider letting girls watch action movies, gender neutral TV shows, and shows that generally tend to appeal to boys as well as films, TV shows geared towards girls. Let all children watch all kinds of media. This way, their interests and perceptions can develop in more diverse ways and they can grow up to understand a wider variety of issues and topics.
As for boys, you should also consider letting them watch gender non-stereotypical films and shows, so that they do not grow up conforming to gender scripts and stereotyped views. Because TV often presents distorted views of gender constructs,6 it would be a good idea to limit the amount of time your kids spend watching television in general. Instead, consider letting your children engage in activities that will stimulate their mind and increase their social exploration and play, with activities exercising, reading books, solving puzzles, playing board games, or exploring the outdoors. If you do let your children watch TV with very defined gender roles, make sure you talk to them about these gender roles that are portrayed and discuss why they might be misleading and harmful. This also includes boys watching princess movies because they tend to display only heterosexual couples where the prince saves the helpless, beautiful princess.
6. Be Prepared to Face Different Reactions
Although it is the twenty-first century and queer rights and gender rights have progressed further than ever in the past, there are still people many who hold conservative points of view who may oppose your decision to raise your children androgynously. Be prepared for harsh, negative criticism. Family members and other parents may judge you and say that what you are doing is immoral and wrong, that you are raising your kids backwards, that there is no point in raising your kids genderless, and so on. As someone has decided to do something that is against the norm, you should be prepared to receive varying reactions from people. How you handle these negative reactions is up to you, but perhaps sharing some of the reasons why you chose to raise your children androgynously or informing them of the benefits research shows raising gender neutral children provide can help educate them and change their perceptions.
However, it is also very likely that you will receive positive comments and compliments from parents or families as well. Choosing to raise gender neutral kids is starting to become a more popular and admired decision, and it likely that many people will respect you for making this decision. Whether you receive praise or negative judgment, it is good to be ready for both of these potential reactions.
In addition to varying reactions from family members and friends, your children may also receive criticism from their peers as well. When other kids see your son playing with dolls, or your daughter wearing “boy” clothes, they may make insensitive remarks or tease your children for being different. To help your children move past these remarks, reach out to them about these topics before they have the chance to occur and make your kids emotionally distraught. This is why compassionate and effective communication plays an important role in raising androgynous children (refer to guideline number 4 for details). Without a strong relationship and a supportive foundation for effective communication with your kids, raising children to grow up not following typical gender standards can be a very difficult and stressful thing to do.
7. Know the Pros and Cons
Even though you may have already decided that raising androgynous children is something you want to do, it is still beneficial to know the pros and the cons that accompany your decision. Some of the benefits and disadvantages have already been mentioned, but below is a compiled list of the positive and negative aspects of raising gender neutral children.
- Children who are raised in a gender neutral way will have more options and potentials to choose from (whether that involves career choice, hobbies, interests, fashion trends, toys, etc.) and will not feel restricted because of their sex
- Studies show that children raises with gender neutrality tend to be more creative and have broader insight because they grew up with freedom of choice and expression7
- Experts say that allowing your children to have gender awareness can enhance their self-esteem and identity7
- Kids who are raised gender neutrally are more likely to become more confident and are more likely to be leaders because their parents gave them the freedom to choose their whole lives7 and encouraged them to question the status quo of gender norms
- Studies have shown that people who are more androgynous are more likely to have similar interests, communication styles, and coordinate better with the opposite sex when compared to less androgynous females and males.6 Therefore, being androgynous increases one’s likelihood of having successful relationships with the opposite gender.
- Raising children to be gender neutral is progressive because it promotes gender equality and freedom and challenges traditional gender norms
- Being raised gender neutrally allows you to obtain a more sophisticated and holistic understanding of gender and identity because you grow up within a marginalized community of people
- Children who are raised gender neutrally may grow up feeling conflicted about which gender they identify with
- People who deviate from gender norms may be victims of bullying, especially during their younger years
- Parents who attempt to raise gender neutral children may be disappointed if their kids grow up to be non-androgynous and conform to gender norms
Children Who Are Gender Neutral May Not Choose to Identify as Female or Male
Something else to keep in mind is that children who are gender neutral or androgynous may not want to be labeled as female or male. Instead, they may want to be labeled as gender fluid, genderqueer, transgender, or third gender. As long as the child is comfortable with their gender label, having a nontraditional gender identity is not a bad thing. On the other hand, if the child grows up feeling conflicted about their identity and does not know what they identity with, this could lead to future problems like identity frustration, self-hatred, confusion, or gender dysphoria. Some other articles that may help you with issues related to gender identity include: Gender Dysphoria, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Same-Gender Sexual Identity Formation, Trans* Identities, Health Exercise and Gender, and Gender Queer.
Another issue to consider is that children, regardless of their gender identity, may also grow up to have queer sexual orientations. Sexual orientation is different from gender identity because it describes a person’s preferences in which partners they find emotionally, sexually, and romantically attractive, whereas gender identity describes which gender the person identifies as. Again, it is okay to not identify as being heterosexual (being attracted to people of the opposite sex), as long as the child is comfortable with their sexual orientation. As your parent, try your best to avoid heteronormativity (the world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal sexual orientation) and do not assume that your child with be attracted to their opposite gender. Instead, be open to the possibility that your children may be sexually queer. Visit our article “Overview of Sexual Orientations” if you would like to be educated on the different types of sexual orientations. There are also many support groups that can help people within the queer community. There are many pages on our website that educate and aid people who have difficulty expressing their queer sexual orientations, such as: Supporting Someone Who Is Coming Out, Advice On Coming Out, Becoming An Ally, Out in the Workplace, The Process of Coming Out, and many more!
It Is Okay If Your Children End Up Gender Conforming
Our last piece of advice is that, in the case your goal to raise androgynous children does not come out successful, do not feel bad or discouraged. You will never be able to completely control the way your kids grow up, regardless of how many how-to books you read, or how hard you try to manipulate certain aspects of their lives. External variables that are out of your control will always be a factor when it comes to parenting your children. So if you try your best, follow all of the advice we have suggested and more, and your children still grow up gender conforming, do not blame yourself or feel disappointed! Instead, be proud that you took the initiative to try something that deviates from the gender norms. What is more important is that you learn to maintain healthy, supportive, and loving relationships with your children, and continue to educate them as best as you can, even if they do not grow up the way you expected.
- “6 Ways You Can Avoid Gender Stereotypes of Your Kids.” Blogher. Web.
- Rahilly, E.P. “The Gender Binary Meets the Gender-Variant Child: Parents’ Negotiations with Childhood Gender Variance.” University of California, Santa Barbara, USA. 2015.
- “Growing Up Masculine.” Understanding and Raising Boys. PBS Parents. Web.
- Adams, Gerald R., Kacerguis, Mary Ann. “Implications of Sex Typed Child Rearing Practices, Toys, and Mass Media Materials in Restricting Occupational Choices of Women.” Family Coordinator 28:3. Web.
- “Why Boys Need To Play With Girl Toys Too.” ScaryMommy. Web.
- Baldwin, Janice and John. 2015. “Gender Roles.” Presented at the University of California Santa Barbara Sociology of Human Sexuality course lecture, March 4, Santa Barbara, California. Retrieved May 24, 2016.
- “Pros And Cons Of Gender Neutral Parenting.” Rebel Circus. Web.