Move over, gender-reveal parties; it’s time to talk about raising children in a gender-neutral environment. Merriam-Webster defines Gender-neutralism as “not referring to either sex or gender, but only to people in general”. Labeling things as exclusively masculine or feminine have no place in gender-neutralism; items and ideas are exempt from gendered associations. Instead, gender neutralism seeks to promote uninhibited self-expression, in which people do not feel constrained within the traditional gender binary identification system of male and female.
More and more parents are deciding to raise their children in gender-neutral environments. Celebrities like Guardians of the Galaxy actress Zöe Saldana has openly discussed her decision to raise her children gender-neutrally, noting how she wishes to prevent her children from feeling constrained within traditional gender-binary norms. In an interview with Us Weekly, Zöe described her process of gender-neutral parenting. Her approach? Toys that are both traditionally male and female; having open and honest discussions with her children; and ensuring that she and her husband both have equal roles as partners and parents. About her relationship with her husband, Marco Perego Saldana, Zöe stated in the interview, “We have a very gender-neutral environment where my husband participates in a lot of tasks that were normally given to women and vice versa.”
While Zöe has a good approach, figuring out how to create a gender-neutral environment for raising your children can be a challenging task, given the pervasiveness of gender-binary norms. So, how can you emulate super-mom Zöe’s choice of raising her children gender-neutral? We have some suggested guidelines to use so that you can be just as super in raising your children in a gender-neutral environment:
Raising children gender-neutrally is far from one-size-fits-all. An essential first step to raising your children in a gender-neutral environment is determining some guidelines for yourself. Gender-neutral parenting can range in approaches. For example, a stronger approach some parents assume is to enact early social and media isolation to insulate children from gender biases. A softer approach may be utilizing a framework that allows children to express themselves as they please, allowing for children to dress or play as they please. It comes down to what you feel comfortable doing in your parenting.
Some parents want to promote individual identity and expression, but within the consideration of the society in which we live. Some parents worry about the adverse treatment that their children may face if their children do not have a grasp of existing gender socialization in society. Children do not exist in the vacuum of your parenting; they are also exposed to other people with a wide breadth of opinions. That is not to say you should let this determine how you parent, but it is worth considering. So, as you embark on the journey of raising your children with a gender-neutral approach, ask yourself the parameters of what you feel comfortable with!
What you buy your children sends implicit messages and themes, some of which may be related to gender. For example, in consideration of gender, toys marketed to little girls, like dolls, princesses, and kitchen toys, often reinforce the message that girls value and uphold domesticity and beauty. In contrast, toys marketed to little boys, like action figures and race cars, reinforce the message that boys value and maintain strength and toughness.
But, can a boy not value and uphold domesticity and beauty? And can a girl not value and maintain strength and toughness? While you may very well be saying they can and should, constraining children to the toys that are “assigned” to their gender may be suggesting otherwise. Two popular ways to avoid this situation are to focus on creative-based toys or provide an assortment of traditionally male and female toys.
For example, creative-based toys allow children to express themselves in whatever way they please. Giving them a blank slate to create upon also gives them a blank message, as far as gender messaging goes. So, bring out the set of finger paints and let them create whatever their beautiful, developing minds can conjure!
Similarly, providing an assortment of traditionally male and female toys will demonstrate to your children that they need not follow anyone’s set of gendered messaging in toys. The freedom to choose allows children the ability to find what they like, not necessarily what gender norms suggest they should want. Girls can play with construction toys and superheroes; boys can play with dolls and “dress-up” clothes. Regardless of what they choose to play with, the keyword here is “choice.” Allowing for range across toys gives children expansive opportunities for self-exploration.
Giving your child the freedom to choose how they wish to express themselves is one of the most significant components of raising your child in a gender-neutral way. Approach parenting your child with an open mind. As your child begins to make early associations, try not to label things as “for girls” or “for boys.” Creating a context where your child knows they are not constrained to fit into gender binary norms is an incredible way to give them confidence in their self-identity. They will feel supported and loved as they blossom into their own growing identities. Starting early and proactively is one of the best ways to set the stage for a healthy, supportive environment for your child to develop their own identity.
What’s a big part of raising your children? It’s more passive than you may think; watching, learning, and mimicking. You’ve got little eyes on you, so when trying to create a gender-neutral environment, lead by example! Specifically, this may mean refraining from casting gendered associations or perpetuating gender stereotypes.
Or, in the case of Zöe Saldana, showcasing to her children an equitable relationship between her and her significant other. In addition to defying the last-name tradition (Zöe’s husband took her last name of Saldana), Zöe makes a concerted effort to make sure that she and her husband both do their fair share of traditionally male and female tasks. If you are in the parenthood journey with a significant other or partner, try to make an even distribution of tasks. If you are in the parenthood journey solo, it is important to know that there is no single set of tasks assigned to each gender or sex. The bottom line is to try not to constrain roles into the binary of male and female responsibilities. Instead, be flexible towards what works best for each parent on an individual basis instead of what “should” be best on account of outdated gender stereotypes.
Raising your child in a gender-neutral manner is an incredible way to allow your child to develop their self-identity freely and confidently. Macroscopically, raising your child gender-neutrally is contributing to creating a more inclusive and positive society for future generations to come. It is not the easiest of tasks, with the pervasiveness of gender binary norms and the “pink” versus “blue” nature of raising children. But, with proper education and community to support you, the worthy journey can be a lot easier. So, however you choose to approach parenting gender-neutrally, we support and applaud you!