10 Tips for Raising an Open-Gender Child

I can’t call what we do at my house “gender-free” or “gender-neutral” parenting, because there is a lot of girl stuff and a lot of boy stuff – there is gender all over the house. My daughter has a “girl” name, and we use feminine pronouns, but she will eventually pick some sort of gender expression that feels right to her. I just want her to have choices, so I’m calling it open-gendered parenting.

This is an easy and natural way of life for two lesbian parents. I am very traditionally feminine.

As a small child I would only wear skirts, even as my feminist mother pleaded for me to wear pants. My wife is a true “tomboy” who likes to wear ties, and she has been that way since childhood.

If you have a desire to practice some amount open-gender parenting, here are ten tips from us lesbians:

1) Don’t ignore the fact that gender roles exist in society. Talk about why and say something like “In our family, we don’t believe that everyone has to be the same.” Read books like My Princess Boy.

2) Model some amount of parenting equality, or stir up the gender roles of each parent.

3) Provide  gender-neutral themed bedrooms and let your children decorate as they grow.

4) Provide “girl” and “boy” clothes and toys from infancy. Let your children of three plus years loose in a store to decide what fabrics and prints they like in clothing, which parent or sibling they want to emulate.

5) Make friends with families who have gay parents, stay at home dads, gender variant-people, and single parents.

6) Talk to your children about their assumptions. Ask your child why they have decided that a person is a “girl” or a “boy” or whether an item is “for girls” or “for boys.”

7) Before giving your boy and your girl corresponding gendered gifts, ask “What message am I sending with these toys?”

8) If your child decides to wear something flamboyantly unexpected out of the house, do lovingly and casually warn that some people may not understand and may stare or laugh. Tell the child you will protect her/him whenever you can be around.

9) Question your assumptions. Talk about how boys do cry and girls are tough, etc. Act as if those things can be true for your child. Be careful what you model with your own behavior and decisions.

10) Give them options in play. Provide dress-up clothes and hats of all sorts from a very young age, even if you only have one female or one male child. (My toddler loves to constantly change her girl and boy hats and girl and boy shoes).

A recent look at the body of studies regarding the brains of female and male infants showed very little difference linked to sex. Instead, it is the way we perceive boys and girls which causes our actions toward them and the opportunities we give them. From personal experience, I would also say that some aspects of innate personality that can’t be seen in the brains of infants may also become apparent during early childhood.

There is nothing naturally girlish about wearing pink. Pink used to be a boy color. There is nothing natural about the way that our culture dresses girls and boys so very differently, or decides that girls don’t drive trucks. It is all a social construct of era and class.

Ever know a hard-working farm-girl? They drive trucks and get muddy and wear men’s clothes. Working class and and poor people in the U.S. and in countries not as rich as the U.S. often wear sweat and tears and any functional clothes they can find.

Talking about gendered clothes, toys and fingernail polish like we do is a class privilege. Since my daughter is growing up with this privilege, she will be privileged to choose her own clothes and her own gender.

What many parents are not aware of is that as complicated as gender performance might be, sex itself is also more complicated than girl and boy. There are inter-sexed people who can account for as many as one in 2000 babies whose anatomy would be characterized as “abnormal.”  But milder, more hidden chromosomal abnormalities and differing hormone levels are commonplace in the diversity of our human biology.

I know a few open-gendered children. Two females who want to be called boys. Many tomboys. Boys who love to dress up as princesses. These are happy kids. Actually, they are the happiest kids I know. The way they were born and their preferences are loved unconditionally by their families.

What’s more, I believe that forcing a child to conform to one certain gender role based on the sex of the person you hope they will marry and have babies with is sexualizing a child at too early an age. As a queer parent, I don’t worry about confining my child to one gender to try and prevent her from becoming a homosexual.

Usually, society will turn our children into people who embrace the gender that goes along with their sex. Maybe their hearts will be right at home with what society assigns them. And if they don’t conform, the world will tease. But I like the idea that at least home is a safe place to explore gender, to be who you are, to be an individual.

I’d love for readers to share comments: any little gender-benders in your family?

About The Author: Moorea

@mooreamalatt My NPN Posts

Moorea Malatt is the founder of Savvy Parenting Support (and MamaLady blog), an online resource for gentle and naturally-minded early parenting challenges. Moorea is an expert and Parent Educator in gentle (and early) potty learning, gentle sleep learning and gentle discipline. She authors online learning programs, books and blogs, leads sold-out workshops and provides private phone consults. Moorea has 20 years of experience with parents and young children as a preschool teacher, certified postpartum doula, infant nanny and mom. Moorea also wrote an album of songs called, “Whip It Out: Songs for Breastfeeding.” Moorea continues to study the behavioral sciences and anthropology. She is a bit of a flop as a dinner chef loves a good sugar-free “paleo” baking experiment! http://www.facebook.com/Savvyparentingsupport

24 Responses to 10 Tips for Raising an Open-Gender Child

  1. Rebekah  

    This is a great article. Thanks for sharing.

  2. stefanie

    Great tips. “forcing a child to conform to one certain gender role based on the sex of the person you hope they will marry and have babies with is sexualizing a child at too early an age” — so, so true. I cringe every time someone says my son is “flirting” with a little girl simply because he’s trying to say hi.

  3. Macha  

    My big brother is gay and loved dressing us up and doing our hair. My big sister is straight but has always loved helping Dad in the garage, playing sports, and hates to wear a skirt. I grew up with a pretty open definition of gender in my family – it was great!

  4. mooreamalatt  

    Macha, thank you for sharing your experience with us!
    To All- please follow me at http://www.mamalady.wordpress.com and twitter me @whipitoutsongs

  5. Momma Jorje

    I’ve become much more gender (and non-gender) aware in the last year or so. And so I have changed some of my verbiage and wish others would really look at the words they use, too.

    My specific example is “will you find out the baby’s gender before birth?” No, but I will find out the SEX of our child in advance. (Our child has a penis.)

    I think we have enough trouble with kids growing up thinking Dads do ____ and Moms do _____ (generally provide and tend to the household and children) without getting into all the other gender stereotypes! I hope I manage to be open with gender play with my little ones. Thank you for the pointers.

  6. Birdie

    Great. Well said.

    My daughter is 5 1/2 and is just starting to get an image of what is (society) right – from school. We are slowly explaining to her that “No, she can’t marry her daddy or her brother BUT girls can marry [partner] girls and boys can marry boys”.

    Hoping that she will not think twice about people being straight or gay but will consider liking a person because of shared or common interests, etc.


  7. Jess  

    This is wonderful! I have tried to be gender-conscientious in my home, implementing some of your tips. But some of them are new to me. Thanks for writing this, and giving everyone something to think about! My little one is just a year, and so hasn’t chosen her own clothes, but she does seem to gravitate toward our stuffed animals and dolls. My three year old is a boy, but he loves pink and purple. We have hand me downs that he dresses in with flowers and rainbow stripes, and given the choice he picked out purple sunglasses with rhinestones.
    He has said “that’s for a boy/girl” before, but it seems that for kids his age gender is still pretty fluid. A friend of mine came over (an ex-girlfriend, to be exact, who is a tomboy and has a deeper voice) and I watched my kid struggle with figuring her out. He said “Lauren is a … boy?”. It was a great opportunity to talk about how different each person is!

    • mooreamalatt  

      Jess, I love your story about your child deciphering an ambiguous person’s gender! What great opportunities we have to have these discussions!

      Jorje,loved hearing your process and not defining your unborn by thier sex.

  8. Lucy

    My 5 year old stepson loves all things pink and sparkly. And he carries around a purple unicorn everywhere 🙂 he truly loves both “boy” and “girl” toys. My daughter, 19 months, likes to play equally with cars and baby dolls.

  9. mamapoekie  

    Great article. Will be sharing in my Sunday Surf. We have quite a similar approach at our home.
    For now, we have one daughter. She prefers not to be dressed, but when she is, she generally goes for T-shirts and shorts teamed up with sparkly shoes. She also shaved the back of her head a while back (it is slowly growing out http://www.authenticparenting.info/2011/05/physical-authenticity.html) and is generally identified as a boy, even when she was a baby.
    Some days she tells me she’s a boy.
    We don’t put too much focus on gender, and just leave her to find out for herself. WHenever someone comes along sprouting idiocies like: men don’t wear make-up or cooking is for girls, we have a talk when she asks me about it and I tell her about people’s attitudes and assumptions and how they’re just social constructs (but in different wording)
    If you ever feel like doing a guest post on authentic, I’d love to have you
    mamapoekie at yahoo dot com

  10. Kellie

    Great article! It is so important to recognize that our children are individuals in every way and allow that. I have a 5 year old girl who has always been a jeans and t shirts girl up until this summer when the coolness of sundresses and the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder came over her. She plans to be a firefighter when she grows up.

    I also have a three year old boy with long curly hair, which he has recently discovered is long enough to wear in a ponytail. His favorite color is purple. He loves flowers, butterflies, and construction equipment. Most of the dolls in the house belong to him. His “pretty dress shoes” are Mary Janes, and the only clothing/shoe rules I’ve really imposed on him are the same as his sister’s – no high heels, all private areas covered, etc. He declared a few days ago that when he grows up he is going to be a “princess fox”.

  11. Leah

    Once we were shopping in a store and my son wanted to ride on a pink bike they had; I think a fellow shopper was trying to help when she said, “Oh, that bike is for girls, you don’t want to ride a pink bike” and I said in a sweet voice to my son so she could hear, “Boys can ride pink bikes too, but we don’t ride bikes in the store.” I felt proud of myself for bringing her gender bias to her attention in a non-confrontational way. Is it wrong to say that a penis makes a boy a boy and a vagina makes a girl a girl? I know it kind of leaves out the transgendered people (but I feel that is a little sophisticated for a 3 year old). We talk about the fact that there are not specific things for boys or girls with the exception of say bras, jock cups, pads, you know.

  12. Jacquie

    I don’t have any gender benders as I know of yet. I have boy girl twins who are almost a year and I love the fact that they have both boy and girl toys to play with. There is no right or wrong toy to play with in our home. having one of each sex is a big advantage and they can learn from each other and discover themselves as babies should.

  13. mooreamalatt  

    Good question, Leah! “Is it wrong to say that a penis makes a boy a boy and a girl makes a girl a girl?” I don’t think it is totally wrong, but rather incomplete. OUr whole society assumes this so it isn’t really “wrong” that our kids may learn this. I think it is important to let kids know that that isn’t the full story. You aren’t just leaving out people who identify as transgendered, you are leaving out kids and people who are questioning and playing with thier identity in terms of girl and boy.

  14. Kelly  

    Really enjoyed this article Moorea – there are so many great ideas here!

    I don’t know how much my husband and I are on the same page of gender openness, particularly when it comes to boys. I’m looking forward to using this post to kind of open the discussion – and to keeping a lot of these tips in mind when it comes to my parenting.

    I certainly grew up with plenty of my own prejudices in this area, but I’d very much like to change that in my children’s experiences…

  15. Anwyn

    According to my parents, up until the age of three, I prefered to be refered to as a boy. Rather than get upset, or try to convince me that I should accept people refering to me as a girl, my parents looked at my situation – I was the youngest of 7 very close cousins, who all lived in the same neighbourhood, played with each other every day, and I was the only girl. Not only that, my mother, paternal grandmother and all my aunts were staunch feminists, and educating me that I could do anything a boy could. This was the early 70s, so while my male cousins were being told girls could do the same as boys by their mothers (and to a lesser extent their fathers) society was still telling them different. For all of my childhood, I associated “she’s too little/too young” and “she’s just a girl” as the same thing – an unfair reason to tell me I couldn’t do something.
    So up to the age of three, I just took one of those reasons away – I was going to be a boy! And my parents understood and went with it. Apparently, on my third birthday, I took my breakfast bowl to the sink without being asked, and my mother said “Good boy, Anwyn,” to which I replied “I’m a girl now, and I’m three.” In retrospect, I guess I just felt big enough to tackle being a girl as well as being the youngest and smallest in a large, close extended family.
    I’m glad that I had parents who recognised I had reasons for not wanting to be labelled one gender when I was so young, and let me identify the way I wanted, rather than panicking and enforcing ‘normal’ gender views and roles on me. Growing up with that story, knowing they would accept me as *I wanted to be* made the teen and twenties years of working out who and what I was – sexuality, faith, ethics, career, education, politcs, etc – so much easier, because I knew I’d have their support no matter what.

  16. Sylvia@MaMammalia

    Fantastic article! I really like the idea of gender openness, rather than neutrality. You also touch on a critical point with this issue: HOME should be a place for discovery, exploration, and unconditional acceptance, even if the outside world doesn’t agree.

    I’ve tried, at least in theory, to expose my toddler son to open-gender toys, activities, clothes, and certainly with the way we talk to him. However, I’ve noticed that even without ANY influence or prompting he is naturally drawn to cars, trucks, tractors, and balls. I want to encourage his interests, so I supply him with more of what intrigues him. However, he also has a baby doll that he loves. During our last shopping trip I made a point of taking him down the “girl” toy aisle, as well as the car/truck aisle. He was thrilled to see more dolls!

    Thank you so much for reminding me to keep RE-introducing him to “girl” stuff, to give him the chance to broaden his interests, and the opportunity to choose his gender-associated interests, and eventually, identity.

  17. amy  

    Thank you for reminding us to simply allow kids to be themselves. The comment from Anwyn really struck me in the value of acceptance.

  18. Tabetha Smelser  

    I just love this article! I don’t have any kids yet, but I plan on raising them in a very gender-open way, and this article had some awesome ideas for me.

  19. Melanie  

    Thanks so much for posting this! I will definitely be subscribing to your blog 🙂 My girlfriend and I are so excited to see another lesbian couple so awesomely embracing natural parenthood! We’re from the midwest and I have definitely seen my fair share of gender roles and social norms- enough to know that I wouldn’t want to put that pressure on my kids. I am anxiously awaiting the day that we become moms!

  20. Grandma

    I totally disagree with you. I don’t expect you to even post a negative comment, but that is OK. What you believe is not what God intended. Read Romans, chapter 1.