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?