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Gender neutral. The term is kicking up a lot of noise, upending pronoun usage and bucking the biology of male and female. It’s also rocking cradles by shifting the parenting dial from pink-blue/boy-girl to...
Currently, gender neutral is explained as being suitable for both male and female. Growing up in this world full of ladies, blokes and non-binary folks, I’m fully aware that there’s more to the gender spectrum than two categories.
My parents raised two daughters who played with Polly Pockets and ran them over with Hotwheels. We wore dresses to church on Sundays and played softball in the dirt. Growing up, I think my sister and I understood that toys and activities were sometimes categorized as “boy stuff” or “girl stuff,” but we didn’t care. My parents weren’t intentionally raising us under a gender-neutral lens, but they sure as hell weren’t confining us to a predetermined box of girlhood.
In the ’60s and ’70s, I grew up alongside three brothers watching Star Trek, having adventures, and figuring out different ways to expel air from our bodies. I had my own Super Sam Spy Kit and could kick the can the farthest. I loved dresses, Lego and Barbies, and since my brothers had talking GI Joes, it all worked out. I was a tomboy and mighty happy for it.
Fast forward to 2018… I recently met (I think) my first theybe, dressed in pale green and introduced with a name typically associated with males. Unaware the baby might be a theybe, I said, “Oh, he’s adorable!”
“He’s not a boy. We’re raising our baby gender neutral,” the mom informed me.
And just like that, I was plunged into ‘gender-as-a-construct’ lecture. I forget what I said when it ended (probably an exhausted ‘great!’), though I imagine I wondered what might happen if, one day, gender-neutral child requested pink.
It’s not that I don’t believe there are many ways to live and be. I absolutely do. What I don’t agree with is packing human complexities into a box labeled ‘gender neutral,’ to be applied to the world at large. The contents need interpretation and explanation that often stops conversation in its tracks, shifting focus to everything but the original topic, like that day. (Baby? What baby?). Then comes pressure to show agreement (immediately), knowing to not ante up or choose the fifth equates to an automatic out, regardless of beliefs. (Ask Jordan Peterson about that phenomenon.)
We’ve been labelling people for centuries, it’s just that these labels have traditionally been restricted to male and female. Some of my friends, who are non-binary, have spent their entire lives trying to pack their human complexities into one of two boxes, male or female. If neither label encompasses what you feel inside, you shouldn’t have to choose.
Gender is performative. It’s not about what’s between your legs, or whether you’re a girl named Charlie or a boy named Tracy. Gender is something you have control over, and can present in a way that makes you feel most yourself. Thankfully, I don’t think most children are forced to think about gender at a young age.
Actually, I think the gender-neutral label puts pressure on children to do exactly that, with the complex adult concept that gender is something ‘thought’ and not born. Biology is given back seat status to an ideology that says what forms gender is cultural, social and patriarchal factors. The quick takeaway for gender-neutral parenting is ignore what’s between the legs, and instead, encourage a child to figure out what they are and then to choose the appropriate label from mom/dad approved gender-neutral box. Talk about pressure to adhere to adult constructs when maybe all you want to do is play.
Like your mom, Jill, I didn’t make boy-girl distinctions. No fuss if my sons wanted finger or toenails painted (other than choosing a colour). One wore panty hose under his jeans and another leggings, clothing considered ‘female’ attire at the time. And ya, friends, moms and dads knew, but no one cared. They had a Little Tykes kitchen, dolls and cap guns, and chose opposite-sex besties, Connie, Julie, and Faye (cis-gender females now), which probably had everything to do with me constantly hanging out with the moms of their besties. I shudder to think about the labels my sons would have had to grapple through in these times.
Unfortunately, not everyone in earlier generations are as easy-going as you were while raising your sons.
Earlier today, I stumbled upon a video of a little boy, probably five or six, busting out his best moves to a K-pop song in a preschool classroom. He had clearly memorized the music video, and executed every move with confidence and sass as his classmates looked on in awe.
Sadly, comments below the video like “someone give that boy a blue crayon for a change,” and “if my son danced like that he’d be sleeping outside,” were being made by those old enough to be raising his peers. So how long until those ideologies get passed down?
Bullies and insensitive adults are always gonna be around and social media is the perfect platform for cruelty. It’s the nature of the online beast. Luckily, the sensible majority discount those voices.
And yup, my generation made lots of parenting mistakes (as all generations do), but we did raise pretty amazing, gender sensitive humans, like you. Boy, girl, gender-neutral, non-binary, trans, or other on the spectrum, what’s different now is your generation had the luxury of working it out later, with some traction on the earth and without early adult intervention or a how-to labelling guidebook. I take that as hard evidence that, at least for the millennials, the world was open to and accepting of gender choices.
I do think, like anything, there are levels to raising your children under a gender neutral lens. Some of my favourite names for girls are traditionally male names, like Charlie and Dylan, and I plan on dressing my kids in whatever we think is cute on any given day.
But if my children come to me one day and tell me they don’t feel their that physical body matches who they are inside or that they might be non-binary, I’ll spend the rest of my life making sure they feel supported and empowered to explore that.
Definitely, all kids should have the space to be who they are, supported along the way. Maybe I’m just wrong, and the new trend will turn out to be a panacea or perhaps my resistance is generational because, yeah, I still consider myself a tomboy, and I’ll never change my ‘label’ to suit the new tide.
For the moment, the results of the gender-neutral parenting experiment are yet to be seen. Not to worry... today’s kids will let parents know how it worked out in about 20 years.
A millenial from Cape Breton, Jill Ellsworth writes because ink lasts longer than her memory.
Half Gen X and half Baby Boomer, Karalee Clerk launched three millennials and is rediscovering and writing about how life works, in the now.