On “gender-neutral parenting”

There’s been some flurry recently about the hetero Canadian parents who are raising their youngest without revealing the biological sex of the child.  They seem to want to resist the way people typically gender children (and adults), treating them differently according to their gender.

At this point, I’m fully on board.  For whatever reason, we (Western? American?) human beings often act as if we are entitled to know the gender of others, such that it stresses us out if we can’t tell for certain.  We want to know this apparently so that we know how – and to what extent – we might relate to one one another.  Maybe this goes back to wanting to find the best possible mate. I suspect it has to do with being able to treat people differently, or expect different things from them, or apply any number of other social norms upon them according to their privates, and frankly, how many of us really believe that it’s important for us, as individuals, to make such genitalia-based considerations?  I know I don’t.  Yet, by default, I gender people all the time, and seek to “know” other people’s gender when the lines are blurry.

But I am in no way entitled to find out this information about others, now am I?  What a strange pattern of behavior.  We should really question our underlying motivations for wanting to know the biological gender of others as prerequisite for interacting with them.  As a parent, I can understand not wanting other people to ‘gender’ my child and treat her according to whatever crazy notions they hold about how girls should be treated.  I get that.

Be a gender superhero!

And, having said that, I think that “gender-neutral parenting” is problematic.  It seems akin to people who profess to be “colorblind” when it comes to race.  Only a small fraction of people are actually colorblind, and I’m betting that even most of them are capable of discerning between different shades of skin color.  We have color.  And our color is often different from others.  And most significantly, the reality of different skin colors has been imbued with tremendous social meaning for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  By declaring ourselves to be “colorblind,” all we are doing is playing “let’s pretend” so that we might ignore the painful reality that our society still doles out unfair advantages and disadvantages based on color to this very day.  We have color.  And that matters.

So too – we have gender.  And that matters.  Gender is one way that we are different from one another – and it is a particularly embodied way at that.  To try to minimize and hide this difference from others, no matter how grand the intention, strikes me as an attempt to ignore or push aside a difference that is very real, maybe even important, and, by the way, one which is perfectly fine.  It’s okay, it turns out, to have a vagina, and not a penis.  Or vice versa.  Or something in-between.  The particularity of each human body is perfectly wonderful, according to God and nature.  Where there are problems, they belong to us, and it is up to us to adapt our social norms, roles, and expectations accordingly.

All that is to say, I am more in favor of abolishing the traditional limits associated with masculinity and femininity then with abolishing gender outright. There’s nothing wrong, in my view, with claiming and celebrating the particularity of one’s own gender. But there’s a lot wrong with imposing norms on others based on their gender.

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4 Responses to “On “gender-neutral parenting””

  1. Cindi Knox Says:

    Well, there’s biological sex, and there’s gender.

    Or rather, there’s genetic sex, karotypical sex, hormonal sex, genital sex, assigned sex, self-identified gender, expressed gender, externally-identified gender, and legal gender.

    Or, rather, it’s more complicated than that, too.

    “Penis” and “vagina” describe body parts that people may or may not have. “Boy”, “girl”, “man”, and “woman” describe places in social structure. The former set does not necessarily align with the latter.

    How do I know? I have a transgender history. Tom, I know that you know this. But here’s the thing:

    I had a penis when I was born. From that, the physician assigned me the sex “Male” on my birth certificate, and my family assigned me the societal role of baby boy. It turns out that none of this resonated with how I identified.

    When I transitioned to living as female, I still had a penis. Most people, however, did not know this, so they assigned me the societal role of “woman”, along with the liabilities of being denied employment in technical jobs and being repeatedly propositioned for sex by a person in a supervisory role.

    I know you’re not advocating imposing norms based on gender, but I’d like to push you to look beyond those norms to see the difference between the constellation of physical factors that we use to determine sex and the social positions that we call gender.

    • Tom Ryberg Says:

      Cindi, thanks for a thoughtful and eloquent response, just like always. Your comment makes me realize how much nuance I left out. On rereading my words above, I can see why saying something like, “…The particularity of each human body is perfectly wonderful, according to God and nature. Where there are problems, they belong to us, and it is up to us to adapt our social norms, roles, and expectations accordingly…” could read as an outright rejection that there should or could ever be people whose biological sex does not fit with their gender. But I actually include the human brain’s capacity to self-classify and self-identify in my celebration of the particularity of who we are. And where body parts don’t fit with perceived (or classified) gender or gender roles, well, there needs to be freedom and fluidity to allow movement toward that which is true, as determined by the individual in question.

      I recognize the huge difference between biological sex and gender, despite the fact that our society loves to conflate the two. I’m sorry that I didn’t address this distinction very clearly and I think the meaning of what I’m trying to get at above is murkier as a result. I would love to see biological sex and gender roles be separated for once and for all, improbable as that may be.I would also love to see a lot more fluidity and possibility for transitioning across the binary than is presently the norm.

      I guess what I’m most uneasy about with these gender-neutral parents is that it seems to me that they are imposing their own gender paradigm on their child: a “non-gender” paradigm. I can’t see why this would be any more socially beneficial than raising the child in such a way that biological sex is named while making room for gender and roles to be chosen along the way. Does this make any sense?

      Peace, and thanks for speaking up. Again, I’m sorry for not being more nuanced in my writing above.

  2. Amber Gamble Says:

    I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Amanda and I currently teach at a school that specializes in single gender classes. We both teach all girls. The reasoning for this is too complicated to explain in a short space, but there are differences inherit in genders at a very young age that are much larger than genitalia. In fact, the older we are, the closer the two genders become. Or this is what we were told by Dr. Leonard Sax in our initial training three years ago. Research has shown that newborn baby boys and baby girls react in different ways to their environment. They learn different things at different rates. Although there are stereotypes associated with genders, the way the brain works is not stereotyped. A girl can learn to love playing with trucks and a boy with dolls. But that does not change they way their brain processes information for learning purposes. Anyway, just thought I would share a bit. Search for Dr. Sax online, he has a website that explains a lot of the research and theory behind single gender education. I know that isn’t what your topic was, but it made me think about it.


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