Could you protect your children from being pigeonholed into gender stereotypes by raising them in a gender-open environment? Some parents seem to think so.
Being the youngest of three children in my family, most of my life lessons have come from watching my elder siblings navigate their lives. Everything from career choices to romantic relationships to potentially bearing a child in the future, simply paying close attention to their lives has been a great means to determine what would work best for me for it comes to make these same choices.
My sister—a mother-of-two—has been a particularly effective point of reference for me; mostly because we're of the same gender and therefore go through several similar experiences that our brother will never have to. And ever since she became a mother, I've often found myself wondering about what kind of a parent I would be. Would I raise my children in line with the existing gender stereotypes simply because it's easier or would I challenge these outdated notions and teach my offsprings to do the same? Or would I go a step further to shed the construct of gender altogether and raise "theybies?"
Raising children without gender designation from birth is a trend that has slowly but surely been on the rise among parents in the United States. Nate and Julia Sharpe—parents of 4-year-old twins Zyler and Kadyn—are a part of this progressive parenting community that's choosing not to reveal the gender of their children to anyone. Even the "theybies" themselves, although aware of their own body parts and how they might differ from that of others, are not taught to think of these body parts as what defines them a boy or girl.
Fellow theybies! Look at the pin I was gifted today made by @SlackHQ pic.twitter.com/lvGsn4DkUd— a comeback queer. (@carbonatedart) September 17, 2019
Speaking to NBC News last year, Nate explained, "A theyby is, I think, different things to different people. For us, it means raising our kids with gender-neutral pronouns — so, 'they,' 'them,' 'their,' rather than assigning 'he,' 'she,' 'him,' 'her' from birth based on their anatomy." What makes this "gender-open" style of parenting appealing to many is the theory that children cannot be compartmentalized into specific gender stereotypes if no one knows their gender. As you can imagine, this progressive approach to parenting isn't exactly everyone's cup of tea.
Although some developmental experts believe gender-open parenting aims for a noble goal, the question remains as to how long these parents will be able to shield their children from the gendered world. They worry such gender-nonconforming children will face hostility and bullying for not neatly fitting into society's gender constructs. "Once your child meets the outer world, which may be daycare, or preschool, or grandparents — it's pretty much impossible to maintain a gender-free state. And depending on how conventional your community is, you could be setting your child up for bullying or exclusion," said Lise Eliot, professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain.
We live in a world of stereotypes, and sometimes even the most open-minded of us subconsciously enforce them. Kids pick up on harmless statements, from adults. Here are some tips raise kids in a gender-neutral environment:https://t.co/gMhSaanAqx#amelio #parenting #education pic.twitter.com/fIl9qThYSd— Amelio Early Education (@amelioearlyedu) November 5, 2019
Since this form of parenting is still relatively new, there is no research yet on how it'll affect these theybies as they grow up. It is believed most children in this manner will come to their own conclusions about their gender by the age of 4, around the same time as their gendered peers. While they do face the risk of being bullied and ostracized in the gendered world, experts believe gender-open parenting is an effective way to communicate to them that they will be loved and accepted no matter their identity. This could prove to be particularly important for transgender children who are known to have higher rates of depression and suicide attempts, said Dr. John Steever, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York.
On the other hand, those raising theybies will have to prepare their children for the gendered world "that's really obsessed with a gender binary," said Steever. "And people are going to want to put that child into one of those binary categories. And so for children to not be confused, parents have to give kids the language and the understanding of recognizing that 'I'm not taking part in this binary,'" she added. Fortunately, attitudes are evolving and younger generations today are less rigid about gender. Perhaps gender-open parenting is the future.