In April of 2016, I interviewed two parents who are raising their children gender neutral. It could be liberating, they said, to not have social expectations of children based on their sex. However, many people considered their parenting decision to be a form of unnatural indoctrination – arguing that there's simply a biological difference between men and women; that kids shouldn't be tricked into thinking they can pick and choose. Unsurprisingly, my article inspired comments like: "This is what modern child abuse looks like," and, "Another selfish parent projecting her identity issues on a child."
In just the last three years, though, much has changed: society is far more conscious of how culturally enforced gender stereotypes can negatively affect children. Gender neutral pronouns and bathrooms are on the rise, two gender neutral schools exist in Sweden and an increasing number of schools in the UK are adopting gender neutral uniforms. A 2017 study found a link between rigidly enforced gender stereotypes and physical and mental health risks.
So I wanted to follow up with Dani, one of the two parents featured in the article, to find out if people have become more accepting of her parenting style since we last spoke. "People [still] think we're neglecting or abusing our child," she said. "But literally all we're doing is allowing our now eight-year-old daughter, Mathilda, to experiment and discover things she likes doing – be that dancing, football, My Little Pony or Batman. We just don't say: 'This is for boys, you cannot have this.' It doesn't require any knowledge or any weird, abstract thinking, and I believe every parent should do it." Dani explained that Mathilda doesn't get confused about her own gender identity. "She is a girl and she'll tell you so, but she also loves stuff that, according to our society, 'boys like' – that's it."
That's an important point to raise. Mathilda – who critics of gender-neutral parenting claim to be most concerned about – isn't confused. All too often, the discussion revolves around the parents and their decision, rather than what we hear from and about the kids themselves. So to do just that, I reached out to Amelia, 24, and her mother Evelijn, 52, as well as Cearrah, 28 – a mother I found through a Facebook group for "parents raising their children in a gender neutral environment". Finally, I spoke with Ben Kenward, senior lecturer in Psychology at Oxford Brookes University, who was involved in research that compared children in a gender-neutral pre-school to those attending mainstream pre-schools in Sweden.
Cearrah and her eight-year-old live in a small city in western New York. "It is in no way easy to raise a child this way, where I live," she told me over email. "Last year, when my son switched schools, was the first time teachers didn't try to convince me that boys were not allowed to wear dresses at school. He's had teachers that would try to make him change his 'girly' clothes at school once he got there, and I had a guidance counsellor tell me to ignore the bullying because it would man him up."
Parents like Cearrah are said to be forcing their kids to adopt a certain identity, but she argues they're doing the exact opposite. "Most people don't understand that I am not some radical forcing my views on my son. I just want him to be happy and feel comfortable in his own skin."
Just as with Mathilda, Cearrah told me that her son has never felt confused about his identity. "My son still identifies as male, and prefers he/him," she wrote. "But he does not get offended when strangers say she/her. He just goes with it sometimes, and other times he corrects people. We have had many conversations on the subject and he knows he can choose. For a while he considered the gender neutral pronouns they/them, but he told me, 'It doesn’t feel like me.'"
Evelijn is a Dutch drama therapist who specialises in LGBTQ+ issues, and the mother of a non-binary identifying son and two male identifying sons, as well as a daughter, Amelia. I met Evelijn and Amelia through Radiant Love, a Berlin-based club night and collective that stands for "inclusivity in electronic music, art and performance". Evelijn works on the door collecting the entrance fee at the events. "I've always been surrounded by queer people," she said. "I grew up in a progressive family; my grandmother was a feminist. That's why I've always felt free about my sexuality and gender expression. I never believed in the social and cultural construct of gender, and I let my children feel free to be who they truly are."
Unlike Evelijn, Cearrah explained that she initially pushed male gender stereotypes on her son, but eventually noticed her way of parenting wasn't what he needed. "I stuck with the stereotypical boy's clothing and toys until he was about 18 months old and began showing a preference for dresses and glitter," she told me.
"At first, I knew nothing about non-conforming children and thought there was something wrong with my son – I forced him to stick with what society told me was appropriate clothing and toys for boys. I don't know if you have ever seen a depressed toddler, but it was heartbreaking. I started reading a blog called Raising My Rainbow, which helped me understand my child and stop harming him. From that day on, my son has taken the lead and he's become one of the happiest kids I know."
Evelijn doesn't think people really understand what gender-neutral parenting means. "I didn’t use the gender-neutral pronoun 'they', nor denied my children's assigned gender," she said. "The simple way I fought patriarchy was just by never telling my daughter to be a good girl, and never telling my sons to man up. I allowed all of my children a full range of emotional expression and to play with whatever they preferred. Blue and pink were just colours to us, and not gender-specific. Whenever I would talk about the future of my children, I would use the word 'partner' to make clear that I did not have expectations of which sex they would end up with."
When I asked Dani how Mathilda has been doing lately, she told me that she's becoming more influenced by what she sees on TV and what she notices from other people. "My daughter has been told by people that she should stay in her 'pink lane'," Dani said. "She's only eight years old, and even though she is aware of genderism, she sometimes falls into the same limited thinking. When it happens we just have a chat about it."
As her son has got older, Cearrah has found that he is more able to put his feelings into words. "He became better at discussing his differences with his peers and corrects others around him in a factual way, without assuming someone is questioning him in a mean way."
Amelia is a Berlin-based performance artist. I asked her what it was like to be raised in a gender neutral way. "On a daily basis, children in school would tell me things like, 'You can't do this because you're a girl,' but that made me feel rebellious and my response would be that I definitely could do it." When I asked her whether she has ever been confused or affected by the conflicting messages she was getting at home and what she was facing at school, she explained that she definitely felt a clash between her upbringing and what society expected from her.
"I played with both boys and girls, but I remember that a group of boys told me I couldn't play with them and that I had to leave because they wanted privacy – which didn't make any sense to me," she said. "I also didn't understand why my teacher would make teams based on our sex during gym class." According to Amelia, even adults lashed out at her. "Parents would go to my mother and tell her I was promiscuous because I wanted to play with their sons," she told me. "Once, another mother and my PE teacher told me that my mum should buy me a bra because I looked inappropriate in a mixed class. I always felt like adults created a certain segregation between boys and girls, which resulted in a fear of interacting with the opposite sex for some children."
Mathilda also became hyper aware of how often boys and girls were split up. "When she notices the heavy gendered aisles in clothes shops, she talks to her classmates about the fact that all colours are for everybody and that boys should be able to wear pink as well," Dani explained. "It makes her angry if boys aren't allowing her to take part in a football game – she told the kids that just because she is a girl, doesn't mean she can't do what she was doing."
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Meanwhile, even though Cearrah's son has become more conscious about the gender related choices he makes, his mum knows that he's also still being influenced by his friends. "Normally he will go for the dolls while playing – but if he's at a friend's house, he will second guess himself and go for the 'boy toys' instead," Cearrah told me. "On the contrary, around close family members he doesn't even think twice before looking at dresses, for example. But I have noticed that when he is with peers or extended family, he overthinks things and worries about making the wrong choice in the eyes of others."
Evelijn's eldest son was badly bullied when he was six years old – something that not only affected him, but also his brothers. "He only had female friends and was perceived as 'metro', like it was called back then. That made his brothers know not to behave like him, because they feared the consequences."
Even though Amelia was also bullied, she enjoyed her childhood. "If I had to choose between the reality [societal gender norms] or my own upbringing, I enjoyed the last one more," she told me. "I feel very privileged for being born into this household, because I feel so free now and gender is just not a thing to me."
Amelia's experience is backed up by research. According to a 2017 study, children enrolled in a Swedish gender-neutral kindergarten scored lower on a gender stereotyping measure and were more willing to play with unfamiliar children of a different gender.
Ben Kenward was one of the researchers on the study. The British psychologist told me that he wasn't surprised by the results. "Society's influence is big, but growing up in gender-neutral environments definitely has benefits," he told me. When I asked him if it's confusing to grow up between different realities, he explained through his research that kids raised in a gender-neutral environment are no more confused by their identities than kids in mainstream schools. "They are not less likely to notice another person's gender, they just score lower on a gender stereotyping measure," he said.
Clearly, a gender non-conforming upbringing can have consequences – but according to Dani, her parenting style isn't making her daughter miss out on anything, rather the opposite. "She's joined girls in climbing or riding their scooters, and joined boys in running around and playing football," Dani said. "My daughter cares more about what a kid is playing with than who is playing with it."