When Ashlee Dean Wells gave birth to her son 13 years ago, she was determined that his life wouldn’t be limited by gender. She gave him toys and clothes traditionally associated with both girls and boys, and found he enjoyed dresses and tutus as much as shorts and T-shirts. “There was no shopping in the boy aisle or the girl aisle, he just played with whatever he was drawn to,” says Ashlee. At age three, his favorite color was pink. He was male, but he was far from typically masculine.
Ashlee’s next child, Nova, was born prematurely and spent a lot of time in the hospital. At first, Ashlee tried the same parenting approach: She raised Nova as a girl, but didn’t stick to traditionally female choices. But Nova, who is disabled and has special needs, always asked for a short haircut. By three years old, they were fielding questions in the playground about whether Nova was a boy or girl. “Nova was always put off by that question and would say. “I’m a human’ or ‘I’m Nova,’ or ‘Why do you have to know that,’” says Ashlee, a photographer based in Chicago. “That was a light bulb for us.”
Not long after Nova’s fourth birthday, Ashlee asked her child whether they’d prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns. Today, the family no longer refers to Nova as a “she,” and instead uses the pronoun “they.”
“Gender is a fluid thing,” says Ashlee. She identifies as queer, and has long been aware of how gender can inform negative stereotypes. Now, she and her partner Froilan (who goes by “Flowers”) are following Nova’s cues, giving Nova room to evolve as they get older. “I’m hesitant to put my child in a box and say, ‘This is a non-binary person and that’s who they’re always going to be,’ because I don’t know,” says Ashlee. “Right now, I’m happy to respect their growth and development and will continue to follow their lead.”
Ashlee’s experiences with her children reflect the wide spectrum of gender-neutral parenting. Broadly speaking, parents who embrace this fast-growing trend believe that their children’s clothing, behavior, and opportunities should not be determined by whether they are born as a biological boy or a girl. For some parents, this means generally countering gender stereotypes from a young age: avoiding the pink-or-blue binary, offering toy toolboxes to their daughters, and bonding with sons over ballet. For others, this approach means refusing to gender their children at all from birth: Raising “theybies,” as they’re known, by using gender-neutral pronouns and allowing children to choose their own gender as they get older.
It’s still rare to raise children as “theybies,” but New York Magazine recently profiled several such families, one of which has a strong Instagram following. Meanwhile, there over 10,000 followers in a Facebook group devoted to gender-neutral parenting more broadly, and plenty of articles on children who defy gender expectations. In Sweden, gender-neutral public preschools make a concerted effort to avoid gendering children, while some schools in the UK are introducing gender-neutral uniforms and teaching students that they may use the pronoun “zie” instead of “he” or “she.”
There are many individual reasons why parents may want to raise gender-neutral children. But the general idea is that defying gender stereotypes could counter the negative effects of sexism. Boys who aren’t constrained by masculine ideals could be more comfortable expressing their emotions, for example, while girls will be less likely to internalize sexist messages that teach them to be passive and delicate. Studies show that children exhibit basic gender stereotypes, such as the idea that softness is female and hardness is male, by age three. A year later, at age four, children have beliefs about which toys are more male versus female, and think that boys are more physically aggressive than girls. Gender neutrality also creates space for those children who don’t neatly fit into the gender binary. The hope is that, raised by gender-neutral parenting, children of all genders will grow up to create a more equal world, in which gender itself is less important.
It’s certainly plausible that raising children to be gender-neutral will help reduce sexism. As it’s a relatively new concept, however, there’s not yet much evidence on the subject. Some of the most compelling research so far comes from Sweden, often rated one of the most advanced countries on gender equality. The country has a handful of gender-neutral preschools, which refuse to offer separate activities for girls versus boys; if a story being read aloud features traditional gender stereotypes, then the characters’ genders are often swapped around. Teachers also actively teach children how to counter stereotypes: Boys massage each others’ feet, reports the New York Times, while girls throw open the windows and scream.
One small study, published last year, found that children from these schools were less likely to believe in gender stereotypes, and more likely to play with unfamiliar children of a different gender. But Christine Fawcett, psychology researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden and co-author of the study, says it’s unclear whether the benefits of a gender-neutral upbringing will continue into adulthood. Societal expectations could well counter the gender-neutral approach; plus, there’s simply no long-term research on the subject.
Philip Hwang, a psychology professor at University of Gothenburg in Sweden, agrees that it’s impossible to ascertain the full effects without more research. The values behind gender neutrality are “good in theory,” he says. “But social change is very slow.”
And so parents like Ashlee are embarking on a truly radical kind of social experiment, one that operates without data and control groups. Both parents and children have the freedom to change their minds and make things up as they go along.
Jane Ward, professor of gender and sexuality studies at University of California, Riverside, says that when she had her son eight years ago, she filled his wardrobe with clothes designed for both girls and boys. She intentionally tried to avoid referencing the gender binary, and allowed him the freedom to identify with whatever gender felt most comfortable. “We never called him a boy or assumed anything about his gender expression,” she says. “When, aged two and a half, he used the word ‘boy’ to refer to himself, we went with it.”
Ward prefers the term “gender self-determination” rather than “gender neutral,” as the concept is not about eliminating gender, but simply allowing children to choose their own. “Rarely do they end up having no gender expression,” she adds.
Today, Ward is proud of the fact that her son—who enjoys pink glitter shoes, has long hair, and wears princess nightgowns—shows no signs of traditional sexist hangups. “He has a lot of identification with girls and women. He identifies as a boy, but he reads a lot of books in which the central character is a girl,” she says. When he needs an example of someone who’s fast and strong, he’ll point to the children’s book character Kate Wetherall, a sporty 12-year-old who carries around a Swiss army knife, fishing twine, and slingshot. “In his world, girls and women are badasses,” adds Ward.
Ward believes this parenting approach could also help prevent sexual violence as children grow into adults. “We know that a foundational piece of rape culture is that boys are not raised to empathize with girls or to put themselves in girls and women’s shoes,” she says. Ward points to sociologist Diana Scully’s research on convicted rapists, which documents how failing to empathize with women correlates with sexual violence. “The fact that I’m raising a son who’s thinking about what it feels like to be a girl, what girls’ emotions look like—I know that’s a key piece in raising boys who do not commit sexual assault,” she says.
Fawcett’s study of Sweden’s pre-schools influenced how she later decided to raise her own children. She has a son and a daughter and, though she raised them as a girl and boy from birth, she makes a concerted effort not to treat them differently according to gendered expectations. “I try to make sure I’m treating them as similarly as I can,” she says. “When a truck goes by, I’d always point them out to my son. I made sure to do the same for my daughter, because she might also be interested in the truck.”
She says she can already see the benefits with her son, who’s four years old: He’s comfortable sharing his feelings, is physically affectionate, and regularly plays with both girls and boys.
“It’s a bit harder to tell for my daughter since she’s still so young, but she does show an interest in climbing and getting dirty and I try to encourage that, rather than telling her to be careful about messing up her clothes, for example,” says Fawcett. “In the future, I hope that these small differences will add up to a future where they feel confident that any options are open to them—from stay-at-home parent to molecular biologist to construction worker—and they can follow what they most want to do.”
The risk that her kids might face social ostracization deterred her from raising children with gender-neutral pronouns from birth, says Fawcett. But even if all of society was completely accepting of gender-fluid kids, she says she’s still uncertain whether she would raise her children without referring to their gender.
“Gender is a real thing in the world,” she says. “If gender really is a core of humanity in some way, then having that not represented at all around us could somehow be unsettling. Or something wouldn’t be fulfilled in our development. But it’s really hard to say.”
We can clearly see the negatives that often accompany constructions of gender: Stereotypes that tell men to be assertive but stoic, and women to be meek and diligent. Though it’s impossible to definitively parse the influence of environmental versus biological factors, there are relatively few inherent differences between men and women; as such, many gender disparities are a reflection of sexist social expectations. Research suggests that gender stereotypes deter girls from studying math, for example, while another study found that gender stereotypes influence our interpretations of men’s versus women’s emotions.
But perhaps we don’t currently appreciate the benefits of how gender informs personal identity, simply because it’s so widespread. After all, many people’s sense of self is founded, at least in part, on gender. Those who support using gender-neutral pronouns in children note that they aren’t denying their children gender, but rather giving them a choice.
That said, raising a young child with a gender-neutral pronoun could be just as influential as raising them according to a particular gender. Joel Baum is senior director at Gender Spectrum in Oakland, California, which teaches families, schools, and other organizations across the US how to understand and talk about gender identity. Baum says that raising a child with a gender-neutral pronoun is a decision that should follow from the child’s behavior—not one that parents should impose on kids from the start.
“It’s not a great idea or a bad idea, it’s about why,” he says. “Is your child indicating to you that they don’t have a gender? Or are you operating from a perspective that’s more adult-centric?” The important thing, says Baum, is to be sensitive to children’s ideas about their own gender, and to allow them the freedom to express themselves outside of conventional norms.
For her part, Ashlee says she’s found that following her children’s lead is pretty easy to do. When difficulties arise, they simply discuss them. Most children and adults accept that Nova labels themself as human, rather than girl or boy, and Nova is confident about their identity. Recently, a child tried to demand that Nova should label themself a girl or boy. Ashlee and Nova talked about this, and Ashlee simply explained that some children don’t know yet that some people are neither one nor the other.
Though Ashlee knows that many children struggle as a result of others’ reactions to their gender identity, she’s not worried about Nova. “My kid survived when they weren’t supposed to more than once,” she says. “I think that perspective in parenting this child has shown me how resilient and strong they are. Nobody can touch that.”
Small instances of resistance or confusion from others in no way diminish what Ashlee believes Nova has been given by embracing gender neutrality: Namely, opportunity. “It’s empowered them to be who they are without the confines of having to fit in a box. Nova’s free to be whoever they are, and that opens up a lot of possibilities and experiences,” she says.
Ashlee’s currently pregnant again and, after discussing the issue with her partner, has decided to introduce her newborn child to the world using gender-neutral pronouns. Having tried both approaches, she believes neither is inherently superior. “Any choice we make, we’re setting some kind of stage. Before they get to be who they are, we’ve already built that stage for them,” she says.
But, for her family, gender neutrality feels like the best approach. “I don’t think there’s a right way or a wrong way,” says Ashlee. “For so long we’ve expected people to fit in one of two boxes. Culturally, we’re opening our eyes to the fact that this is a spectrum.” Gender norms are so deeply and widely entrenched that it can be difficult to work against them. For parents who embrace the gender-neutral approach, the hope is that, by rejecting these stereotypes from birth, the next generation of feminists won’t have to consciously resist them. They will simply know, without doubt or controversy, that they are immeasurably powerful.
Advice for parents looking to fight gender stereotypes:
- Store toys together, don’t divide by whether typically male or female
- Swap characters’ genders around in traditionally gendered stories
- Present a variety of clothing options, for both girls and boys, and let children choose