Gender Identity: Should We Raise Our Children Gender Neutral?

(Unsplash/Jens Johnsson)
(Unsplash/Jens Johnsson)

My youngest children, now adults with their own babies, are fraternal twins – a girl and a boy. When I [Gene Beresin] would come home from work, my son, Zack, would often meet me at the door donning a dress and carrying a sparkly wand with a star.

“I am not handsome,” he’d say. “I am a beautiful fairy princess!”

I must admit that even as a child psychiatrist it was at first somewhat of a shock. But I went with it. So did my wife.

“Oh, how wonderful,” we would say.

An hour later, he’d be sliding into third base and playing with trucks while his sisters played with their unicorns and stuffed animals.

My wife and I encouraged costumes and fantasy play, and we hosted a wide range of toys: trucks, dolls, stuffed animals and more.

Zack was assigned a male gender from birth and assumed the identity of a male. That’s just the way things were done. In fact, as I think back on those days, I feel my wife and I were pretty progressive. We loved his tendency to switch with ease from the frilly dresses to the Tonka trucks.

But things are changing.

New Trends in Gender Identity

On July 24, I [Beresin] was a guest on WBUR’s On Point, where I had the pleasure of talking with Nate Sharpe. He and his wife are raising their 3-year old twins as gender-neutral. Some have called these children “Theybies.” They’re kids who, from birth, have their chromosomal gender kept secret to all but the parents themselves.

The Sharpes' approach is not something they’ve done on a whim. They’ve researched the data on the different standards and impressions we form once we know a child’s gender.

Nate and Julia feel strongly that, as parents, they need to do whatever they can to allow their children to develop without the social imposition of gender-specific stereotypes. They want their children to be able to decide how they experience their gender, apart from anatomical differences or from assignment by parents or others in their lives.

I find their goals admirable. They have made a thoughtful, planned and sensitive effort not to inform anyone about the anatomical sex of their twins, and they have ensured that their friends, teachers and family are well informed and on board with their approach. They also are quick to acknowledge that they enjoy a supportive school and community, which not every parent has.

Their approach is not without risk. Kids who are “different” can become targets for ridicule and exclusion. However, we might also argue that the Sharpes’ approach is consistent with a large body of research showing that our children do best in non-judgmental, open-minded environments.

It is hardly a revelation that toys and childhood activities are associated with specific gender assignments. Though there is some crossover, toy trucks are generally marketed to boys and Barbies marketed to girls. If our cultural adherence to gender biases is as prevalent as research suggests, then the approach that the Sharpes are taking can be seen as a major step toward broadening the parental open-mindedness needed for healthy child development.

Will This Approach Work? 

An essential developmental task is the establishment of identity. Identity formation tells us who we are and what we value. It also provides the foundation for positive self-esteem, strength under peer pressure, confidence and competence. Identity formation begins early in life and tends to solidify in adolescence and young adulthood, though identity is not static. It is influenced by parents, siblings, friends, relatives and social forces.

And gender, of course, is a big part of identity.

Gender identity is complex; a composite of biological endowment, genetics, social and environmental vectors. Many argue that it is a social construct. Traditionally, it draws from sexual assignment early in life.

We don’t really know whether raising kids as gender neutral from birth will have a positive or negative impact on them.

Although there is data supporting arguments both for and against these tactics, there simply is not enough research to draw a definitive conclusion. In the absence of wholesale and widespread changes in cultural practices, it is understandably difficult to even begin the kinds of investigations that would yield more definitive conclusions. Many argue that even if children are raised as gender neutral, it is likely that they will still detect gender-related social cues that are ingrained in our society.

As more and more parents make the same decisions that the Sharpes have made, it is imperative that we follow these kids with sound research that can guide best-parenting practices.

This is much more difficult than one might think. If our research itself is prey to gender bias, then it is possible that the conclusions we draw will also be skewed. Some will also say that it sounds ludicrous to even ask these questions.

Gender is so fundamental to how we parent that it might strike readers as inane to even attempt a gender-neutral approach. Remember, however, that similar parenting debates from our past have also been met with initial derision. It wasn’t that long ago that we took it as not only acceptable but unquestionably necessary that parents use corporeal punishment. We know now that this form of discipline yields predominantly negative results.

Cultural shifts occur through the interplay of changing attitudes and careful research.

What Else Can We Do? 

Short of raising children fully without gender, are there other steps parents can take to decrease socially derived gender bias?

Consider these possibilities:

      • First, parents should reflect on their own gendered biases and to what extent they consciously and unconsciously model these for their kids in everyday language and action. When the television program Glee featured girls suiting up for a high school football game, I [Steve Schlozman] was surprised to find my own gender expectations shocked and challenged. I simply had a gut reaction that girls don’t play football, and I therefore had to be consciously open-minded to this episode while I was watching with my daughters.
      • What is needed most is early, thoughtful and ongoing conversations about the role and function of gender in society. If we use the example from Glee, we can imagine asking our children very straightforward questions: “Do girls play football? Why or why not? Who makes these rules?”
      • Parents can lobby schools for curricula to more actively embrace gender identity as part of social, emotional learning and/or health education. Social-emotional learning in school helps children learn to respect the values and beliefs of others. They need to learn to understand and accept what he, she, bi or trans means for another child, and which societal norms reinforce stereotypes
      • Parents and children of all ages need to hear the stories of individuals who have a range of experiences with gender issues. How did their gender identities develop?

    Clearly, we have a long way to go. Perhaps families like the Sharpes will help to make these issues more central to how we raise and teach our children.

    Let’s keep the focus on kids — on how we can help them become more secure in their own skin, accepting of themselves and others, and become the best she, he or they, that they can be.


    Dr. Gene Beresin is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds   and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Steve Schlozman is co-director of the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. 



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