Saranya Raghavan is expecting her second child in March 2022, and just like her first pregnancy, she’s choosing not to find out the baby’s gender. This Chicago mom of 4 1/2-year old Ishaan doesn’t believe in focusing on gender and all the stereotypes that come along with it.
“I think I have always been the person who wanted to smash those stereotypes. I was a girl who wanted to go into engineering,” Raghavan says. “I’ve always been very independent in terms of expecting myself to be financially independent.”
She wasn’t the young girl planning her wedding at age 12, she considers herself a feminist and plans to pass wiher thinking down to her children.
“When Ishaan was born, I really wanted to raise him to be a feminist son and embody all of those values that I believe in and I think that just lends itself to raising him without all the gender stereotyping that comes with it,” she says.
And that’s exactly what she and her husband are doing by practicing gender-neutral parenting.
When it comes to how a child identifies, there are a lot of assumptions about gender from birth that could be problematic for a child, says Sara Wiener, MSW, a clinical social worker within Pediatric Endocrinology, Child & Adolescent Gender Services at University of Michigan Health.
“Gender is how a person identifies. A person might identify as a girl, a boy, a man, a woman or some other gender identity. We assume a gender identity based on a person’s sex, so we are assuming that because a child was assigned female at birth, that that child identifies as a girl and wants to be called a girl and be seen in kind of a stereotypically kind of girly way,” Wiener says. “Sometimes that all aligns and the child who was assigned female at birth does identify as a girl and feels very comfortable looking feminine but sometimes that’s not the case. A benefit of not putting gender stereotypes on a child is that the child doesn’t have to struggle if the gender stereotypes don’t fit.”
Beginning at birth, parents can choose not to reveal the baby’s gender and refer to the child as they/them or simply baby. If your child is already a toddler or preschooler, there are some other ways to practice gender-neutral parenting starting now. Read on for insight and advice on making a conscious effort to break free from the binary.
Stepping across the aisle
When Raghavan, an attorney who also runs a book-centric Instagram account, was pregnant with Ishaan, she noticed something a little strange while shopping.
“When we were out shopping for stuff, I was shocked when I walked into the store and I was like, ‘oh the left side is the girl baby section and the right side is the boy baby section’ and I was like, ‘well what if I like something on this side? I don’t know whether I’m having a boy or a girl but it doesn’t seem to matter,’” she says.
She saw a small gender-neutral shelf of clothing, and it was then that she decided to shop on both sides of the aisle.
Today, Ishaan loves to express himself through fashion — from pink and purple hues to sparkly shoes — and Raghavan says she’s made an effort to keep herself accountable when she’s shopping.
“One thing that I’ve started doing recently the last year is arranging Ishaan’s clothes in rainbow, so we go from white at the end and black at the other end and we do the ROYGBIV in the middle and it’s really eye-opening for me because I get to see what colors I’m picking for my kid and where he goes most often is kind of interesting too,” she says.
When it’s time for a wardrobe reset, she picks colors from all over the rainbow and continues to shop on both sides of the aisle. It’s a lot less complicated than you think, she says, and urges parents to remember that there’s no significant meaning behind that piece of cloth — it’s just a way to cover your body at the end of the day and your child can pick what they feel best in.
While Ishaan’s parents are comfortable with his clothing choices, he has had some struggles at school because kids don’t always understand why he might wear sparkly shoes, for example. The same goes for long hair, which he had previously. Kids have made comments, and if he comes home upset, mom is always there to clarify things and let him know it’s OK to be who he is — and that’s crucial.
“Be you. I’m enabling you to be you. I want you to be confident in who you are. You need to ignore the negativity you get from other people because living life as someone who you’re not is not fun,” she says. “I see a lot of teenage angst or people in their young 20s who are really struggling with their identity and who they are supposed to be — and I just don’t want my child to be one of those people.”
Keeping it neutral
Wiener has spent more than a decade working in transgender health and providing mental health services to transgender and non-binary people. She knows the struggles that many face when it comes to their gender identity. Many young people who do not feel like the binary of boy or girl works for them.
“Those kids struggle a lot because the binary is so strong and reinforced by adults and schools and structures in a young person’s life. So I think to be as inclusive as possible, raising young people in a not highly gendered way is very helpful really for everyone,” she says.
Parents of younger kids can start by providing children with a wide variety of toys, including play kitchens, dolls and dress-up clothes for boys, for example. Give them options to explore their interests. Different clothing options should be provided, as well. Don’t stick to pink for girls and blue for boys.
Teach children about different pronouns, read books about the LGBTQ+ community and visit the Pride festival, Wiener suggests. Open your child’s eyes to different people.
“Expose young people to the concept that gender is a spectrum and that people experience their gender at all points along a gender spectrum. All identities are legitimate and normal,” Wiener says.
If you want to introduce your child to different pronouns, Raghavan suggests What Are Your Words? A Book About Pronouns by Katherine Locke, which introduces children to pronouns beyond he, she and they such as xe/xir and ze/zir. Another read calledand Being You: A First Conversation About Gender by Megan Madison is a great board book for older toddlers, which promotes identity in general and letting kids know they can be who they want to be.
Always follow your child’s lead when it comes to their gender identity, Wiener adds.
“We are doing this until we hear from the young person how they identify, what they want for themselves and the whole point of this is to give the young person space to determine this for themselves without the stereotypes being hoisted upon them,” Wiener says.
Continue to follow their lead and keep in mind what a kid says to you at 14 or 15 about their gender might change later on in life. This is normal, she notes, and not a sign of a problem.
“We have to remember to stay flexible in our thinking about people and how they identify,” Wiener says. “We can never really lock it in. Let’s remain flexible and support people over time.”
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