Going beyond 'boys don't cry': Should you try gender-neutral parenting?
Say hello to the next generation of highly emotionally intelligent kids
When space man Elon Musk and partner Grimes announced their baby’s name — X Æ A-12 — the internet crumbled into a million memes. But what interested me more was their commitment to gender-neutral parenting, instead of forcing their offspring into the stereotypical girl-boy code.
While the very concept might conjure up images of hippie-dippy couples with long-haired kids running around a commune, Kaanchi and Prateek Joshi say that gender-neutral parenting isn’t all that radical.
The Joshis talked about parenting techniques a few months into their pregnancy. “In the middle of dealing with pregnancy-induced heartburn and constipation, this thought popped into my head,” says Kaanchi. For them, it’s all about de-gendering childhood and bringing up a child with the right values and beliefs.
They focused on how they could develop their child’s personality, rather than curtail it by predetermined gender roles. Their 6-year-old’s room is splashed with different colours and shapes, educational toys, books and a special pillow for their puppy, because the couple believes that “growing up in a dynamic environment allows them to explore and develop their identity.”
Experts believe that children begin to recognise and categorise their gender around the age of three, even if they might not fully understand it. With this in mind, people have developed different kinds of gender-neutral parenting styles.
There are those who do their best to raise their child in a gender-less manner; using they/them pronouns, adopting androgynous colour palettes, toys and tastes.
There is a less stringent kind of technique where gender-neutral parenting translates into raising a child without the pink-blue dichotomies of toys, clothes, and activities.
Anamika Sengupta and Biplab Dutta, founders of Almitra Sustainables and Almitra Tattva, echo a similar philosophy. They have a natural, barefoot and gender-neutral approach to raising their young one, Neo.
There isn’t enough research to officially certify gender-neutral parenting as more beneficial. But experts like Ariana Abadian Heifetz, socio-emotional learning curriculum designer, Heritage Xperiential Learning School, believe that it can help children develop higher emotional intelligence or EQ.
“They would not be as subjected to the gendered reputation that emotions have in our societies and the stigmas attached to them,” she says in an interview.
If you’ve been thinking about a genderless upbringing for your baby, here are some tried and tested practices.
5 tips for gender-neutral parenting, according to practising parents
Don’t let them inherit your negative conditioning
We are our children’s first and most important role models. They learn the most by watching and listening to their parents and how they interact with each other, especially when they’re younger.
Even if you have decided to raise your child in a gender-neutral manner, your own conditioning can creep in and show in your behaviour.
Talking about their son, Sengupta says, “When he was born, this was our opportunity to go back to the basics. He was this unadulterated thing in front of us. Everyone is conditioned, even we have been conditioned by society. We decided that we will follow his natural cues and since then, parenting became very easy for us.”
Ask any parent and they’ll tell you that among their disappointments as a mother or father is seeing their bad habits reflected in their kids.
“You can’t be trying to raise a gender-neutral child and have statements like ‘he needs to man up’ as part of your vocabulary. They will pick up on its connotations,” says Prateek.
When your kids are young, they’re still learning languages. It’s not just a bad word that they can learn from you, but also limiting connotations and thought patterns Sengupta is careful about using ableist language around her son.
“One day he asked me ‘what is langda?‘ I explained that the word is slang. Some people have two legs and others have one leg but both have certain kinds of skills and abilities. I don’t say that this is ‘a person without a leg’, implying the loss as negative. So we have to be aware of what we are saying and be sensitive while talking to him.”
De-gender work – paid and unpaid
Dutta looks after the household as much as his partner, and is equally parenting their son. “It’s not that a man can’t raise a kid or a woman can’t earn ‘like a man’. I wash dishes and change diapers and my wife is out handling the business, and vice versa. There is no ‘man’s job’ and ‘woman’s job’ in our household,” he says.
As your child grows up, watching this equal distribution of house and caretaking responsibilities creates a strong foundation upon which they build their own identity.
Sengupta advises involving your kids in these tasks as well. The couple engages their son in cooking, cleaning up and even farming their edible garden.
“A lot of people think I am engaging him in activities to pass time during the lockdown. But it’s not like that. This is our natural way of life.”
Moulding mindsets that don’t attribute a particular gender to a certain task or activity is a large part of gender-neutral parenting.
Find a rainbow of role models
Fill their bookshelves and screens with stories about local heroes, women helping other women, men’s groups fighting toxic masculinity and differently-abled protagonists leading their own narratives.
“Every Saturday, we watch a short video about a new person. They are usually from a minority community which has been left out of history books and mainstream narratives. The internet is a treasure trove of such content made suitable for children of different ages. Last week, we watched a clip about the life of RuPaul,” says Kaanchi.
Recognise and discuss realities rather than rejecting them
There will be moments in your gender-neutral parenting journey where your child feels different from others, or might be bullied, and comes back with questions.
“It could be small comments like ‘you’re not a girl, why are you crying?’ or colour choices and different toys. Everyone’s house isn’t the same as ours,” adds Sengupta.
When they come to you with questions, it’s always better to answer them clearly. “If you’re unsure, tell them you’ll get back to them. Always follow up and say ‘hey, remember that thing you asked? This is the answer’. If they ask you why their friend Arjun’s father goes to the office and only his mother does the housework, you have to talk to them about gender roles in terms that they understand,” explains Prateek.
Gender-neutral parenting can’t be done in isolation because gender norms are all around us. It’s up to us to explain it, as well as why we’re choosing to challenge them.
With a strong foundation at home, they can face whatever life throws at them and decide on their own if they want to wear that red nail polish or not.