The challenges families face include lack of social support, lack of guidance, lack of information, prejudice, and hostility. Gender roles and norms are entrenched in the society, making it difficult for children and their parents to resist or subvert conformity. The media and all social institutions perpetuate gender roles and norms. Yet when parents are willing to encourage gender fluidity or gender nonconformity, children and their parents are liberated from constraints to their creativity and self-expression. Specific challenges to resisting conformity include locating gender-neutral toys and games for young children, and finding strong social support networks for the child and the parents. Gender neutrality scares people for many reasons, not least of which is its perceived kinship with homosexuality, but also its being symbolic of social deviance. A person who does not fit into the neatly arranged categories of male and female may be viewed as an outright threat to the social order. The issue boils down to the erasure of all designations of "normal" and instead embracing a reality in which parenting is about raising kindhearted and good people.
When families like Brandon's sought psychological support, they were not given effective tools with which to navigate the tricky terrain of gender identity. Instead of that, the parents and Brandon were offered trite suggestions of how to force conformity to prescribed gender roles. Taking pink crayons out of the box and making Brandon say "I am a boy" while looking in the mirror are a few of the senseless methods used to force children to assume artificial identities (Rosin, 2008). In fact, the American Psychological Association has actually classified gender nonconformity as a "disorder," which by definition labels any child who is different as psychologically ill or unhealthy (Rosin, 2008). The American Psychological Association is set to remove this designation, but the stigma remains.
There is little in the way of support from any normative social institution, including the media, which has few gender-neutral characters, heroines, or heroes. When Brandon became Bridget, the reactions included overt hostility. Likewise, Kuhn (2014) notes that C.J.'s school was not cooperative and that they had to invoke their Title IX rights to acquire gender-neutral treatment. People were also "rude" to C.J. (Kuhn, 2014). The society is clearly the illness, not the child. Schools lack the resources to work outside gendered boundaries. Boys and girls line up separately; many activities like sports are gendered, not gender neutral. Teachers might view a child's cross-dressing or transgender behavior as being a behavioral problem, rather than being simply a way of saying "This is who I am." Few schools will have the opportunity for students to be fluid with their gender, and to use gender-neutral students as a springboard for discussing the sociology of gender with their students. Teachers may not be willing to discipline students who tease or bully nonconformists if they view gender nonconformity as a problem in itself. Other children are often the problem, as many are raised in traditional households with strict gender boundaries.
2. Children may face significant challenges at school, from teachers as well as from peers, when they dress or play differently from their peers. The social problems associated with nontraditional gender identity may be the most difficult issue for children, especially those who are sensitive or who are at risk for bullying. Bullying and having no friends can lead to serious problems, including suicide. With no teachers to support them, children who do not conform to gender norms and roles may find that school is a restrictive and painful environment. Problems in school may be capitalized by social problems and the lack of activities or resources that the child is genuinely interested in. This is because many children's activities and organizations are gender segregated.
As Martin (2005) points out, gender neutrality presents problems related to the child's sexual identity: "gender nonconformity is still viewed as problematic because it is linked implicitly and explicitly to homosexuality,"...
456). Homophobia is a problem in its own right, which is compounded further by the fear of gender neutrality. Families in religiously conservative areas of the country or of the world will have the toughest time socially, because religious extremism is particularly hostile toward gender neutrality and any other attempt to subvert patriarchal social norms (Lucas-Stannard). Religious families are therefore in the most precarious positions, in that they may want to instill the values of their culture and religion but without the attendant prejudicial baggage that comes along with it. Finding effective social supports can be difficult for families and their children.
3. Religious extremism has taken root in many parts of the United States, making raising gender-neutral children more difficult. Raising gender-neutral children may be viewed as subversive or even dangerous behavior. Most narratives of gender neutral parenting include at least one anecdote in which a clash between Christian conservatism and progressivism cause problems. Gender-neutral parenting is not the problem; religious conservatism is. When parents choose to raise their children in a gender-neutral way, they may also have to move to cities, states, or even countries that support their efforts. It may be more productive and healthier for the child to be raised in a supportive environment than in a hostile one. The United States can create hostile barriers that prevent self-expression.
If more families raise their children as gender neutral, gender identity development and expression will become less problematic. The discourse can become more intelligent. More girls may be encouraged to pursue sports and science, while more boys may be able to find self-expression in dance and design. Gender neutrality does not necessarily mean conforming to the opposite gender norms, as most gender neutrality is flexible and fluid. In the same way, there is also no single method of gender neutral parenting. Diversity of parenting allows for greater diversity in cultural as well as individual expression (Lucas-Stannard). The parents who opt for gender neutrality raise "gender nonconforming, gender creative, gender fluid, gender independent" children who have the potential to develop deep confidence (Duron, 2013, p. 3). Their self-expression will be from the heart, and not influenced by the media or conventional norms. Children can cease feeling "shame" and stop leading "a double life" (Rosin 4). The parents will also be liberated when they raise their children in a gender-neutral environment. Duron (2013) notes that she felt "ashamed and embarrassed" at having at first resisted the gender expression of her child (4).
4. Raising children in a gender neutral environment presents more advantages than disadvantages to the child's cognitive development, but may require that the child become strong in social situations. Children who are bullied and teased because they do not conform to gender roles and norms have the opportunity to develop their inner strength in a supportive home environment. This is why gender-neutral parenting becomes critical. There are no actual negative aspects for the child, except for the fact that his or her peers may not support gender neutrality. The culture has yet to embrace gender neutrality as a possibility. Deviations from gender roles and norms are looked at as if they are passing phases.
Gender is neither totally hard-wired, nor is it totally socially constructed (Rosin, 2008). Research is starting to reveal the complex ways gender is constructed. Many children have strong gender identities when they are still toddlers. Often those gender identities conform to social standards, but many times they do not. In those cases, it can be presumed that gender is hard-wired. Yet it may or may not be linked to homosexuality. Bringing homosexuality into the equation is practically irrelevant, as one's gender is not necessarily linked to one's sexual orientation. If it is, then homophobia is another issue that needs to be addressed in the individual household as well as in the society.
5. Eradicating cultural stereotypes related to gender will be difficult, especially in a diverse society. Eliminating gender roles and norms may be practically impossible, but parents can do their part to encourage their children to be aware of issues related to gender. Parents can also become advocates of gender neutrality in their communities, by starting organizations aimed at reeducating parents about their roles, educating others about media literacy and gender, and petitioning schools to become more gender neutral environments. Schools need to play a larger role in promoting gender neutrality. When schools foment gender anxiety, they do a disservice to all children. Eradicating stereotypes also involves social responsibility on the part of the media. The media can be used as a tool for social change.
Parents who raise gender-neutral children are doing their part. Raising gender-neutral children does not mean stopping girls from playing with Barbies, but it does mean allowing their boys to do the same. Gender neutrality refers to recognition of diversity, and an acknowledgement of the strength inherent in allowing children to express themselves freely.
Duron, L. (2013) Raising My Rainbow. New York: Random House.
Kuhn, S. (2014). Breaking free of gender stereotypes. She Knows. Retrieved online: http://www.sheknows.com/parenting/articles/1033051/raising-a-gender-neutral-child
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