Whether you’d like to admit or not, we’ve all been conditioned to think a certain way—boys don’t cry and girls shouldn’t wrestle. Of course, things are slowly but surely changing and becoming more inclusive. But are we really gender neutral? If you observe in your own home, your mother is probably the one who’s doing household chores, while your dad is perhaps looking into the financial wealth and stability of the family.
Statements like ‘don’t throw like a girl’ or ‘boys don’t cry’ send subliminal messaging to both genders that women are considered weaker, whether or not the statements have been explicitly made. This begs the question: is gender neutral parenting the need of the hour?
Before we delve into the pros and cons of this parenting style (not that’s there’s any right or wrong way to raise your children), let’s first understand what gender neutral parenting means, and identify the distinction between gender neutrality, and inclusivity or equality.
What is gender neutral parenting?To put it simply, gender neutral parenting is a style of parenting where children are raised without preconceived gender norms being enforced, allowing them to choose which identity they would like to adopt for the rest of their lives. Dr Mehezabin Dordi, clinical psychologist at Reliance Foundation Hospital, says, “This form of parenting prevents the child from being labelled or put into a box, so that they grow up devoid of those conventional gender rules. For example, parents would address the child as ‘baby’ in their conversations and not ‘son’ or ‘daughter’. A gender-neutral upbringing also suggests that a child is free to dress however they want, are surrounded by neutral room décor, play with toys that aren’t specifically meant for girls or boys, and avoid any kind of gender stereotyping as a practice.”
The pros and cons A gender neutral upbringing may create an identity crisis as the child grows older, given the fact that they’re bound to socialise and interact with other children who may or may not share a similar mind set. Dr Dordi elaborates, “Some studies suggest that gender-neutral parenting is a pro, as the child can grow up freely without conforming to rules that society places around gender. Gender norms can make children feel they need to force themselves to be something they are not, impeding their happiness and health. On the other hand, some studies indicate that if children are not raised as either a boy or a girl, they might end up feeling lost and confused about their own identity, and grow up without any clarity as to who they are. Moreover, stringent gender-neutrality is impossible especially if your child attends playschool or daycare. While your child may grow to believe that their dress sense or playing style is perfectly normal, it might attract pointed and unwanted questions from those around. This can leave your child confused, or worse, result in bullying or teasing.”
Emotional healthWith identity crisis comes the emotional trauma it can inflict on your child, if not closely monitored. Dr Dordi says, “Gender-neutral parenting, when done right, is about trying to limit gender stereotypes in your child’s life. The motive is to encourage a healthy dialogue with them about disconnect behaviours, preferences, and goals from gender. It can have a very positive effect when paired with a healthy dialogue, where you encourage them to explore ideas, activities, and behaviours irrespective of gender, so they can gain a broader perspective.”
However, the emotional impact on the child can be varied and multifaceted. Given that the agenda of gender neutral parenting is to enable a child to blossom freely, without conforming to society’s beliefs and gender stereotypes, it can foster a sense of independence in the child allowing them to build on their emotional resilience. However, Dr Dordi warns, “At the same time, this can result in isolation and bullying, and the emotional repercussions of bullying can be hard for the child to deal with. When implemented in an extreme way, this may do more harm than good.”
Remember, gender neutral parenting is the act of challenging those deep-rooted notions of gender stereotype, in an attempt to alter societal conditioning. With proper guidance, and a clear understanding of this technique, it is possible to make the construct of gender stereotype redundant among future generations. “The most crucial thing here is for the parents to understand what this style stands for, and thoroughly weigh the pros and cons before implementing it. It is also important to understand your own background and upbringing and that of your partner to be able to decide how you want to raise your child. It’s advisable to do your research, interact with parents raising a child in this style, and speak to a developmental paediatrician or psychologist for a detailed and well-rounded approach,” concludes Dr Dordi.