The going classification for babies has been pretty standard for the last 70 years or so — pink equals girl, blue equals boy. Not that associating colour with a baby’s gender is going to have much of an impact in the early days of their lives, but let’s face it, it’s hard to tell when they all have the same red, scrunchy face.
But there’s a growing movement among parents to not disclose the gender of their babies, and it’s not just that they’re rejecting the (admittedly bizarre) trope of gender-reveal parties. These parents are raising their children without gender, shunning the personal pronouns “she” and “he” in favour of “they” — hence the term “theyby” — at least until the child is old enough to decide on their own.
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“Gender socialization contributes to sex segregation, sex stereotypes, and micro-aggressions that result in gender inequalities in childhood and adulthood,” writes Kyl Myers, mother to two-year-old Zoomer, who she and her husband Brent are raising “gender-creative,” as parents of this movement like to call it.
“If people don’t know Zoomer’s sex, they can’t treat them like a boy or a girl, but rather, Z gets to be treated like the awesome little kid they are and experience a stereotype-free early childhood.”
The Myers family says they were inspired to raise Zoomer this way after hearing the story of Storm, a baby who was being raised gender-creative by their parents in Toronto. When Storm’s story was written in the Toronto Star in 2011, their parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker received a lot of criticism, and were subsequently subjected to people driving by their house yelling “boy” or “girl” from their car windows, among other more “vitriolic” reactions.
Even psychologists had their reservations about Storm’s gender-creative identity.
“I believe that it puts restrictions on this particular baby so that in this culture, this baby will be a singular person who is not being given an opportunity to find their true gender self, based on also what’s inside them,” Diane Ehrensaft, a California-based psychologist said to The Star.
The reactions to the news that some children are being raised without gender haven’t changed much since 2011 — one has only to read the comments on the Myers’ Instagram posts — some are very supportive, while others express concern for the perceived psychological effects it will have on the child, among other assumptions.
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Dr. Jillian Roberts, founder of Family Sparks and an associate professor at the University of Victoria, has extensive experience with children and teens who are transitioning, and says what matters the most is that parents are supportive in allowing their kids to explore their thoughts and feelings.
“These kids feel confusion about why they were ‘placed in the wrong gender’ to begin with… that these bodies did not match their spirit,” she tells Global News. “However, these kids have never reported that they feel traumatized by initially being referred to by ‘him’ or ‘her.’ Therefore, I think it is unnecessary for parents to try and use terms like ‘theybys.'”
She says what is necessary, however, is that parents remain open to following their child’s lead; if a boy wants to play with a doll, or a girl wants to play with cars, let them.
“Responding respectfully and openly to your child as they progress through development is what is important.”
According to science, however, “he” and “she” are not pronouns that apply to our minds. A study out of Tel Aviv University found that there is no such thing as a “female” brain and a “male” brain.
In examining the brains of 1,400 people, the researchers identified 29 brain regions that were different sizes in self-identifying males and self-identifying females. Upon closer individual examination, they found that very few had all of the brain features ascribed to their sex. In other words, there’s no such thing as an all-female or all-male brain.
“There are not two types of brain,” lead researcher Daphna Joel said to the New Scientist. “We separate girls and boys, men and women all the time. It’s wrong, not just politically, but scientifically — everyone is different.”
And considering the brain is most malleable up to the age of seven (even though we can continue to rewire it throughout our lives), there’s merit to the idea that by keeping a child gender neutral, it will shield them from the socially perceived associations of “girl” and “boy.”
This could also explain why retailers like Target and John Lewis in the U.K. have done away with gender labels on their kids’ toys and clothing.
For as much pushback as gender-neutral parenting is receiving, there’s no harm in it, experts say, provided the parents are doing it from a place of mindful intention.
“If a parent is confident about what they’re doing and they feel connected to it, they’ll have great success,” says parenting expert Julie Romanowski. “Because the norm is that parents come into the parenting world and they don’t know what to do, so they read the books and follow the trends, but it doesn’t allow you an opportunity to connect to yourself or your child.”
However, she worries that this movement could be perceived as a trend, thus delegitimizing what these parents are attempting to achieve.
“I would caution parents to make sure their intention is true and right if they choose to raise their child without gender,” she says.
“But there’s no negative aspect [to doing this]. Gender shouldn’t be on the table when you’re talking to kids. You want to put the emphasis on the fact that they’re individuals and deserve to be honoured as such.”
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