Maggie Hake, Webster University – Saint Louis
Gender-neutral parenting has officially hit the mainstream, with everyone from Kim Kardashian to Brad Pitt highlighting how traditional gender roles affect children. The importance of recognizing, accepting, and ultimately embracing gender nonconforming parenting is in response to an extreme emphasis on traditional gender roles, especially in raising male children. This maintenance of the devaluation of femininity purports hegemonic masculinity, promoting male domination and limiting many forms of expression while negatively impacting people of all genders. I argue that all forms of gender expression should be valued. In this paper, I affirm that the ability to raise gender nonconforming children relates to fundamental human rights, including rights to equality, freedom from discrimination, and freedom of opinion and expression.
It is not new information that maintaining binary gender roles affects children. What is fairly new, however, is the public denunciation of rigid gender roles due to the negative effects associated with them. The relatively newly-identified importance of recognizing, accepting, and ultimately embracing gender nonconforming parenting is in response to an extreme emphasis of traditional gender roles that exists in many things associated with parenting, including toys, clothing, and general behavior performed by children. As I’ve learned through scholarly research (we well as through personal experiences and interactions), instilling these gender roles are harmful to both males and females, and everyone whose identity falls within the gender spectrum because it limits expression. The purporting of hegemonic masculinity through the encouragement of traditional gender roles at a young age, particularly masculine traits in both males and females as well as the discouraging of feminine traits in males, also plays into the continued promotion of male domination. In a world where equality seems to become more and more of a buzzword, I argue that all forms of gender expression should be valued. In this paper, I affirm that the ability to raise gender nonconforming children relates to fundamental human rights and that choosing this style of parenting promotes equality, freedom from discrimination, and freedom of opinion and expression.
Foundations in Human Rights
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) provides a foundation for international human rights, and the basic rights outlined in this framework are reinforced by binding international law. For our purposes, I will focus on three human rights that are most central to this discussion: Equality, freedom from discrimination, and freedom of opinion and expression.
Article 2 of the UDHR contends: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (United Nations General Assembly, 1948). Although gender is not included (and I argue that it should be, as the distinction between sex and gender is quite important), I still believe that this article applies to how raising gender nonconforming children relates to human rights. Penelope Leach states: “If you try to make a boy stick to the ‘right’ gender, however good your reasons, you deprive him of exploring the potential of half the world, and if you are happy to let a girl switch over but not a boy, you inevitably contribute to the basic gender inequalities that bedevil us all” (as quoted in Martin, 2012, p. 176). This alludes to gender inequality in raising children, in that research has shown that boy children are more limited in their expression than girl children in fear of the child (or parent) being ridiculed, being homosexual, or being perceived as homosexual (Martin, 2005). As Martin (2005) further explains, gender is socially constructed and therefore has nothing to do with biology. Quite the contrary, gender is something that is learned, and one of the first places children learn gender is when they are very young (at two to five years of age) and through their childcare provider, whether it be parents or preschool. Child care providers (even some of those who purport biological theories) describe how gender is socially constructed and emphasize that parents’ treatment of girls and boys is often different and produces gender differences (Martin, 2005). Rather than thinking about how we perpetuate these gender differences, which I believe situates us in a very unequal world, we assume that they are inevitable – even though data suggests that these differences are maintained through rigid parenting practices.
Article 7 of the UDHR outlines freedom from discrimination: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination” (United Nations General Assembly, 1948). Attempts to battle both discrimination in terms of gender and sexuality are at the root of the gender nonconforming childrearing movement. Stifling expression in terms of clothing worn, toys played with, characteristics embodied, and more – especially in boys – is rooted in a fear of and discrimination again femininity, as well as internalized homophobia (Kane, 2006). As seen in Kane’s (2006) study, parents are open to gender nonconformity in girls, and are often even encouraging of it. The more we encourage both women and men to stray from femininity, the more we devalue it and the more likely it is that those who do identify as feminine are discriminated against. Additionally, there is a knee-jerk reaction that when a boy takes on feminine characteristics, he will be or at least will be perceived as gay. This negative attitude is especially associated with men who have sons (Bulanda, 2004). The negativity associated with this reaction illustrates not only how sexuality and gender expression are often (and many times wrongfully) connected, but that if one strays from a certain type of gender expression (typical) or (hetero)sexuality, they will face discrimination.
Lastly, Article 19 of the UDHR outlines freedom of opinion and expression: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (United Nations General Assembly, 1948). This relates to the idea that it is a parent’s human right to raise their child in an open and accepting environment in terms of gender identity and expression. If it is a parent’s opinion that gender-neutral parenting is best for their child, then it is their human right to adopt that parenting style. Of course complications arise when others allege this is child abuse, which I will touch upon later. Kane (2006) points out in her study that it is important for parents to see children, as well as children to see themselves, as active agents rather than passive recipients of adult influences. By sequestering atypical gender expression, especially in children, we are violating a human right that is vital to one’s understanding of themselves and the way they wish to be situated in the world in terms of their gender. As liberal feminists emphasize, gender neutral parenting is good for children as individuals in that it raises “free children” that learn about themselves through expression rather than stifling what feels right to a child, as one does when purporting rigid, traditional gender roles in parenting (Martin, 2005). These traditional ideas about gender especially harm boys, particularly in terms of emotional expression, which can lead to serious issues down the line. As Martin (2005) addresses, boys need to develop and expression their emotions, including frustration, disappointment, and empathy towards others. Without encouragement to develop these abilities, men and boys are more likely to push their feelings down and that may lead to inappropriate anger, drug abuse, and alcoholism. Furthermore, researchers and advocates also contend that this type of discrimination actually leads to a less interesting, less diverse society. When people feel obliged to conform to conventional gender roles, society loses valuable traits and the multiplicities of family (Martin, 2005).
Overview of Gender-Neutral Parenting and Controversies
Advocates of gender-neutral parenting contend that it offers a variety of advantages to families, working against the conformist pressures of socialization. For instance, it helps parents and children identify universally-desirable traits and values that they want to promote and adopt – regardless of gender identity, sex, or sexuality. Second-wave feminists have re-envisioned what socializing children means: “While feminist sociologists have theorized that gender has multiple locations, in identity, interaction, social structure, and discourse, one might argue that it is through socialization (and the management, negotiation, and resistance of it) that children learn how to operate in gendered structures, learn the repetitive stylized performances that constitute gender, or learn how to do gender in interaction and how to avoid sanctions for doing it wrong” (Martin, 2005). Obviously, the idea of gender permeates everything that we do, and therefore the ideas we maintain surrounding gender are vital to our understanding of our place in the world. Understanding gender socialization remains important for explaining gender, as well as how the construction of gender relates to inequality (Martin, 2005). The most exciting part is realizing the power we have to change these inequalities in terms of the way we conceptualize parenting in terms of gender. Gender-neutral parenting removes limitations and possibilities for both girls and boys. It is what has encouraged expanded roles for girls at home, school, work, and in the media. Girls now have access to sports, are more encouraged in academics made up of math and science concepts. Girls are able to wear pants, own property, and vote which were all previously off limits because of static ideas of what was “natural” for women and girls to participate in, removing many constraints on girls lives (Martin 2005). I argue that this work has just begun, and through the incorporation of gender-neutral parenting practices, the barriers could be broken down even further, for men and for women.
Critics of this approach, however, argue that gender-neutral parenting is unhealthy and harmful to children. There is the growing medicalization of gender nonconformity, which is now included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and therefore is perceived by some as unhealthy. While this is helpful for those who want to seek medical care, advice, or assistance, this also promotes a stigma that those who are gender nonconforming have a problem. This perpetuates the idea that gender roles are important and necessary to maintain a healthy society, and even a healthy world. Furthermore, there is the linkage between gender and sexuality. Many argue that including gender nonconformity in the DSM pathologizes homosexually, as well as liking the “wrong” material items, such as toys, clothes, and playmates. But this linkage between gender and sexuality is even more entrenched than I will go into in this paper; there is even data to suggest that fear of homosexuality prevents child care advisors’ embrace of gender-neutral child rearing, limiting conversations and encouragement by popular child care advisors whose opinions people take very seriously (Martin, 2005).
Despite these criticisms, there is widespread support among parents working to “undo” gender conformity for their sons in terms of his skills and values, such as learning to cook or sew, or to believe that women should be treated as equal (Kane, 2006). Interestingly enough, this stops when attributes connected to femininity (like nurturance or passivity) are highlighted, as well as wearing “pink” or “frilly” clothing. Much of this is connected to internalized homophobia – a fear that a son will either be or be perceived as gay. Immediate connections between gender nonconformity and sexual orientations are not made apparent in parents’ comments about their daughters or among gay or lesbian parents, however. Hegemonic masculinity legitimates male privilege as well as sexual orientation privilege (Kane, 2006). Those purporting masculinity believe sexual orientation is a threat to them, when really hegemonic masculinity is a threat to all because it stifles already marginalized groups, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer folk.
Some parents feel accomplished if they do instill hegemonic masculine ideals in their children, and whether or not that comes from the parent themselves or expectations from the outside commonly depends on the gender and sexuality of the parent involved. As Kane (2006) addresses in her research, male parents tend to encourage masculinity in their boys and also treat their daughters differently, encouraging femininity. While female parents as well as gay parents are more likely to accept gender nonconformity in children, there is still an added layer of masculine maintenance in male children. The pressure to encourage masculinity for these parents is assumed to come from outside expectations of what boys should grow up to be (masculine men). A level of accountability can be seen here. It is as if there is an added layer; parents are perpetuating these ideals not only because they believe it’s good for their children, but because they believe it will help them to be seen as a good parent from the outside (Kane, 2006). And of course there is legal evidence to support this; many custody battles have been seen in court where a parent has cited their ex-partner’s encouragement of gender nonconformity as abuse in hopes of gaining full custody (Kuvalanka, 2014).
Parents and Gender Construction
Several research studies help us understand how parents approach the debate about gender-neutral parenting. Data gleaned from Martin’s (2005) analysis of parenting advice (taken from 34 parenting books and 43 articles on 15 websites) shows how gender nonconformity has entered parenting discussions, although the scope of change is still to be determined. He chose all general childcare books or comprehensive manuals about parenting and child development and reported that about two-thirds of the books and all of the websites included explicit and substantial discussions of gender. He then went on to analyze the text that advised parents on gender development, behavior, sexuality, and the importance of mothers/fathers as caretakers. Four of the sources emphasized biology as the determinant of gendered behavior, while five forces emphasized a social learning perspective that argued that children are socialized, learning the roles of men and women from parents, schools, and media. Many of these sources did argue that biology plays a role, but that the learned component is more influential. This illustrates how gender nonconformity in childrearing is permeating mainstream parenting literature, but not to the extent that it has undone the traditional gender roles we have entrenched ourselves in.
Kane (2006) conducted 42 interviews (with 24 mothers and 18 fathers) with a diverse sample of parents in terms of class, education, age, race, sexuality. Each parent had at least one preschool-aged child. She chose this age carefully because that is when most children begin understand gender expectations, develop gender identity, and engage in gender-typed behavior patterns. The interviews focused on parents’ perceptions of their children’s gendered performance – activities, toys, clothes, behaviors, child’s awareness of their gender, as well as their own feelings about the gendered behaviors and characteristics of their child. Responses fell into two groups: feelings and actions related to gender nonconformity. Emotional responses were then divided into positive and neutral verses negative responses, and actions were defined as reports of the parent actually doing something in response to gender nonconformity, either encouraging or discouraging. The results were that a majority (23/31) of parents with sons expressed some semblance of a negative response in reaction to gender nonconformity. Of 31 parents, 25 indicated positive responses as well, but unlike references to their daughters (which were mostly without caveats), those accepting responses in regard to their sons were balanced with negative feelings and actions. It is possible that this plays into the idea of parents being open and accepting of gender nonconformity but feeling pressure from the outside to provide caveats of discouragement. In terms of daughters, many mothers and fathers celebrated what they perceived as gender nonconformity (dressing in sports themed clothing, buying them toy cars, trucks, trains). They often encouraged female aspirations into traditionally male occupations. Not many negative responses were reported, but these parents made little effort to encourage or discourage these patterns of “masculine” behavior (Kane, 2006). Perhaps these responses signal the improved treatment of women and girls in some societies, although I believe that devaluing femininity can also be hurtful to women, girls, and others who possess feminine characteristics.
Combatting Harmful Hegemonic Masculinity
Perpetuating hegemonic masculinity is a violation of human rights because it dampens efforts of equality and encourages discrimination by subordinating femininity/nonhegemonic masculinities. It legitimizes male privilege, race, class, and sexual orientation-based privileges. It further promotes aggression, limited emotionality, and heterosexuality. The fact that parents of daughters did not make comments leading to an implied connection between gender identity and expression and homosexuality illustrates how hegemonic constructions of masculinity and a harmful emphasis of heterosexuality are linked (Kane, 2006). In fact, the notion of ant-feminity lies at the construction of manhood, with masculinity defined more by what one is not rather than who one is (Kimmel, as cited in Kane, 2006). The maintenance of hegemonic masculinity discourages nurturing, empathy, and the honing of domestic skills in boys. If we devalue femininity, there is a chance that feminine characteristics will be lost to the fringes.
This also places undue pressure on children and parents by instilling gendered expectations that parents feel they must maintain, shape, and construct, especially in terms of normative conceptions of masculinity in their sons. Parents in Kane’s (2006) study expressed their awareness that their son’s behavior was atypical of what was expected from a male child, and that he would be at risk for gender assessment by peers, other adults, and society at large. If the emphasis on hegemonic masculinity was replaced with acceptance for all types of gender expression, we could live in a world that does not reward parents for maintaining a gender binary system that promotes discrimination, lack of expression, and homophobia, and instead values femininity, masculinity, and everything in between.
The research I’ve done gives me hope that things can change. Because gender is socially constructed, we have the ability to change people’s minds concerning what is “natural” or “good” for their children in relation to their sex, and re-conceptualize what human characteristics we value for all. If we implement some sort of gender neutrality in the way we raise our kids, my hope is that rigid, harmful, limiting traditional gender roles will fall by the wayside. As Martin (2005) references, most advisors approve of behaviors that were basically taboo 50 years ago, such as preschool boys playing with dolls, girls’ participation in sports, and more. He also highlights that the call of second-wave feminists has in many ways been heard, especially in regard to girls; this gives me hope for a future that is more cognizant of how abolishing strict gender roles has the potential to lead to many positive things, such as gender equality, freedom from discrimination, and more diverse families.
In terms of what needs to be done, I believe there should be continued emphasis on the fact that sexuality and gender are not necessarily linked. I encourage feminists and queer sociologists to do more research that explores the heteronormative socialization of children. Additionally, the de-stigmatization of homosexuality should be an overarching goal. Martin (2005) explains the importance of this: “At the very least, as gays and lesbians become more visible socially, politically, and in popular culture, how parents imagine and treat signs of homosexuality in children are important political and intellectual questions, as are questions of how and if parents try to ensure homosexuality in their children.” Of course, my overall recommendation is that we reflect how gender has influenced our lives, for better or for worse. Rather than abolishing gender all together, I implore people to explore how we could all benefit from having more open understandings of gendered roles and expectations, and in turn eradicate some forms of inequality and discrimination on a human rights level.
Bulanda, R.E. (2004). Paternal Involvement with Children: The Influence of Gender
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Kane, E.W. (2006). “No Way My Boys Are Going to be like That!” Parents’ Responses to
Children’s Gender Nonconformity. Gender and Society, 20(2), pp. 149-176.
Kuvalanka, K. (2014). Researching LGBTQ Families: An Evolution of Family Rights. Lecture, Webster University Annual Human Rights Conference. Saint Louis, MO: October 8.
Martin, K.A. (2012). Can William Have a Doll Now? In L. Rotskoff & L.L. Lovett (Eds.), When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made (pp. 173-184). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Martin, K.A. (2005). William Wants a Doll. Can He Have One? Feminists, Child Care
Advisors, and Gender-Neutral Child Rearing. Gender and Society, 19(4), pp. 456-479.
United Nations General Assembly (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from
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Righting Wrongs: A Journal of Human Rights is an academic journal that provides space for undergraduate students to explore human rights issues, challenge current actions and frameworks, and engage in problem-solving aimed at tackling some of the world’s most pressing issues. This open-access journal is available online at www.webster.edu/rightingwrongs.