Family, Kids & Relationships

Gender-neutral parenting: What’s the controversy about ‘theybies’ and gender reveal parties?

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Public debates about gender and parenting have been heightened in recent years. Merriam-Webster announced the gender-neutral pronoun “they” as the word of the year in 2019, the blogger who popularized gender-reveal parties said that the practice should become a thing of the past, Dwyane Wade defended his child’s gender-fluid fashion choices, new gender-neutral toys were released, and discussions about “theybies” and gender-creative parenting have been rehashed time and time again.

What is gender-neutral parenting?

Gender-neutral or gender-creative parenting encompasses a range of practices. Often it means that parents avoid reinforcing the stereotypical boy/girl binary through toys, clothing, media choices, or parenting behaviors—and follow their child’s lead when it comes to their interests and their gender expression. The aim of this approach is to combat some of the negative effects of sexism, as well as to make more room for kids who may not fit neatly into the “boy” or “girl” box.

For Jolene Vargas, a mom who discusses raising kids as @mommademagic on TikTok, the journey to gender-neutral parenting took some time. After facing backlash from others over her son’s love of Disney princesses, she decided to simply let him express himself in whatever way he felt comfortable. She describes gender creative parenting as “never restricting them on anything based off of societal standards.”

At the same time, gender-reveal parties have also become a national obsession, making the sex of the baby a huge deal before the baby is even born. But even Jenna Karvunidis, the blogger whose 2008 post about cutting into a cake with hidden pink icing is credited with making the whole concept of gender-reveal parties take off, has a much more fluid understanding of gender and sex now. Her daughter wears suits and expresses herself outside of gender norms, and Karvunidis is behind her all the way. “There’s a new way to have these parties,” Karvunidis suggested to NPR. “Celebrate the baby. There’s no way to have a cake to cut into it to see if they’re going to like chess. Let’s just have a cake.”

Some proponents of gender-neutral parenting try to put off announcing their child’s gender or sex at all, even after the birth, so that the child won’t be judged solely based on their anatomy at birth. For some parents this means using “they,” “their,” and “theirs” as pronouns for their child until their child chooses a preferred pronoun.

The debate over “theybies”

This is, in part, where the debate over “theybies” comes in: Some believe that telling everyone to refer to your child in a gender-neutral way from the start is no less prescriptive than calling the child a boy or girl. Joel Baum, senior director of the nonprofit Gender Spectrum, said to Quartz that using a gender-neutral pronoun for a young child is not necessarily “a great idea or a bad idea, it’s about why. Is your child indicating to you that they don’t have a gender? Or are you operating from a perspective that’s more adult-centric?”

However, many researchers agree there are benefits to avoiding gendered stereotypes when raising kids. Judi Mesman and Marleen Groeneveld at Leiden University in the Netherlands point out that parents often reinforce gender-based stereotypes without even realizing it, by doing things like:

  • Painting the baby’s nursery pink or blue based on gender
  • Choosing films, books, and toys that portray typical gender roles
  • Supporting gendered play (giving girls tea sets, or providing boys with toy cars)
  • Responding less negatively to sons who “rough-house” or try risky behavior
  • Commenting more positively about kids who are doing gender-typical activities (“Oh, look at the sweet little girl holding her baby doll.”)
  • Modeling gendered roles in the way household jobs and care work are divided between partners in two-parent households with opposite gendered relationships

As a result, kids raised in these gender-typical households are more likely to limit themselves to traditionally gendered roles as adults, and perpetuate gender stereotypes in themselves and how they perceive others. 

The pair ends their study by reasoning, “One could argue that gendered parenting teaches children about the reality of gender role expectations in their social environment, preparing them for later life. On the other hand, if children are raised on the basis of gender rather than their abilities, talent may be wasted and they may be forced into lifestyles and careers that deny personal identities, which also affects well-being.”

Love is at the heart of it

Whether you favor a gender-neutral parenting style or not, one thing is for sure: If your child wants to present themselves in a different way, identifies with a different gender, or has different interests than what you expected for them, your love and support will go a long way. Jason Rafferty, a psychiatrist and pediatrician who reviews LGBTQ health policies for the American Academy of Pediatrics, told Wyoming News, “As a parent, even when you struggle to understand and may not see eye-to-eye, your most important role is to offer understanding, respect and unconditional love for your child. This builds trust and puts you in a better position to help them through difficult times.”

Gabrielle Union offers one inspiring example of what this gender-affirming, love-and-support kind of parenting looks like. In an interview, she spoke about raising and accepting her transgender stepdaughter, Zaya, with husband Dwyane Wade, stating. “It’s important for us to live and love out loud. We didn’t exactly understand why [supporting Zaya’s trans identity] was a thing because it’s like, we love all our kids out loud.” She reminds parents everywhere that, “As our children show up, it is our job to believe them when they tell us who they are and not impose our dreams, hopes, fears, and desires on them. It’s our job to be loving, compassionate, protective guides for our children, but their lives are their lives and we have to respect that.”

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.