Commentary

Raising ‘Theybies’: How Gender-Neutral Parenting Reinforces Stereotypes

Annie Crawford | April 2, 2019 | 3:23pm EDT
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(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

At a recent baby shower, Princess Meghan is said to have told a friend that she and Prince Harry will be raising “their child with a fluid approach to gender” and “won’t be imposing any stereotypes.” In keeping with this plan, Princess Meghan has decorated her nursery in gender-neutral white-and-grey color scheme.

While Kensington Palace swiftly denied that the royal couple will raise their child as “gender fluid,” this new royal rumor clearly signals the growing popularity of gender-neutral parenting.

Wanting to leave the gender decisions to the children, a growing number of parents have decided not to reveal the sex of their kids to anyone, including the children themselves. These parents of “theybies” adopt the exclusive use of gender-neutral pronouns (they, their, them) until their child asks to be identified in a gendered way.

Unfortunately, what many proponents of gender-neutral parenting are really doing is aggressively training their children to disassociate their gender from their biological sex – which, ironically, only reinforces the very stereotypes these parents are trying to avoid.

Nate and Julia Sharpe of Massachusetts are raising their twins Zyler and Kadyn to be “aware of their own body parts,” but they “are not taught to associate those body parts with being a boy or girl.”

The “Parenting Theybies” group on Facebook requires members to agree that “there is no such thing as biological sex” and even warns that “posts referring to biological sex will be flagged.” 

Denis and Ari, parents of a gender-unknown theyby named Sparrow, argue that “genitals don’t indicate anything about gender.” When interviewed by Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, Ari went so far as to claim that teaching your child to identify with their body is toxic: “Isn’t it toxic and bizarre that at two we are telling someone, ‘You are a boy because of your anatomy’?”

But separating biological sex from gender simply validates reductive stereotypes. If being a boy is not based on the objective fact of anatomy, then it must be based on subjective preferences and behaviors – like a preference for blue clothes or playing football. If being a girl is not determined by anatomy, then it must be determined by a preference for things like fashion dolls and playing house.

Of course, it’s fair for parents to be concerned about the way culture has narrowed our understanding of what it is to be a boy or a girl, but the modern pink-and-blue binary reveals not so much a problem with our concept of gender as a problem with our consumerist I-am-what-I-buy culture.

To maximize sales and profits, toy and clothing industries have catered to a shallow understanding of gender. Haven’t we all felt frustrated by the exaggerated stereotypes on display in the department-store toy aisle? A child’s range of interests is narrowly limited by aisles with macho blue, black, and camo-green figurines and monster trucks on the one side and the glittered pink ponies and unnaturally thin Barbies on the other.

When kids play with these commercialized toys, most of the imaginative work and identity development is done for the child; children need only conform to the packaged identity and act out the script given to them by profit-seeking corporations who feed off easy generalizations.

But kids who play in nature and with the ordinary household objects engage their own imaginations in far more creative ways. One of my favorite memories as a child was creating an all-day spaceship odyssey with a friend using only paper, pens, and the furniture in my living room.

My own daughters have spent countless hours reconstructing the world of Harry Potter using popsicle sticks and poster board or “hunting” their stuffed animals out of trees in our back yard with home-made bows and arrows. Children who play outside in the dirt or with traditional hand-made toys will have a far greater range of self-expression than children who are given only the option between a highly-marketed Batman figure or Bratz doll.

Mass produced toys and clothing entrench stereotypes that make it difficult for some kids to feel comfortable with their gender identity. When being a boy or a girl is reduced to being someone who likes Disney princesses or someone who likes action figures, no wonder so many people feel oppressed by the “pink-and-blue binary.”

However, we would be much wiser to change our products and purchases rather than severing the intrinsic connection between gender and biological sex. When we base gender identity on biology, we are free to have a wide variety of interests and roles without our preferences threatening our personal identity.

Because the human person is by nature an integrated mind-body unity, teaching our kids to identify their gender with their biological sex is ultimately the most loving and freeing way to parent.

We can all applaud Prince Harry and Princess Meghan for wanting to raise their newborn child in a way that avoids the shallow gender stereotypes perpetuated by commercialized culture. However, if they are planning to let the newest member of the royal family decide his or her own gender, I urge them to reconsider.

As parents, it is our responsibility to help our children love and identify with their own body. It’s the only one they will ever have.

Annie Crawford lives in Austin, Texas, where she currently homeschools her three teenage daughters, teaches humanities courses, and serves on the Faith & Culture team at Christ Church Anglican. She is an editor and contributor at “An Unexpected Journal, a periodical exploring the relationship between faith and imagination. She will graduate with a Masters of Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University in May 2019.

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