Raising a child gender free

I’ve been thinking about this case recently, where an eight month old has been issued a health card which does not mention their sex. The reason given for this is that the parent wants to ensure they grow up “the most whole person that they can be outside of the restrictions that come with the boy box and the girl box”.

As someone who grew up feeling very restricted by societal expectations and who worries for my own children being taught that they have to hide or change their behaviour in order to be accepted by society, I can completely understand this motivation. I would love to just tear away the boxes that limit children – who are so susceptible to the expectations placed upon them and the messages they are bombarded with daily – however it’s precisely because of this that I have doubts about their plan.

When my children were first born I too thought I could protect them from these limiting views, however it soon became apparent that actually I was drastically outnumbered. 

It’s in the media all around them, there are very few books which are entirely free of gender roles and gendered behaviour, and don’t get me started on TV and movies! It’s in nursery rhymes, it’s in pop songs. Then it’s in advertising, in packaging, it permeates everything. As if that wasn’t overwhelming enough it’s in other children, in other parents, in complete strangers on the street, in well meaning relations, it’s even in us. Even the most aware of us can find there are some things that we have internalised without realising. 

Even if the child does not know which sex it is – something which will only be possible up until a point – it will still be taking on board all these messages. It will know that pink=girl and blue=boy, because this (frankly bizarre) rule is everywhere. 

By the time it becomes aware of which camp it falls in to – for my children this happened around 3-4 – they will have absorbed so many messages, and at that young an age they aren’t yet able to reason their way out of the ideas. Put it this way, at this age children believe almost anything they are told – see Santa and the tooth fairy. 

Even if it is possible to keep it from them that they are male or female, they will still be treated as one gender or the other. It’s one of the things that society expects. 

If the child has long hair – it will be treated like a girl.

If the child has short hair – then it will be treated like a boy.

Put it in pink, purple or pastel colours and expect comments on how “pretty” and “sweet” the child is. Put it in blue or bright and neutral colours and people will likely treat it as a boy. 

One way or another the child will learn to associate certain things with being female, and certain things being male. 

Maybe one day society will evolve enough that this isn’t the case, but right now? It’s very definitely the case. But that doesn’t mean we give up. There are other ways to fight it, it’s a long fight, and often difficult, but I don’t think that raising a child while trying to hide their sex is the answer.

Personally I’d rather give my children the tools and ability to recognise the messages they are bombarded with, I want them to see all of it and understand that it isn’t set in stone, that it is in fact based on little to no fact at all. 

I want my daughter to grow up knowing that, yes, she is a girl. But no, that doesn’t have any bearing on her interests, her personality or her ambitions. She doesn’t have to fulfil the gender roles that society have deemed necessary. 

I want my son to grow up knowing that, yes, his body is male. But no, it doesn’t mean he has to have certain personality traits, or hobbies, or dreams. He doesn’t have to narrow his life in the way that society pushes.

We can’t shelter them from the world and it’s fucked up ideas, no matter how much we may want to. Our role as parents is to prepare them to navigate the world without us, to be able to resist the nonsense thrown at them. So let’s help them navigate it all – not by trying to shield them from it, but by being open and honest with them, and teaching them how to take it on.

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