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Parents refuse to reveal baby’s sex in order to avoid gender stereotypes

Sept. 20, 2019
Parents refuse to reveal baby’s sex in order to avoid gender stereotypes

Gender-neutral parenting has become a much bigger trend in recent years. Major retailers have started emphasizing gender-neutral kids’ clothing and gender-neutral toys. Even the creator of gender reveal parties has gone public with her regrets about her invention and her wish for parents to give less attention to their baby’s sex. But a pair of British parents are making headlines for pushing gender-neutral parenting to a new level. Hobbit Humphrey and Jake England-Johns have declined to share their baby’s sex at all in order to raise them without gender stereotypes.

The pair was recently featured on BBC’s “Inside Out,” a news segment devoted to local stories in the UK. On it, the parents shared that the baby is referred to using they/them pronouns, and they did not even reveal the baby’s sex to grandparents until the child was 11 months old. The reason, they told BBC, is that gender bias is largely “unconscious,” and they believe that by keeping their baby’s sex a secret, they can “mitigate the unconscious bias,” such as strangers assuming their child must like certain clothes or behave a certain way based on sex.

The parents’ approach to raising their child sparked controversy online.

“What an absolute joke these so-called parents are,” one person wrote on the BBC Facebook page. “This, in my opinion (YES I'm entitled to one), is wrong on every level.”

Another person accused them of making their child an experiment, writing, “Well Jake and Hobbit, to each his own. But I, too, have an opinion, and it is that you are heading for a very confused child as ‘they’ gets older. I feel you are using ‘they’ as an experiment and that’s just a shame for ‘they.’”

England-Johns was careful to clarify to BBC that he and his partner are not raising their child without gender. They are simply planning to allow the child to choose their own pronouns and how they identify once they are old enough to do so. 

“‘Gender-neutral’ refers to us trying to behave neutrally toward the child, rather than trying to make them neutral,” he says.

On Facebook, there were also some who applauded the parents for making an effort to let their child grow up free of stereotypes and gendered expectations. 

“This has nothing to do with the kid being female or male, it has to do with letting the child live without standard behaviour to either sex,” one person says. “By nobody knowing the gender, it forces others to get the child girl and boy toys, lets them play sports, be adventurous, like baking, all that stuff without an adult saying things like ‘boys don’t play with dolls,’ ‘girls aren't meant to play in the mud,’ etc.”

Humphrey and England-Johns aren’t the first parents to try to raise their child entirely gender-neutral. In just the past two years, several other families have gotten media attention for parenting their children in a similar way. 

  • In 2018, Massachusetts parents Nick and Julia Sharpe told NBC News they’re letting their twins, Zyler and Kaydn, decide on their own gender identification as they grow up.

  • In March of 2019, Florida mom Ari Dennis told the media she’s raising her 1-year-old as a “they-by,” a baby with no specific gender. 

  • One Brooklyn, New York, couple even runs a successful blog about raising their child, Zoomer, as gender-neutral.

While some may see these parents as being extreme, gender-neutral moms and dads are trying to combat a real problem. Kids are often exposed to damaging ideas about gender from a young age. 

  • Stores sell children’s clothing that depicts boys as macho and smart, while marketing frills and too-short shorts to little girls. 

  • TV shows directed at kids reinforce the idea that girls should be worried about their appearances and that stereotypically “masculine” traits are preferable to feminine traits.

  • A 2017 study by researchers from Princeton University, New York University and the University of Illinois found that by age 6, children already perceive girls as being less smart than boys. Similarly, by age 10, many children believe the stereotype that boys are tougher than girls. 

There’s also evidence to suggest that forcing kids into gender roles can have a damaging impact on their self-image and behavior. 

  • A 2017 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed that enforcing rigid gender expectations — like limiting sports participation for girls or not allowing kids to wear “gender-prohibited” clothing — can put adolescent girls at a higher risk for pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, relationship violence and leaving school early. For boys, it could make them more likely to suffer from substance abuse problems and have a heightened risk of suicide. 

"Adolescent health risks are shaped by behaviors rooted in gender roles that can be well-established in kids by the time they are 10 or 11 years old,” Kristin Mmari, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the study’s lead researcher, tells CNN.

Some parents combat gender stereotypes by allowing their kids to dress however they want to, play with whatever toys they like or participate in any activity they want to. Others avoid gender and sex entirely by opting for gender-neutral pronouns. In all instances, parents are trying to protect their kids and make sure they feel loved and accepted for who they are. Baby blankets may come in pink or blue, but people do not. And while gender-neutral parenting may seem like a departure from the norm to some, it’s also an important reminder that children’s personalities, self-expression or aspirations shouldn’t be limited to “boy” or “girl.”

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