If you weren’t familiar with the term theyby before this headline, you can be forgiven. A theyby is a child being raised in a gender-neutral environment at the behest of the parents: a theyby’s parents wish their child to grow up in a gender-neutral manner until he or she can decide how to identify. These parents apparently don’t detect any irony in barring children from the choice of growing up gendered should they wish to, and some go to great lengths for the project, such as keeping the biological sex of their child secret from virtually everyone, addressing their children using gender-neutral pronouns and petitioning prospective schools to provide gender-neutral language accommodations. Sometimes, according to NBC News, “Even the children, who are aware of their own body parts and how they may differ from others, are not taught to associate those body parts with being a boy or girl.”
Staunch traditionalists aside, this seems like a perverse method of shielding children from the threat of gender stereotyping—according to NBC, 99.4% of people report their gender as corresponding to biological sex. If anything, withholding from children the reality that most biological males and females identify as boys and men, girls and women, respectively, can be unduly confusing. It is also a futile tactic; the NBC piece references experts stating that children start to identify in gendered terms at around four years old, which makes statements like the following sound particularly bizarre. In response to a child asking what he and she meant, one parent answered:
Since we’ve tried to avoid really getting into gender until they’re old enough to understand it, I answered that “‘he’ and ‘she’ are pronouns and you use them to make sentences simpler, so instead of saying someone’s name over and over in the sentence, you’ll say ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’ instead.”
Children are remarkably absorbent of knowledge, marked as they are by a brain plasticity that deteriorates with age— they can understand what physiologically constitutes a male or a female, if given a simple, clear explanation. They are also likely to pick up on the social cues and language surrounding gender organically, on their own, without prompting. According to theyby parents, however, basic biological realities are too much for children to process healthily, and it would be somehow less problematic for kids to grow up blinkered in a 99.4% cisgender world.
The practicality of gender-neutral parenting is questionable. The parents assume that, if no one knows a child’s sex, the child can’t be pigeonholed into gender stereotypes. This is naively optimistic. Unless parents intentionally disguise their child, people will be able to intuit essential facts about that child, using their senses. When it comes to interacting with the outside world, it is unfeasible to create an endless pillow-fort around a child’s surroundings, which include other people with individual worldviews and attitudes. Creating countermeasures for an infinity of external social influences is not pragmatic and can be exhausting, especially for new parents . Perhaps a more effective approach to preparing kids to confront gender stereotyping would be to explain what it is and why and how it happens in order to build understanding and resilience — inoculation, rather than quarantine.
The decision to raise a theyby often seems more motivated by the projection of the parents’ personal paranoia onto the lives of their children, rather than the result of sober evaluation.
For example, the Sharpes, both mechanical engineers in their early thirties, say their decision to raise their twins without designated genders evolved from a mix of research and personal experience. When Julia found out she was pregnant, she felt conflicted about learning the sex of the twins. As a female engineer in a male-dominated profession, she understood the constraints of gender expectations first hand: “It’s taken a lot of work for me to feel confident in my designs and my suggestions, and to really stand up for myself.”
Engineering is certainly a male-dominated field, and that environment may seem daunting to some, but individuals’ genders likely matter little given the nature of the work: it is difficult for anyone to feel confident in their offerings in such a notoriously demanding and competitive field, in which the relentless focus on material results gives weight to the stereotype of the monomaniacal engineer. If the field of engineering is overwhelmingly male, then it stands to reason that there must be scores of men affected the way Sharpe was — perhaps more of them, if women are such a rarity in the field. Furthermore, the confidence to stand up for oneself isn’t evenly distributed across the board, even among men, who are more likely on average to have that propensity . Not everyone enjoys alpha-level assertiveness, and males do not have a monopoly on it. Perhaps parents should bring these realities up as their children mature, and foster healthy confidence, rather than feed them the assumption that certain desirable qualities are gender specific.
Sometimes, parents sound as if deciding to raise children gender neutrally is an act of desperation:
“We read about how from when they’re twenty-week fetuses, they’re already starting to be gendered, and people are calling the little girls ‘princesses,’ and buying certain things for different children,” Julia, one of the parents, reports. “We wanted to prevent that, so that’s how it started. And then about a couple weeks before they were born, Nate just said, ‘What if we didn’t tell people ever?’”
This reflects an explicit wish on Julia’s part to avoid collision between her own sensibilities and those held by others in the outside world. Whether or not a prospective child would actually be harmed by gendered treatment is nearly impossible to ascertain — but we can be sure of the parents being uncomfortable with what might transpire. What if a future child wants to be treated as someone whose gender aligns with his or her biological sex, during his or her earliest formative years? This seems to be a conundrum for the theyby ethos of allowing for authentic gender expression. With so much talk of accommodating gender-nonconforming youth and candidates for gender transition, parenting gender-neutrally could be a form of over-correction, out of fear of gender stereotyping. Deciding to raise a child gender neutrally seems alarmist— it is more likely, given the numbers, that by doing so parents would actually be neutralizing their child’s gender. Christia Spears Brown, a developmental psychologist and author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes argues, “People tend to think that this gender identity is hard wired, because most people identify with the gender that matches their sex at birth. But large-scale research suggests gender is largely influenced by a child’s environment.”
Given the 99.4% correspondence between gender and sex at birth, wouldn’t it be more accurate to state that individuals reporting as gender-atypical are anomalous, by definition? Is it not misleading to say that gender identity is the result of how impressionable one might be, broadly speaking? Additionally, the idea that environment is the primary influence on gender identity seems specious when put up against thorough meta-analyses of toy preference over time, which account for competing theories. Notions of environment as the main determinant of gender identity contradict the idea of a true gender residing in one’s psychology, potentially suppressed by the environment itself. While true gender remains an enigmatic concept, given the preponderance of evidence thus far it is probable that a core set of defaults exist in any given individual which may or may not become attenuated by social circumstance.
The logic underlying gender-neutral parenting vis a vis environmental influence on gender differences seems suspect. “But in general,” Brown comments, “the differences get larger as kids get older, which really suggests that it’s society and culture that are shaping the differences that we see — not innate differences from birth.” Brown’s conclusion doesn’t follow from its premises, which allow for an equal chance of behavior differences across genders being innate and developing over time, in spite of society and culture. The most likely scenario is that gender differences in behavior are the result of a combination of both innate and environmental factors to different degrees: an idea supported by the scientific consensus across the board. After all, don’t basic temperament and disposition influence the way one reacts to one’s environment? Isn’t an individual’s development an ongoing feedback process between the raw material of one’s person, environment, and personal history? The social constructionist theory of human development doesn’t account for factors other than environment—it is a set of unconfirmed, runaway hypotheses, reflected in Brown’s readiness to cleave biology from environment and dismiss the former with abandon.
The debate surrounding gender identity with regard to childrearing suffers from theory clutter: there are so many competing theories, so few of them convincing. In this void of certainty, there is curious tendency towards improvisation when it comes to accommodating individuals of any age experiencing conflict around gender identity. At a time when toddlers as young as three years old are given the final word on their gender identities and transitions—well before their brains are fully developed—which doesn’t happen until the age of twenty-five, well before puberty even— and with so many question marks obscuring the nature of gender dysphoria as a condition, a prudent course of action would be to work with what we know, as opposed to rolling the dice as to what might be the case.
To a non-expert, non-parent like myself, the still-smoldering holes burned through the blueprint for gender-neutral parenting disqualify it from recommendation. It smacks of an approach designed to palliate parental anxieties, using the pretense of a child’s psychological and emotional well-being. Raising children in theyby fashion is likely an exercise in futility due to the speed with which children develop a savvy theory of gender, even at toddler age, a fact often underestimated or unappreciated. When these powers of awareness are overestimated, however, supposedly responsible adults suspend disbelief in ways that are, ironically, potentially dangerous to the very children they are focusing on. I will reserve my schadenfreude, however, for a couple of decades from now, when these theybies will have matured into card-carrying adults, and can speak for themselves as to how much—or little—it affected them to have been raised gender neutrally.