Kensington Palace scrambled to do damage control last week after a Vanity Fair article implied that royal mom-to-be Meghan Markle was planning to employ an unconventional parenting approach.
According to Vanity Fair, a source revealed that Meghan and Harry “plan to raise their child with a fluid approach to gender and they won’t be imposing any stereotypes.” This immediately sparked rumors that The Royals would be the latest celebrity couple going in for the fad of “gender-neutral parenting,” an approach in which — in its most extreme form — parents never reveal their child’s gender and use “gender-neutral pronouns” when referring to their child.
The rumors became so intense that Kensington Palace broke its usual silence and made a statement on Saturday calling the claims “totally false.” It seems the royal baby will, in fact, be allowed to know its own gender, though many still speculate that Meghan will have a progressive approach to “gender stereotypes” with her child.
Rumors Aside, It's Concerning
Though Meghan’s alleged statements about gender may have turned out to be much ado about nothing, the media’s coverage of them is — to put it mildly — concerning.
According to the media, “gender-neutral parenting” seems to be A-okay — even desirable. Cosmopolitan — one of the publications that had initially reported that Meghan would be raising her child “gender fluid” — disappointedly reacted to the palace’s statement: “We were all getting excited about how feminist Meghan and Harry's royal bb was going to be.” Vanity Fair, which ran the original story, said of Meghan and Harry’s supposed desire to be “gender neutral” parents, that there’s “plenty of research to back them up.” (The article cited one far from conclusive study.) Regardless of how Meghan and Harry are planning on raising their child, the notion that children should be shielded from gender (their own included) is — troublingly — on the rise.
The notion that children should be shielded from gender (their own included) is troublingly on the rise.
While most parents who call their approach “gender neutral” aren’t totally denying their child any knowledge of gender, there is a growing sense — particularly among Millennials — that all “gendered” behavior is socially imposed, and therefore limiting. It’s a philosophy that flirts with the notion that there’s no such thing as gender at all.
Multiple states now allow gender to be listed as “X” on birth certificates, a development which New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called “an example of respecting all New Yorkers, and giving people the freedom of self-determination and self-expression.” In Sweden, the “gender-neutral” pronoun “hen” was legally added to the country’s vocabulary. Here in the states, many colleges publish lists of “gender-neutral pronouns,” and guides for how to use them.
But Gender — and Its Relationship to Biological Sex — Isn’t a Construct
It is real, and it’s innate. And children need to know that. According to leading child, couple, and family psychotherapist Fran Walfish, “Without male or female gender clarity, the child is not a full person.” She further explains, “Every boy and girl child must make a strong identification as a male or female person. Without it, the child feels lost and confused about their own identity.”
Many studies have shown that — contrary to the assumptions behind “gender-neutral parenting” — children’s toy preference is, at least in part, innate. In other words, boys generally prefer trucks (even when offered dolls), and vice versa. John A. Barry of University College London’s Institute for Women’s Health explains that “There is a fashion today to say that gender is purely a social construct. In reality, gendered behavior is a mix of biology and social influence.”
Every boy and girl child must make a strong identification as a male or female person. Without it, the child feels lost and confused about his or her own identity.
Children are born with innate preferences and desires based on their biological sex. There are exceptions to this, of course, and variations within it, but, as a general rule, men and women experience the world — and their place within it — differently. The pronounced physical differences between men and women lead organically to differences in behavior and preference.
Though men and women have the same chemicals in their brains, for example, they process them differently. According to Psychology Today, “In part, because of differences in processing these chemicals, males on average tend to be less inclined to sit still for as long as females and tend to be more physically impulsive and aggressive. Additionally, males process less of the bonding chemical oxytocin than females.” In other words, the “stereotypical” behaviors of men and women are biologically influenced, not purely socially constructed, and present, in many cases, even “before boys or girls are born.”
The “stereotypical” behaviors of men and women are biologically influenced, not purely socially constructed.
All of this directly affects parenting because, in teaching children that gender is completely socially constructed, we are lying to them about the most important thing they need to learn: who they are.
Parents raising boys need to understand, for example, that offering them dolls and kitchen sets isn’t going to eliminate their natural inclination toward physical aggression and risk-taking. Boys need to learn how to channel their masculine aggression and eagerness for action into, for example, protection of those weaker than they are. Asking them to eliminate those urges altogether will only lead to them express them negatively because they’ve never been taught how to channel them, and they believe they’re wrong and bad for even having them.
Boys need to learn how to channel their masculine aggression and eagerness for action into, for example, protection of those weaker than they are.
The same goes for girls. Parents raising girls need to know, for example, that their daughters are probably going to feel things deeply and be concerned with the emotions of others. Encouraging them to play with monster trucks isn’t going to quash their nurturing instincts. It’s only going to teach them that those instincts are wrong, and leave them unsure of how to process their emotions.
Norms are called “norms” because they are generally accurate. None of this is to say that there aren’t some children who don’t adhere to typical gender norms. There are exceptions to every rule and parents should be aware of that and treat each of their children as an individual. But it’s safe to assume — until the child reveals otherwise — that a girl baby is going to grow up to exhibit girl traits and a boy baby is going to grow up to exhibit boy traits. And it makes sense to parent accordingly.
There are exceptions to every rule and parents should be aware of that and treat each of their children as an individual.
Parents who choose to raise their children “gender neutral” are waiting for their children to “reveal” which gender — if any — they really are. But, in the meantime, they aren’t offering them valuable lessons about how to manage the natural and biological consequences of their sex. Surely it makes more sense to assume that our children are going to exhibit traits that correspond to their biological sex — given that this is true for an overwhelming percentage of society — than it is to assume that they won’t.
Children need to know who they are. And it’s up to parents to guide them. Anything short of that is neglect.