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There is a general dichotomy in the Western society about boys and girls - what they should wear, what should excite them, colour of their clothes, studies, etc. Growing from India, I have not faced such differences in the upbringing of boys and girls - for example, a girl taking up an engineering course does not raise eyebrows from the place I come from.

I am currently bringing up a family in the US, and I am wondering how to shield my daughter from the negative stereotyping of girls by the society. I am worried the society (through friends in school) can impose wearing make-up, do girly things, discourage her from STEM education, etc.

Just like gender neutral clothing has become acceptable in the corporate sector in the latter half of the century (shirts and pants for both men and women), I prefer to raise my daughter in boy's clothing, so that she does not stand out as a girl. I believe this might shield her from the society's influence to some extent. However I am also concerned she might have gender identification issues or face bullying, when growing up.

My question is: can there be a downside to gender neutral upbringing in today's Western society?

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    What makes you think that dressing your daughter in boy's clothes is gender neutral? That seems pretty gendered to me.
    – Erik
    Feb 9 at 7:18
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    "I prefer to raise my daughter in boy's clothing, so that she does not stand out as a girl." Like @Erik said you are already assigning a gender to your child. There is no problem with dressing your girl up in pink and pink or in skirts or whatever. If she is not truly female at heart, she will come to realise it herself as she grows older: you have no reason to worry about it already. Feb 9 at 9:01
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    I never found mascara or a dress an impediment for my scientific work. Just saying.
    – Stephie
    Feb 9 at 15:12
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Gender neutral parenting can mean a few things, some of which I approve of, and some I believe are a bad idea.

For your suggestion of having your daughter wear gender neutral clothing I think that is fine so long as you allow her to express her own opinions as she gets older. It's entirely possible as she ages she will get annoyed that people keep guessing her sex wrong and request to wear less ambiguous clothing, or god forbid dresses (never understood why anyone would enjoy those, their just so impractical!). So long as you allow your daughter to express her opinion once she is old enough to I think there is no harm at all in keeping people guessing during her early life to try to minimize gender stereotypes.

In terms of trying to minimize gender stereotypes it also helps to ensure children are exposed to all types of toys, dolls, cars, a play kitchen, and play swords, at a young age without regard for what is a 'boy' or 'girl' toy. though again children will likely express an opinion on what types of toys they like very early on and once that is expressed it's best to focus on getting the type of toys the child prefers, even if it's gender typical. It doesn't hurt to offer a child a choice of other types of toys on occasion, to make it clear that they can enjoy those toys and are welcome to it, but respect their desires if they prefer 'girl' toys over 'boy' toys as they age.

I would say though I don't think this will do as much as you may think to combat gender stereotypes. Lots of gender stereotypes are learned by watching others. Since those gender stereotypes will still show up in TV, in adults of various genders, and in her peers your daughter will still be heavily inundated with gender stereotypes. I think gender neutral clothing helps a little bit, and is fine to try, but it's not going to magically do away with stereotypes sadly.

There are a number of other things you can do to help a child feel comfortable not having to comply with gender stereotypes. Expose them to many people who aren't gender typical (for instance when older 'Steven Universe' is pretty good show for this reason). In your play try acting out non gender typical play, such as a dad staying home to take care of the kids while the mom goes to work a STEM job (as a cis male I often ask to play 'mommy' instead of 'daddy' when kids want me to play house with them just to get young kids open to the idea that someone they think looks 'male' may be a mommy instead). Expose your child at a young age to the concept of trans individuals and other genders (For instance my honorary niece fully understood and was okay with the idea of trans individuals before she turned 5 after our conversation). I could go on with other examples, but I'm probably getting off topic now, a separate question could be asked about how to encourage children to not feel constrained by stereotypes where I could ramble further if you are really interested :P

I'm fully supportive of all the stuff above, however, when people say gender neutral parenting they often don't just mean something as simple as gender neutral clothing, but an explicit hiding of the child's sex. The difference being a refusal to tell someone a child's sex even when asked, and telling the child that they shouldn't tell anyone their sex either. I strongly advice against this type of parenting!

The difference between the two is that in the former, just giving the child gender neutral clothing and toys, you keep outsiders guessing at her sex without telling her what you are doing, which is perfectly fine so long as you respect her once she starts expressing an opinion. With the later you are telling your child that her sex is a dirty secret that must be hidden, and that is something you definitely do not want to do!

Children raised to hide their sex end up feeling that there must be something wrong with their sex or with developing a gender identity around it. This can lead to a number of issues very similar to what trans individuals go through with feeling that there is something wrong with their gender identity or sex or that their family and friends can't accept their identity. Studies show ultimately the vast majority of individuals raised gender neutral end up being 'gender typical', for all that effort their gender identity and how they view gender stereotypes wasn't heavily changed since they were still inundated with stereotypes through media and watching peers. However, children raised to hide their sex are more likely to say they feel guilty for ending up gender typical, as if it was 'wrong' of them to be stereotypical after all the effort their parents went to try to raise them to not feel they had to be stereotypical. The end up at the same result in the end, but feel far more confusion or guilt getting there!

There is also the lesser issue of bullying and individuals not understanding your goals causing trouble with you and your child for hiding the child's sex, which in an ideal world wouldn't happen but in real life is just an extra hassle that I don't think is necessary.

To address a concern brought up last time I made this argument I will say that if a child were to end up being trans that a gender neutral lifestyle is likely to be a preferable environment, and if you somehow knew your child would be trans when they were born you should raise them gender neutral. However, less then 0.5% of individuals will end up being trans. Given the fact that 99.5% of the time your child will be cis and thus just suffer from hiding their sex I think it's best to avoid hiding a child's sex despite the 0.5% chance it could help if they were trans. Without any way of knowing their gender identity when a child is so young it's best to pick the option most likely to help them feel happy and well adjusted, and I believe that does not involve hiding a child's sex.

By all means do everything you can to keep strangers guessing as long as the child is okay with it, but never tell the child, or through your own refusal imply to the child, that they have to hide their sex.

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  • I wasn't aware that there are children raised to actively hide their sex and/or gender. Could you point me to external sources regarding this, preferrably to studies that show the problems you mention above? Feb 12 at 10:42
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    Why do you think, that a forced gender neutral presentation of the child would be helpful for trans children? From the cases that I know, trans children benefit from trying out gender expression and gender identity, and being supported in that. In that way trans and cis children would be the same: They benefit form letting the child take the lead. Feb 12 at 10:46
  • @JanNiklasFingerle actually I'll admit I don't know for sure that gender neutral upringing would help trans children. I assumed not being forced to live as a gender they didn't identify with, and a much lower hurdle to switching to the right gender since no one knows their sex, would be preferable. However, while I've had a few trans friends I never knew a child who was trans or really got to talk with my friends about their thoughts and feelings before transitioning, so I admit I'm not an expert in that area and could be wrong. What matters is it's not good idea in general.
    – dsollen
    Feb 12 at 15:19
  • I gather that forcing children not to express any gender is as bad as forcing children to express a specific gender, regardless if cis or trans. So yes, I too believe, that this enforced gender neutrality that you describe is a bad idea. So far I've only come across the gender neutrality you describe in the first part of your post, not the enforced one. But maybe this is due to living in different countries. Feb 12 at 15:29
  • @JanNiklasFingerle it's a rarity even here, it's sometimes alway refered to as gender concealment instead. I knew it was probably not what you meant, but I've seen it often enough I figured it was safest to warn about it, even if it isn't what you meant someone else who sees the question may mean that. I do intend to get you those articles you requested as well, but I can't commit the time to hunting them back down while at work so that will have to wait...quite awhile actually before the next time I have free time at a computer :)
    – dsollen
    Feb 12 at 15:46
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You can't change society, or only a small bit at a time. Western society is inherently gendered. Take clothing as an example: Many types of clothing that are traditionally male gendered are considered neutral and non-controversial when worn by a woman, but this doesn't go the other way round. A woman in a dress is considered more sexy, but less tough, a man in a dress is considered peculiar. This is only one example, and your won't be able to change everyone else.

So, what you can do is to encourage your daughter to wear, do etc. whatever her preferences are. To talk to her about gender concepts. If she wants to wear dress, let her wear a dress, if she wants to wear a suit, let her wear that. Show her that you are open and supportive of LGBTIQ people and it would be ok if she was one herself. Even if she isn't - and most likely she's just a heterosexual cis girl - this shows her that you don't subscribe to conservative, gendered norms what she has and has not to do.

All that won't shield her from society's expectations. But you have the chance to provide her the opportunities to try something against the expectations. Depending on her age, it's ok for her to get dirty in the playground, there may be science summer camps, there may be courses in woodworking or a good course in computer programming for children ... don't force her to do anything she doesn't want to do, but encourage her to try things out.

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Your daughter is a girl. Let her dress and act like a girl. I'm not sure why you would expect that to be a bad thing in the US. I'm in the US and know girls who are just as girly as one can be, but are also C-level managers at software companies, chemical engineers, electrical engineers, unix sysadmins, construction company managers... the list goes on and on. Just because they are female doesn't mean they aren't accepted in these highly technical positions.

In fact, in school, especially college, these were some of the most popular girls. After all, they were the few females in male-dominated courses. The guys didn't shun them... they gladly helped them and included them in their projects.

There will be some stereotypes... some good, some bad... about how females should act and what they should do around the house. That should not affect her choices from an educational and career standpoint. Just don't let her fall into the media sob story about how every male thinks females are sub-standard and are only good at housework. That isn't true and as long as she knows she can do whatever she wants to as long as she works hard for it, she'll do just fine in the USA or anywhere else.

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Of course.

No, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with gender-neutral upbringing. If you are “keeping both doors open” to all things traditionally regarded as masculine or feminine, then I do not see any problem.

The downside comes if the way of raising a child gender neutral is done by closing those doors.

At some point, your child may very well begin to self-identify with either the male or female gender identity, which is something you should prepare for as much as you would prepare for a child who may adopt elements of both.

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