Raising Gender-Neutral Kids
Our daughter recently said “some boys wear dresses and makeup but Appa chooses to wear shirts.” This is basically what we want them to know. Gender is there, but it’s a choice. That’s all.
It’s not that our kids don’t express gender, they look like a stereotypical boy and girl. Our daughter likes pink and purple, our son likes vehicles and snakes. It’s just that when our kids come to a gender boundary (nail polish, for example), we just let them cross it. This is the point where you would correct the child and say ‘boys don’t do that’. We just don’t do that.
It’s actually much easier this way. Rather than a complex and changing set of gender rules, our kids can just wear what they want. Most of our clothes are gifts, so they end up being quite gendered, but again, if they want to cross a boundary we let them.
The conservative idea is that gender roles are fixed, and teaching kids otherwise confuses them. In my experience, this is ass-backwards. There are actually a thousand rules for fixed gender and zero if it’s free. Consider the rules for clothes.
Fixed gender: Boys wear pants, girls wear dresses. Well, girls can wear pants or dresses, but girls pants have to have useless pockets. Boys pants shouldn’t be tight, unless you’re in a band. Oh, and boys can wear sarongs which look like dresses but are not dresses.
Free gender: Wear what you like
Fixed gender: Girls play with dolls and boys play with action figures, which are like dolls except they are not dolls. Boys play with cars, unless the cars are pink. Girls play with tea sets and kitchens, boys play with dinosaurs and guns.
Free gender: Play with what you like
If you sit down and try, it’s impossible to explain to a child why boys can’t wear nail polish. It’s just something you have to learn, for some reason. But if you look closely, that reason is stupid. Pink nail polish is fun and our son’s toes look amazing.
Of course, when we go out people ask ‘is that a girl?’ And you have to have a conversation about it, which is fine. To be honest, the culture we swim in does a pretty thorough job of gendering kids without any intervention from the parents. If we wanted to be truly neutral we’d have to actively raise the kids as the opposite sex for it to balance out. But that’s not really what we’re looking for.
My main hope for my children is just that they’re not assholes when they grow up. That they’re kind to themselves and to other people. Gender is one of those things that people can be cruel about, so we’re trying to avoid that, because it’s really not that important. Dresses, pants, bangles, watches, gay, straight; who cares? Can you love yourself? Are you capable of loving other people? I think that’s more important.
A Buddhist Perspective On This Shitty Age Of Improvement
We sadly live in an age where gender can be more important than a parent’s love for their child. Parents reject, abuse or murder their own children if they’re gay or trans or otherwise different. It’s somehow a political debate as to whether certain people have rights, and their dignity is up for a majority vote. This is all wrong.
As a Buddhist, a core idea is that attachment leads to suffering. This leads to an idea that Buddhists are ‘detached’, but that’s honestly something lost in translation. This are non-binary concepts translated to a binary language. The idea, as much as I can communicate it, is that most things are not worth being unkind over — to yourself or others. Gender is one of those things.
You can express gender however you want and just lightly let it go whenever you want. Cultures can have guidelines, which are wonderful and expressive and fun, without making fun of or murdering people that are different. Hence, I could wear dresses and makeup, or I could choose to wear shirts.
The Buddha looked closely at everything and saw that it was illusion. With gender you don’t even have to look that closely. In Sri Lanka men happily wear sarongs (which look like dresses), hold hands, and dance together. This is entirely normal, male behavior. You go across the world and this would suddenly be feminine. Even conservative cultures aren’t consistent in how they express gender, but they each act like it’s so serious and sacred. Like kids will be ruined by thinking different. But that’s just not true. Kids are hurt when you’re not nice to them, or when they see you being mean to other people. They’re not ruined by make-up, or playing with dirt.
There’s another conservative argument that not having fixed gender will ‘make your kids gay’. For me this is like saying someone is a Muslim as an insult. It may be incorrect, but it’s not an insult. It’s not bad to be gay, or Muslim, or — God forbid — both. Regarding the kids, I can’t even make my kids poop in the toilet, if I could influence something as higher order as their sexuality that would be amazing.
You can’t make someone straight or gay or anything much really, that seems to just happen. Regardless, it’s not like one outcome is more desirable than the other. Whether they’re straight or gay or whatever, I just hope that they’re nice people and that they bring someone tolerable home.
For me it all comes back to kindness. With our children that’s all I want. It so easy to hate yourself in this world, I don’t want that for them. It’s also so easy to be cruel to others. I don’t want that for other people, or for them really, because hatred causes everyone to suffer.
Gender just isn’t worth violating the higher command to be kind. Enjoy it, express it how you like and let others be even if you find it strange. In practice, this really isn’t that hard. If your kids cross a gender line you just let it go. Of course, the world is still hostile to this idea, so you have to teach them about that. But it’s not easy doing the right thing. They need to learn that also.
Gender is there, but it’s a choice. That’s all.