As gender identity and fluidity gain greater visibility in today’s society, certain parenting trends are emerging to ensure children are raised without conventional constructs defining them as a boy or girl. In the case of parents Nate and Julia Sharpe, the Cambridge, Mass. couple has chosen to raise their 3-year-old twins as “theybies” — children being brought up without gender designation from birth.
“A theyby is different things to different people,” Nate Sharpe told NBC News. “For us, it means raising our kids with gender-neutral pronouns — so, ‘they,’ ‘them,’ ‘their,’ rather than assigning ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘him,’ ‘her’ from birth based on their anatomy.”
As NBC News reports, this particular “gender-open” parenting style has become increasingly controversial because the parents don’t reveal the sex of their children to anyone. Subsequently, the children are not taught to associate their body parts with being a boy or girl. As these parents reason, if no one knows a child’s sex, the kid can’t be pigeonholed into gender stereotypes. However, some developmental experts say they are not sure this lifestyle will hold up once kids are exposed to the outside world and the bullying that comes along with being labeled “other” by society.
Yet, while the Sharpes recognize what might lie ahead for their children, the couple remains determined to shield their children from these realities for as long as possible. As Julia Sharpe told NBC News, she was conflicted about learning the sex of the twins when she found out she was pregnant because, as a female engineer in a male-dominated industry, she’s especially conscious of the constraints gender can inflict. Her husband, Nate, didn’t understand why she wanted to wait to learn the babies’ sex, but after researching how stereotypes affect a child’s development, he inevitably changed his mind.
“We read about how from when they’re 20-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 explained. “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?'”
Even when the twins were born, the Sharpes asked the staff not to reveal their sex immediately.
“It just wasn’t something that was interesting,” Julia said. “It was all about meeting the children and interacting with them, and just not something that we focused on at all.”
NBC News noted that reproductive organs reveal a baby’s assigned sex at birth, while gender comes later, around age 4, when kids begin to identify as masculine, feminine, or somewhere along that spectrum. Thus, experts agree that such conversations about gender identity are vital as society moves to dismantle gender stereotypes, but taking the gender-neutral approach doesn’t have to be the only solution.
Dr. Jillian Roberts, founder of Family Sparks and an associate professor at the University of Victoria, told Global News that the term “theyby” isn’t necessary if the child exists within an environment that allows them to explore their thoughts and feelings.
“These kids feel confusion about why they were ‘placed in the wrong gender’ to begin with … that these bodies did not match their spirit,” Roberts explained. “However, these kids have never reported that they feel traumatized by initially being referred to by ‘him’ or ‘her.’ Therefore, I think it is unnecessary for parents to try and use terms like ‘theybys.'”
“My top tip would be to support diversity in relation to gender identity and gender expression. Keep possibilities open for young people, despite the tendency to want to think about gender in concrete and categorical terms,” Angeline Dharmaindra, clinical psychologist for the NHS Gender Identity Development Service, London told Forbes. “Children and young people do and should be able to explore how they express their gender from an early age. Dressing up and role play activities may involve choices which don’t always conform to gender stereotypes and may appear unconventional, but it is important for children to be able to explore and experiment in a safe environment.”
Deakin University health ethics lecturer Tamara Browne echoes the sentiment, noting that, instead of erasing gender entirely, society should shake things up when it comes to what defines femininity and masculinity today.
“I’d like to see all the labels removed. Rather than having a boys’ section and a girls’ section and a gender-neutral section it would be better to just mix everything up,” Browne told The Daily Telegraph. “It impacts on society as a whole — you can see the effect of it in the rates of female employment in male-dominated sectors such as finance and construction. And vice versa, we see fewer men in childcare and nursing.”
Ultimately, while using gender-neutral pronouns might help protect children from potentially harmful gender stereotypes, parents can also work to de-emphasize gender and explain that there’s more than one way to be a boy or a girl.
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