Smashing stereotypes: How gender-neutral parenting is gaining momentum in Indian families
When a couple is expecting, they’re constantly met with the question: “So what do you want, boy or girl?” At a time when the world marches on towards the acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities and celebs like Kate Hudson, Angelina Jolie and Elon Musk have led the way by choosing to raise their kids beyond gender stereotypes, many parents in India too are learning to look beyond the binaries of male and female and raising their children in a gender-neutral way.
Gender-neutral parenting is all about bringing up kids without enforcing gender roles on them. Instead, they are allowed to choose who they want to be. “Gender is a construct that was created to keep people in boxes. We don’t want that for our child. When my daughter told me she wants to shop from the men’s clothing section and wear tuxedoes instead of dresses at school events, I had no qualms,” says Seema Nair, whose 12-year-old daughter has learnt to see life devoid of a gendered lens. Nair, a 38-year-old Indore-based homemaker continues, “My daughter’s mannerisms have been dubbed ‘tomboyish’ and also mocked by other children, but we believe it is all the more reason for people to adopt gender-neutral parenting and sensitise themselves and their kids.”
Gender-neutral parenting can take many forms. Last year actor-model Emily Ratajkowski revealed she would let her child choose their pronouns when they turn 18. Similarly, some parents keep the child’s gender hidden from the world until they are ready to identify as male, female, or non-binary. Satya, 28, and Oindrila Roy, 30 — parents of a 10-month-old baby — have decided to christen their child in a gender-neutral way, too. “We have chosen the name Bhavya for our kid, which can be used for any gender. We will also ask our child their pronouns once they are of a certain age. Many people struggle with their identities because of society’s preconceived notions and we want our child to have a better opportunity at being their authentic self,” says Satya, a software engineer from Kolkata.
Some parents believe in not only letting their children grow up without stereotypes, but also in spreading the word. Deeksha Mishra, a Delhi-based influencer uses her social media handle to spread awareness about gender-neutral parenting. “Our society is inherently patriarchal, and in recent times, there has been a rise in the demand for the girl child to counter that. However, I believe in balanced living and feel children should be raised without any biases,” says Mishra. The 33-year-old mother of two continues, “My sons (aged three and one) love to play in the kitchen and play-make rotis. There’s a girl in the soccer class my elder son attends, who plays better than all of them! All these should tell us how redundant gender stereotypes are. And this is what most of my online posts are about too.”
Backing the need for this type of parenting, 28-year-old primary school educator from Mumbai, Pearl Mathias says, “When gender stereotypes are a predominant factor in a household, school or community, it generates feelings of guilt and shame in children who may not completely associate with these characteristics. This may range from wanting to dress differently and wanting to play with different kinds of toys to not feeling comfortable or able to be themselves with others. Whether this is a phase in the child’s life or something that could possibly last longer, the stereotypes that a child is exposed to could impact their developing mind.”
And this development begins at a very early age. “Early childhood (0 to eight years) is the period when the majority of brain development takes place. Whatever a child is exposed to during this phase forms the building blocks for how they perceive and react to the world. Gender biases that are imposed during these early years in various ways, such as the games made available or colours they prefer to use, could cause children to dissociate from what they really want to do,” she explains.
What is the best way to start the conversation in an age-appropriate manner? Som Sarmah, a child psychologist, advises that kids must be taught by example. He advises, “Parents need to show their young ones that there are no gender-specific tasks, even at home. Households chores and errands can be divided equally, to drive home the point. Also try to find role models who don’t fit into the typical male or female roles -- female scientists, diplomats and philosophers or male nurses, classical dancers and teachers.”
However, this kind of parenting has its challenges too. Mathias shares, “Children are remarkably curious at this age, and parents and educators have to be well equipped to engage in these conversations. This is a major challenge. Moreover, other members of our family may not be aligned with what we are trying to inculcate in our children and this may cause some friction.”
Mishra remains hopeful about the future, despite the odds. “It’s difficult to change society overnight. Mindsets need to be changed. We have to be inclusive. But a conversation has started, and that’s a mark of progress,” she adds.