The Disturbing Reason Straight Men Are So Against Gender-Neutral Parenting

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Millennial Moms Are Adopting Gender Neutral Parenting, But Will Dads Catch On?

New research shows that millennial moms are among gender-neutral parentings’ biggest activists yet cisgender heterosexual men continue to be the gender police in their households.

The research comes from Bigeye’s 2021 Gender Study which sheds light on Americans’ sentiment toward gender-neutral parenting.  Bigeye spoke to 2,000 U.S adults to examine the link between the parents’ upbringing and their approach and openness toward gender-neutral parenting. 

The study shows that women are 14% more likely than men to allow their children to play with any toy or games they choose regardless of its traditional gender associations.

Cisgender females come in at 73% over 59% of men. Meanwhile, LGBTQIA+ parents are the most likely to allow gender-neutral play at 77%. 

To make sense of these figures and explain why dads are pushing back against gender-neutral parenting, we spoke to Dr. Christia Brown, a developmental psychologist.

Brown’s work focuses heavily on how children develop and understand gender stereotypes and discrimination. 

She tells us that parents are hugely responsible for whether the next generation will recreate the traditional gender roles we see in society today.

“I think if you ask parents do you treat your son and daughters equally most parents would say yes,” Brown says, “But we see pretty big differences in how parents talk to their sons and daughters, and the types of play they encourage in their sons and their daughters.”

The Bigeye study highlights this by exploring the disparity between how parents allow their children to express their gender. 

The study shows an increased interest in gender-neutral parenting, which Brown has also observed through her work.  

“A lot of parents want to reduce gender stereotypes in general because they realize they are limiting and damaging, and associated with gender inequality in adulthood,” she says. 

“Other parents recognize that their kids may have a gender identity that's not a clear part of the binary and they want to make sure their kids are feeling love and acceptance and inclusion.”

Yet it seems to be mainly straight women and LGBTQIA+ parents leading the movement. So why are straight cis men dragging their feet? 

“We’ve long seen in research that it is straight cisgender men that are the gender police when it comes to parenting,” Brown says. She tells us that the Bigeye study is congruous with research since the 80s.

“That’s a really consistent pattern. It's the cis straight dads that are the most stereotypical when it comes to enforcing what their kids can play with.” 

Brown says that gender stereotypes are most rigid when passed down by men intergenerationally. One of the reasons heterosexual cis men are so devoted to maintaining gender traditions is because of how they were socialized as children. 

“For boys, there is a really narrow definition of what it means to be a boy in this culture,” says Brown.

When we think of toxic masculinity, it is aggressive with no signs of emotions, very heterosexual, [it involves] objectifying girls, [it’s] focused on dominance, and we see that boys are really trying to enforce those rules among each other.”

Men are conditioned to think that engaging in any activity that could be perceived as feminine is bad since they grew up watching, engaging in, or even experiencing bullying between males for these activities. 

“They get called sissy and they get called homophobic slurs,” Brown says of boys who don’t rigidly adhere to gender stereotypes, “Homophobic slurs directed at boys are really common.”

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Men’s reluctance to practice gender-neutral parenting is mainly predicated on their fears about their sons, rather than their daughters.

The Bigeye study found that 77% of men encourage their sons to play with toys and games that are traditionally associated with boys. This figure, albeit only by 6%, is higher than the percentage of men pushing their daughters to play with “female” toys.

This closely aligns with how participants of the study engaged with toys during their upbringing.

As children, 64% of cisgender females were encouraged to play with toys that interested them, regardless of traditional gender association, in contrast to 48% of cis males.

Brown has noticed a similar skew in her work. “Girls are given more flexibility because it's more highly valued to do things that boys do. You see that asymmetry in what parents, particularly straight dads, are enforcing.”

“So really anything that looks feminine or that looks LGBTQ is really de-valued and things that could be described as girly or gay, frankly, is what gets penalized, particularly by straight dads,” Brown says. 

Brown also links this imbalance to other aspects of parenting. She says dads are much more likely to offer help and guidance with schoolwork to daughters, particularly with math and sciences, creating a subtle implication that women struggle more in these areas. 

Parents also engage more with their daughters’ emotions than their sons, according to Brown. 

“They’re giving girls this greater vocabulary for emotions,” she tells us, “It’s one of those subtle things but as we grow up, women will have much more elaborate emotional lives and are much better at articulating how they’re feeling, men often don’t.”

This asymmetry partially explains why things like gender-neutral clothes often look more traditionally masculine. Women are given much more space to express their gender fluidly than men are. 

Yet women often pay the ultimate price for the inflexible gender stereotypes fathers breed in their sons. 

Brown points out that hypermasculinity and the demonization of femininity leave women vulnerable to these “manly men” that society values so much. 

“Sexually harassing girls and objectifying girls is a way to show your dominance and your heterosexuality,” Brown notes. “It is part of being aggressive which is what boys really value.” 

This is partially why women are much more likely to experience sexual violence than men.

“The rigid part of being a boy ends up really harming girls too because part of the way to be a boy is to sexually objectify girls,” says Brown. But she also points out that boys who do not sexually harass girls and do not conform to male stereotypes in other ways are also more likely to be harassed. 

This can be linked to studies that state that up to 47% of people who are gender non-conforming have experienced sexual violence or harassment in their lifetime.

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Those against gender-neutral parenting attach a lot of argument to their case but most of these boil down to two things: transphobia and homophobia. 

Throughout the Bigeye study, we consistently see that LGBTQIA+ parents, who are presumably less likely to be transphobic or homophobic, expressing a much wider acceptance of their children’s gender expression and choice of play.

Meanwhile, cisgender parents, particularly cis males fall behind. “There is a lot of fears that are tapped into this,” says Brown who believes most of these fears are rooted in transphobia and homophobia. “Parents that push back don’t necessarily make a distinction between those two.”

Brown highlights one of the main counterarguments against gender-neutral parenting that reappears time and time again: Will gender-neutral parenting raise children to be confused about their gender? 

“There is no evidence that you can parent your child into being more masculine or feminine.,” she states, “There is no evidence that parenting changes a person’s gender identity. It can neither cause it nor prevent it.” 

“Kids know their gender pretty early. In preschool kids have a sense of what their gender identity is, whatever that may be,” Brown says, so gender-neutral parenting will not shift this. It simply seeks to eliminate some of the stereotypes and biases that come with certain gender identities. 

For children or parents who actively resist gender fluidity and insist on advancing gender stereotypes, the results are much more damaging. 

“If a kid is trans or gender-nonconforming in some way, or gay or lesbian and parents are not supportive, there’s a lot more evidence about what happens then,” Brown points out.

“They are much more likely to have suicidal thoughts, much more likely to attempt suicide, much more likely to be depressed or anxious or drop out of school or engage in risky behavior, the list is long and extreme.”

Misconceptions of gender-neutral parenting often push fathers to reject the term without fully acknowledging what it means.

Brown suggests reframing some of the practices of gender-neutral parenting so others will better understand its benefits. 

She takes the example of allowing young boys to play with dolls and points out that this builds valuable nurturing skills and breeds more caring fathers and humans in general. 

“How it’s framed matters particularly because we’re in a culture war right now where the left and the right are so diametrically opposed that anything that sounds leftist really gets backlash without people listening to the rationale for it,” Brown says. 

“It’s a risk-benefit analysis. If you let your kids express themselves how they want to, what’s the harm? Because if you don’t there is enormous harm,” she says, “If you let your kid express themselves how they see fit, maybe you’re a little uncomfortable but at least your child isn't suicidal.”

Brown highlights that gender-neutral parenting should simply be about acknowledging that there is a whole spectrum of ways for your child to express their gender and since they’re going to do that with or without you, it’s better to be supportive than restrictive. 

“It’s not pushing your kid to be a different gender. It’s just letting your kid be who they’re going to be.”

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment.