May 19, 2015

Rearing Children in a "Gender-Neutral" World

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

My eighteen-month-old son is more interested in imitating the sounds of various vehicles and machines (sirens, squeaky suspensions, engines, and even the kitchen timer) than in imitating words. He also alerts me any time a car or truck drives by our house. Considering my own eccentric distrust of things with motors, you can be sure that his delight in growling like a truck did not originate from my influence. I attribute my son’s behavior to his inner boy-ness. This, of course, is because I am a backwards, conservative-leaning person who still clings to the sexist notion that God created men and women with complementary differences and unique vocations.  

I wonder sometimes what it will mean to my son to grow up as a male in a world that is attempting to blur all lines of “gender”--a world that sometimes even blames violence and suffering on traditional heterosexuality. I wonder how my daughters, should I have any, will navigate cultural pressure to ignore both theology and biology and instead create their own sexual identity. How do I teach my children to swim against the flow of society? How can I nurture beliefs that are popularly despised (even though they are true)? Will my children acquire my worldview unconsciously by observing their father and me and by reading the old-fashioned novels with which I plan to indoctrinate them, or do I need to provide mini-lectures?

It might seem that by plotting to transmit my own view of life to my children, I am admitting that male and female behavior is something inflicted upon children by their environment rather than something that is inborn. After all, much of the debate over gender centers on whether behavioral differences between the sexes are really hardwired or not. The popular questions seem to be, “If girls are given only trucks to play with, will they sing them lullabies?” and, “If boys receive only pink fairy wands, will they turn them into light sabers?” Some parents have even moved beyond the exchange of contradictory playtime anecdotes to a more experimental style of child-rearing. You may recall hearing about little Storm, whose biological sex is kept a secret by his/her family so that he/she can grow up in a completely gender-neutral way and eventually choose his/her own gender.

Yet the nature vs. nurture issue is perhaps a red herring. Regardless of how much sex-driven hardwiring kids bring into the world, small children often struggle with the question of what exactly makes someone a boy or a girl (just as they grapple with so many other categorizations that seem obvious to adults). When one of my sisters-in-law was little, she announced that girls drink from sippy cups and boys from regular cups. It took some time for her family to convince her that the only reason her brothers all used regular cups was because they were older, not because they were male. Perhaps some of her confusion stemmed from the reality that even though it is apparent to both children and adults that the sexes are different, many of the ways that these differences are expressed are not inborn: instead, they are shaped by cultural behaviors. For instance, different people groups around the world use clothing as a way to distinguish between men and women, but their is no universal law about whether skirts, kilts, pants, or fig leaves are masculine or feminine. It is conceivable that a society might develop in which women expressed femininity by using sippy cups.

Thus, children learn about their sexual identity from both culture and nature. However, neither is a trustworthy guide, because both have been warped by man’s fall into sin. Both are just as likely to show us the cruelty of men who prey on women (whether as domestic abusers or as Islamic militants) as to show us dedicated fathers who would die to save their families. Nature produces as many needy, narcissistic women who use their physical attributes to manipulate men and compete with other females as it does women who spend their lives self-sacrificially loving others.

The Christian understanding of what it means to be a member of the human race is based instead on Scripture. That is where we learn about God’s creation of men and women. That is where we are given glimpses of the intentionality with which God populated the world through His creation of male and female with their unique relationship to each other. He ensured that Adam realized his own loneliness in a world of animals before providing him with Eve. He created woman out of man, leading Adam to speak of husband and wife as becoming “one flesh” in marriage. Later, God chose to use the language of masculine and feminine roles to help us understand His relationship with us (for instance, He calls Himself the bridegroom and the Church His bride). He makes it clear in Scripture that men and women are not intended to be the same, yet He also shows us that they are both equals in their need of Salvation from a God who loves them both.

The Scriptural picture is full of complexity and nuance, and yet it is universal. It is true no matter what kind of  “gender markers” are prevalent in a given culture. It is real regardless of the way that little boys and little girls play when given trucks and fairy wands. Aspects of this Scriptural picture are reflected in nature and therefore in most cultures, but sin has warped the mirror.

That leads me back to my toddler. How do I teach him to live out these “archaic” truths? The task is huge--too big for a sinner like me--but I hope to be one of the people through whom God works in my children’s lives, and so I want to keep the following points in mind.

1. Idealizing and/or Over-emphasizing “Traditional Gender Roles” Can Be Harmful 
Within the conservative home school movement in which I grew up, some families were so eager to reject feminism that they idealized a very limited, rather Victorian view of masculinity and femininity. The problem is that this view was so narrow as to be inaccurate. I remember one friend of mine declaring that girls “aren’t competitive like boys are” and that therefore no girl would enjoy playing games like capture the flag or nerf gun wars. I had to laugh at this, because my own sisters (perfectly feminine and ladylike as they are) love competition and play their hearts out whenever the nerf guns emerge. I, on the other hand, fit the stereotypical female model more closely. These differences in our tastes and personalities have nothing to do with our ability to live out our vocations as Christian women. 
If children are presented with a picture of “what it means to be a boy/girl” that is only true of some normal kids and not for others, then they are pushed into the untenable position of deciding that something is wrong either with themselves or with their parents’ outlook on the sexes. That’s not a good crisis to create.
2. Ignoring Our Children’s Sex Can be Silly 
If children are raised in a would-be-gender-neutral culture by parents who never openly question cultural assumptions, it is no wonder if the children fail to realize that they need not follow cultural mores. 
If I am blessed with daughters, I will strongly encourage them to pursue an education that will allow them to provide financially for themselves and serve their neighbor. Yet I do not want to talk to them as if I assume that they will devote their lives to a career. I also intend to encourage them to include the eventual hope of marriage and motherhood in their plans. I intend to point out the challenge that a heavy-debt load could pose if they marry and wish to stay at home with children. I would like to suggest that, when weighing majors and job choices, they also consider the flexibility that potential jobs could provide if they wanted to work part time or to return to work after taking time off to rear children. My daughters may not all marry or have children (and I intend to also acknowledge this to them), but it would be silly if I acted as if I preferred that none of them did. 
When my son is considering his college and vocational choices, I hope that he will consider his hope of being able to provide for a family. It would be a disservice to him if no one suggested he ask himself whether a given career-track would make it hard to be present in his children’s lives (should he be blessed with any) or perhaps unable to keep a roof over the head of a wife. I do not expect my sons and daughters to make their hopes for a family the only determining factor in these decisions, but I want to be countercultural enough to teach them to include these hopes in the way they live. 
3. Providing Countercultural Models (Even Flawed Ones) Is Helpful 
It is easy to assume that the assumptions of one’s own culture are true and universal. I want my children to be able to see that modern gender-neutrality is merely the expression of a particular (confused) culture at a particular junction of time. One way in which I hope to do this is to expose them to other cultures--largely, at least at first, through books from other time periods that were written by authors with very different assumptions. 

Providing children with a healthy, Scriptural view of masculinity and femininity will surely not be easy. In addition to the hostility of modern culture, we will face the universal fact that in this life, human efforts to live out and even to understand God’s design will always be marred by the devil, the world, and our own sin. No catechesis, historic novels, or mini-lectures from me will change that fact. Nor will even the properest understanding of God’s created order safeguard my children from sinning against it.

However, I will pray that God will work through my own flawed efforts to help my children grow into men and women who love and serve their neighbor through their unique vocations.


Anna writes as often as she can. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their small son (and are awaiting the arrival of baby #2, due in July). Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.


  1. Great piece, Anna. I agree with the points on raising our children to keep in mind their potential future families when choosing career paths, though I am thankful for the men who choose to serve as pastors or military despite the toll it may take on their wives and children. They may struggle financially or not be home as much as if they had other careers, and it is good they go into those vocations knowing the vocational conflicts they may have down the road. I see my husband struggle to balance service to his country with service to his family, remembering the two aren't mutually exclusive, but very much intertwined :)

    1. Definitely. I have great respect for those who do their best to balance a challenging (yet vitally helpful) career with the need to care for their families.

  2. Very well written. I sure see how there is an age when children start identifying very strong male and female, and I noticed myself, that when I meet someone I'm not sure of(male or female), it is very disconcerting. It gives us structure and helps us sort life out to know if we are dealing with a male or female. My brother made an interesting observation the other day. He said,"God's laws of morality are as true as the laws of physics or gravity. He created them in order, and when man tries to bend them, it purely won't bring good results, the same as trying to bend the laws of gravity. It just won't happen." Trying to bend the laws of God when he created people either one gender or another will only bring sorrow and confusion. Let's try to figure out why these people are not proud to be who they were created, and I can say just in my own opinion that the confusion is only going to increase with the disfunctional homes and lack of stability.

    1. I think you make a good point about dysfunctional upbringings. Those who don't have a model of healthy male-female relationships (and general male or female behavior) don't really know what it's supposed to look like.


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