Paige Schilt is a parent/teacher/blogger/activist who writes about a gay, transgender, feminist, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South. In her blog post “Stilettos, Sissy Boys, and the Limits of ‘Gender-Neutral’ Parenting Advice,” Schilt critiqued “heteronormative gender-neutral parenting” used to prevent kids from turning out gay or trans later in life. I caught up with this radical mom via email to get her take on the new wave of parenting emerging from the genderpocalypse.
How have you seen gender-neutral parenting advice change?
As you’ve pointed out, there’s been a big hubbub over parents who attempt to raise “genderless” or gender-neutral children…Commentators debate what they see as extreme examples, they quote some conservative “expert” in the name of balanced coverage, and they reiterate a bunch of received wisdom about gender and development. That’s why these kind of stories are popular: it’s a backdoor way to express doubt about the whole enterprise of feminist parenting while only seeming to attack the fringe (and I think of myself as part of that fringe).
At the same time, I’ve seen a rise in stories about parenting gender non-conforming children. These include heroic narratives about parents (mostly moms) who appreciate and accept their children’s gender nonconformity. The proliferation of these stories is partly due to the media education work of groups like TYFA and Gender Spectrum. It’s also partly attributable to the confessional tone of contemporary parenting discourse, where admitting that you’re allowing your kid to do something controversial is a surefire way to get readers or viewers.
What is “genderful” parenting and why was it important for you to raise your child to think critically about gender?
The basic idea is to provide a broad range of examples of different genders and gender expressions, to offer children a very rich toolkit for the ineffable project of identity. This is an arena where LGBTQ and ally parents have the potential to excel, because we may have more resources at our command. My partner and co-parent is genderqueer…so we were always parenting from a perspective where we didn’t assume that sex determined identity or expression.
In the past year, parents like Kathy Witterick and Kieran Cooper have been in the media spotlight for raising “genderless” kids. What’s your take on this kind of parenting?
If you raise your child genderless, whatever that might mean to you, you’re inevitably still imposing limitations…As parents, our job is to expand the field of possibilities and then try to be open and attuned to each child’s particular blend.
I’m also dubious about some versions of genderless parenting because I know gender to be a source of pleasure. It’s not all inequality and limitation. It’s also a medium for expression and play…and I would not want to deny that canvas to my son, Waylon.
Have you received negative reactions from parents who don’t agree with the way you’re raising Waylon? How do you respond to their criticism?
I’ve gotten much more negative reaction from a piece that I wrote about raising Waylon to be fat positive.
Waylon gets policed a lot by other kids, especially around clothing and nail polish and stuff like that…Waylon has an acute sense of injustice, so he gets angry. He doesn’t totally internalize it, but, as he’s gotten older, he’s less likely to do stuff that he knows will invite that kind of policing. That’s hard for me, as a parent, to let him make his own choices about what feels comfortable in different situations. Waylon loves to get a pedicure, but he won’t wear nail polish to third grade. I have to trust that he knows what’s right for him while giving him lots of examples of different ways to respond to those pressures.
What fears did you have before you embarked on raising a child who is “gender aware?”
As a feminist parent, I was afraid that children’s media was going to drive me over the edge because it’s so full of assumptions about gender…I’ve come to understand that I can tolerate a lot of things as long as I know that we’re going to have a good discussion about them.
How can we teach kids to think critically about gender without preaching to them?
It’s important to teach them to ask the questions instead of always asking them ourselves. We have to model critical thinking instead of always telling them what to think.