How to Raise Theybies: Children Without Imposed Gender Identities

excited kid dressed in princess dress

Image taken by Mayte Torres / Getty Images

When Felix and Joshua Huang started a family, they were very clear on the fact that they did not want to raise their baby within a set of gender norms. They were uncomfortable with how people assign gender to babies, along with the expectations of performing that gender.

Beyond that, the Huangs also did not want to put certain emotional expectations on their child. When baby Juno came into their lives, they decided to refer to them with ‘they’ and ‘them’ pronouns, and not prescribe a specific gender to them. 

“We want to create a space where they have the safety and the freedom to learn different ways of identifying and expressing gender. We want them to know that we don't expect them to conform to anything in particular,” says Felix. 

What Are Theybies?

Raising gender-neutral babies is a concept in which children are raised as neither boys nor girls. In doing so, parents do not share the child’s sex assigned at birth with anyone except those directly caring for the child. The idea is to give the child more autonomy over their identity, the ability to express their gender how they see fit, and not impose unnecessary gender roles.

This also means that parents don’t enforce dressing according to gender stereotypes, or playing with specific toys marketed for boys or girls. Children raised in such a set-up often use "they" and "them" pronouns, and are hence called theybies, a portmanteau of "they" and "baby."

Even though there are no statistics available on the number of families raising children in gender-neutral ways, there does seem to be a growing interest in this trend. A 2016 survey by The Innovation Group found that over a third of Gen Z respondents strongly agreed that gender did not define a person as much as it used to.

This suggests that in the future, more parents may invest in raising their children without an assigned gender. Already, we are seeing a shift in attitude with a push towards making toys gender-neutral. Mattel is one such company that released a new gender-neutral doll in 2019. 

According to Rebecca Minor, MSW, LICSW, a gender specialist in private practice, gender-creative parenting is about mitigating gender-based oppression. It is an opportunity for generational change that frees children from the limitations of the gender binary.

"We know that kids are happier and healthier when their identities are supported and we know that when they are not, the negative outcomes can be severe," she says. "Much like parents child-proof their home to ensure their little ones don't hurt themselves, gender-creative parenting is another form of harm reduction that buffers children from the risks of gender socialization."

How Does Gender-Neutral Parenting Work? 

In most U.S. states, children need to be assigned either male or female at birth. This means, legally, children being raised without gender still have an assigned sex. However, for parents raising their children without gender, this is not the case in practice. 

Dany, a parent raising their child in a gender-neutral manner in the U.S. south, feels that unless someone is changing their child’s diaper, they don’t need to know their sex. “When I am asked if they are a boy or a girl, I simply say I don’t know yet, and that it’s up to them to tell me,” says Dany. “I honestly find that question a bit disturbing because really what they are asking is, what parts do they have? And that is no one’s business.” 

As far as toys and clothes are concerned, if they like them, they buy them. Many parents who raise their children in gender-creative ways reject the notion that certain colors are for children of a specific gender, and rather encourage the idea that as the child grows, they will be able to pick their toys and clothes, based on their preference. This is a small yet significant way in which this form of parenting promotes autonomy.

Rebecca Minor

Much like parents child-proof their home to ensure their little ones don't hurt themselves, gender-creative parenting is another form of harm reduction that buffers children from the risks of gender socialization.

— Rebecca Minor

How Does Being Raised Without Gender Affect a Child's Development?

The impact of using "they/them" pronouns for children is that they will have the capacity for choice and self-determination. By introducing pronouns beyond the binary, children gain an early understanding of the expansive nature of gender identity, explains Minor. 

Positive impacts of gender-creative parenting include more options for playtime with non-gendered toys, which allow children to be more creative. With this freedom, they can have more interests and hobbies, they are not limited by gender expectations, and they may have an increased awareness of identity, confidence, and self-esteem. 

Some people might worry that raising children in a gender-neutral way will cause identity confusion. However, children have opportunities to meet other children and adults in the many years leading up to grade school. This natural exposure, along with reading books about characters with different identities and pronouns, and open discussion at home, can help prevent any identity confusion.

“The other concern people raise is that the parents are 'pushing this' on their children. Gender-creative parenting, when done well, doesn't push any particular agenda, but allows for exploration and choice, both of which are great for a child's mental health,” says Minor.  

Minor also explains, “The only impact it could have on gender identity is allowing [identity] to be more self-determined, but a child's identity is not influenced by gender-creative parenting.” She explains that often before school age, children begin to experience more gender stability. Their basic gender identity often doesn't change over time, according to the theory of gender constancy, originally proposed in the 1960s. 

This stability increases in children in early elementary school as they experience greater gender constancy, meaning their gender remains the same across changes in gender expression.

Preparing for External Questions and Reactions

How people choose to raise their children, with or without gender, is bound to bring up questions from others.

“Depending on how we dress the kiddo, people assume their gender. When we’re out in public, feminine clothing mixed with masculine clothing seems to always get ‘she/her’ pronouns," shares Dany. "For example, [my child] had on a camo dinosaur romper with pink socks and the public assumed they were a girl. The public could not fathom putting pink socks on a boy, so they assumed a girl. It’s pretty silly.”

Considering the gendered world we live in, people are likely to impose certain gender norms on a child in public. Parents who are raising theybies are often put in the role of having to correct and educate people, repeatedly. And some people might ignore a parent’s request for gender-neutral pronouns for their child entirely. 

The Huangs, for example, faced an unpleasant situation with their ultrasound technician. “The ultrasound tech, even before Juno was born, started applying gendered pronouns, despite us not wanting to know,” says Joshua.

However, it has not been all bad. Dany, whose child is currently 9 months old, says, “We are very fortunate to have a very loving and inclusive community that supports our decision to not announce a gender for our child. I am sure that when they start school someday we will have more challenges. But I have time to figure that out!” 

A Word From Verywell

Theybies are children raised without any gender identity imposed upon them, allowing them the room to determine their identity on their own. Gender-creative parenting is a style that may not work for everyone, but those who employ it point to the benefits of giving children the freedom to explore and name their gender on their own terms. This type of autonomy can foster an increased confidence, creativity, and awareness of their own identity later on.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Davies M. Raising theybies: navigating within a gendered worldSSRN Journal .2020. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3635055

  2. Wunderman Thompson. Gen Z goes beyond gender binaries in new Innovation Group data.

By Nayanika Guha
Nayanika Guha is an experienced freelance writer with a passion for social justice, gender, and LGBTQ+ issues. She has a background in psychology and social work, which informs her writing and worldview. She also has extensive experience in nonprofit communications. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Lily, Refinery 29, and more. Follow her on Twitter @nayanikawrites.