What does it mean to be non-binary?
"It's a boy," or "It's a girl," is typically the first thing a U.S. parent hears about their newborn child. Assigning gender at birth is now considered customary, and many parents elect to assign gender before a baby is even born. So-called "gender reveal" parties are sometimes thrown to reveal a baby's assigned gender to the public.
Almost everything we do for babies is gendered: names, clothing, and toys are typically viewed as "masculine" or "feminine." Research shows that parents even treat babies differently based on whether they were assigned male or female at birth and parent them in a way that reinforces outdated gender roles.
The discussion about parenting and gender has become more public over time. Many parents encourage their children to push the boundaries of conventional binary gender roles and encourage them to express themselves through toys and clothing without worrying about gender. Some parents are even questioning whether or not it's appropriate to assign their child a gender at birth.
Even Jenna Karvunidis, the blogger who is often credited with inventing gender reveal parties, has expressed regret about the phenomenon, saying that gender reveal parties can be harmful.
In a society that's hyper-fixated on assigning babies a place on the male/female gender binary, the broader spectrum of gender identities is largely ignored. We know that babies can grow up to be non-binary children, adolescents, and adults — people who don't identify as 100% masculine or feminine and are therefore outside the gender binary — but can babies themselves be non-binary? If so, what is a non-binary baby like?
Non-binary genders are any gender that doesn't fit within the "man/woman" binary view of gender. Non-binary is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of identities outside the gender binary, such as:
- Agender: a person without gender
- Bigender: a person who has two genders
- Demi-gender: a person who identifies partially, but not wholly, with a binary masculine/feminine gender
Are babies ever non-binary?
All babies are technically antegender — before gender — as they don't understand gender or have a gender identity yet. Children don't begin to notice or mimic gender-stereotyped behaviors until ages two to three and don't see their own gender as a fixed concept before age five.
Most children start to categorize their gender around age 3. Still, because their environment often reinforces gender stereotypes, children may initially express the gender identity that they were assigned even if their authentic gender identity is different.
Transgender, gender diverse, or non-binary toddlers and children may give hints about their authentic gender identity in a variety of ways, such as:
- An aversion to wearing clothes typically associated with their assigned gender
- Signs of childhood anxiety, especially related to gendered activities like gender-segregated sports
- Gender-related questions, like a boy asking if he can be a Mommy when he grows up
- Signs of gender dysphoria related to their body, like a girl becoming distressed that she doesn't have a penis
Exploring gender and the intersection between gender, sex, and self-expression is typical for all children and youth. Many cisgender children — children who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth — will also explore gender and show gender-variant behaviors.
How can I tell if my baby is non-binary?
There's no way to tell if a baby is non-binary before they're old enough to understand gender and express gender identity. There are no screenings or tests that can determine gender identity, though there is some evidence that autistic children are more likely to be gender diverse and some evidence that gender dysphoria may have a genetic component.
It's possible that if your child is neurodivergent or has other transgender, non-binary, or gender-diverse relatives, they may be more likely to be gender-diverse themselves. Still, there's no way to predict a child's gender.
Some parents choose to raise their babies outside the gender binary, a practice sometimes referred to as gender-neutral or gender-creative parenting. Their children are sometimes called "theybies." Parents of "theybies" often don't reveal the gender that their child was assigned at birth to the public, choose gender-neutral names, use gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them, and provide a wide variety of clothing and toys for their children.
These parents often believe that their baby's assigned gender and anatomy are the child's private business and that the child should choose if and when their gender is revealed. Parents practicing gender-neutral parenting believe that this kind of parenting will encourage their child to develop an authentic gender identity without external pressures like gender-stereotyped roles and expectations.
How can I support a non-binary child?
If your toddler, child, or teenager has come out as non-binary, your enthusiastic support can be life-saving. More than half of transgender and non-binary youth have seriously considered suicide. Youth who have their gender affirmed, though, were half as likely to attempt suicide as those who did not receive respect and support. You can help your non-binary child by:
- Making a sincere effort to learn their correct pronouns and name. Practice using their new pronouns and or/name regularly and correct yourself briefly when you slip up.
- Learning more about non-binary identities. Show your child that you're interested in their identity and value getting to know them better. Educating people about gender diversity can be a constant, exhausting process for non-binary and transgender people. Do your part to learn about your child's identity without expecting them to educate you.
- Avoid loaded language like "grief" and "mourning." While some parents find a child's transition difficult, you didn't lose a child. An LGBTQ+ affirming therapist can help you work through any negative feelings without placing an unfair burden on your child.
- Advocate for your child. If family members, friends, or school faculty aren't supportive, you need to place your child's well-being over other people's prejudices. Be prepared to educate people in your child's life with well-researched, LGBTQ+ affirming information and set firm boundaries with people who don't respect your child's gender.
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Behavioral Neuroscience: "Child Gender Influences Paternal Behavior, Language, and Brain Function."
Frontiers in Psychiatry: "Case Report: Adolescent With Autism and Gender Dysphoria."
The Journal of Clinical Endrocrinology and Metabolism: "Neuroimaging studies in people with gender incongruence."
Mayo Clinic: "Children and gender identity: Supporting your child."
National Public Radio: "Woman Who Popularized Gender-Reveal Parties Says Her Views On Gender Have Changed."
NPR Illinois: "'Theybies': Letting Children Decide Their Gender."
OpenLearn: "When do children develop a sense of gender?"
raisingchildren.net.au: "Gender identity, gender diversity and gender dysphoria: children and teenagers."
The Trevor Project: "National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2020."
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