What is it? TikTok families explain.

November 2, 2021
Jolene Vargas and her son at Disneyland.
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Jolene Vargas’ son was a year old when he became “really obsessed with the movie ‘Moana.'”

Vargas, then a new mom, embraced her child’s interest in the Disney film, but in doing so she began to feel pushback from those around her.

“A couple people in my life were kind of just like, ‘Moana is a princess. That’s a girl thing,'” she recalled. But that didn’t stop her from looking in the girls’ section for Moana-themed clothing for her son. 

As the years went on, his interests became more clear.

“Every time we went to Disneyland, he was more drawn to princess things and the princesses themselves than anything else,” she explains, even though she and her husband introduced him to other parts of the Disney universe too. “We would try to get him things from Marvel like Spiderman stuff, and he just had no interest in it… and then when we would get him something that was Moana or Disney princess he was all in love with it, so it just felt wrong to be like, ‘Oh, you can’t play with this.'”

Her son is now 5 with a little brother, and she’s since found the language to describe her style of raising her kids: gender creative parenting. She shares her journey on TikTok under the username @mommademagic.

“My child is gender creative. He just expresses himself however he wants to,” she says. 

For Vargas, gender creative parenting means, “never restricting them on anything based off of societal standards.” 

Vargas found the term through another family on TikTok who has a non-binary child. They’re not alone. The hashtag #gendercreativeparenting has more than 11.3 million views on the video-sharing app. One video posted by “Raising Them” author and sociologist Dr. Kyl Myers has garnered 1.2 million likes in which they explain the journey of raising their child in a gender creative way.

Harley Maher, who uses he and they pronouns, shares videos about gender creative parenting on their account @harlecryptid

Maher describes gender creative parenting as “choosing not to assign any gender labels.” He discovered the parenting style via a Facebook group even before he welcomed his child. 

“That way your kids can basically, without any type of preconceived notion of gender, identity, discover and explore gender in all of its vastness and allow them to figure out who they are without having any type of gendered ideals pushed on them before they’re even old enough to really understand what that means.”

For Maher’s family, this means using only the gender-neutral pronouns they/them for their child as well as not limiting them on what they can wear or what toys they play with.

“If they want to wear, say, a Batman T-shirt with a rainbow tutu, they’re more than welcome to… (and) we’ve got a mixture of My Little Pony and dinosaur figures, so it’s just very open,” Maher says. “We’re really getting to see our kids shine and how their personality is developing.”

The whole goal for Maher is to “follow their (child’s) lead with it.”

“I want them to feel like they’re not being pushed into any kind of mold of who they have to be,” they say. “At this point, our kid is 2 and a half, so their gender is an unknown. It’s not that we’re trying to push them to be non-binary or anything – it’s just they don’t have the capacity at this point to tell us, ‘Hey, this is how I feel, these are the pronouns I want to use.'”

Why people choose gender creative parenting

One reason Maher wanted to parent this way is to let their child truly “know who they are.”

“I’m really hoping that it instills a strong sense of identity and sense of self, because I feel like it’s important for everyone.”

There’s “not only one specific way to parent” that can lead to a “positive upbringing,” says Dr. Shawna Newman, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, but she believes “kids have a sense of their identity, including their own sense of gender, very young, maybe starting as young as 2 years old.”

“To have an experience for a child in which they can direct their own sense of external identity can be very positive and give them a great sense of security of who they are and who they want to be,” she says.

A 2-year-old can “pick out what they want to wear and what they want to play with and what they’re attracted to,” she adds. “Children have a lot to show us about who they are. And I think, letting them do that is an extremely important thing.”

She says allowing kids to express themselves allows for a strong sense of self, which can “help prevent other concerns” as well.

“Kids who have gender identity concerns or questions are really vulnerable to depression and anxiety, and I think the child who is allowed to flow into their identity and express their interests have a greater chance of being secure in their identity, secure in themselves,” she explains, adding kids that are secure in themselves have “more resilience and more flexibility in their understanding of how they move through their world and socially interact.”

“That’s an enormously powerful thing to give a child,” she adds. Having their identity journey hampered can be “psychologically, emotionally very hard on children.”

Maher experienced these challenges growing up with gendered expectations pushed onto him solely based on “how I looked at birth.”

“It took me a lot longer to figure out my own gender identity and sense of self, and I didn’t want that for any future kids,” they say.

This potentially painful process is something Vargas is trying to avoid for her children if they ever do identify within the LGBTQ community later in life.

“I don’t want him to have to have those conversations with me… in that uncomfortable, scared, I’m-not-sure-how-my-mom’s-gonna-react type of way,” she says.

Limiting a child’s gender expression can also have social implications, Newman says.

“When you say to children, you can only be pink or you can only be blue, it has implications for their visions of how other people are,” she says. “The more they can see their own persona expressed in the toys and the environment they live, the more I think we can predict that they’ll be able to accept other visions, meaning other humans, their peers that have other perspectives.”

Tips on introducing gender creative parenting

“You can start with the simplest things, like… the environment the child’s going to initially experience,” Newman says, explaining a nursery doesn’t have to be blue or pink. “Can you choose a wider range of toys that aren’t necessarily only traditional gender conforming toys?”

She also says it can help to have conversations with children about gender and identity.

While some kids start exploding with language at age 2, linguistically, she says the average is more toward 3-5, which is when “the labels and names that we use for ourselves really takes off.”

“There may be a point where parents say ‘You know a lot of people call themselves different things,'” she says, such as introducing the idea of they/them pronouns. “Some kids some kind of shrug and keep running along and some kids will start to think about who are they and they can express that. And if that’s the step parents are comfortable with, that’s great.”

Playdates with children of different identities is another opportunity for learning, she says.

“If there’s 3 or 4-year-olds coming over for a playdate who identify in some way then it’s OK to say, (‘This child uses they/them pronouns’). And if there’s interest, then you can have a discussion,” she says. 

Maher says they use books to educate his child on gender too, including Theresa Thorn’s illustrated children’s book titled “It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity.”

“It’s a really nice just way to introduce different ways of identifying,” they explain.

Maher says the most important thing in successfully parenting in a gender creative way is being “open and willing to challenge our own beliefs of what gender is.”

“We are raised in a society unfortunately that for so many years has held very strict and rigid expectations of gender… so it really comes down to breaking down our own barriers and preconceived notions of what gender identity is.”

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