Parenting Without Gender Expectations Means Accepting All Outcomes

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About Aly Windsor

Aly Windsor is a mother of two young boys, partner to a sociologist, writer and part-time news editor, and brave home project-starter (and occasional finisher) living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her essays can be found on her own blog, Embrace Release, around the web at the Huffington Post and A Practical Wedding, and in print in the forthcoming anthology, The Good Mother Myth.


  1. I hear you! This is such the case for me as well. Genetics and gender do play a role and as much as I try to steer my boys in the “right” direction, they’ve always got their own ideas and ways of doing things… loudly, rambunctiously, and with their whole hearts. It’s amazing and disconcerting at the same time!

  2. Avi sounds like a hand full! I can’t help it though, when I read this it sounds less like parenting without gender bias and more like parenting without discipline. My brother’s son was very much like Avi when he was little and my brother was so delighted with his boy that when he was swinging hard objects in the direction of my kids, my brother would either chuckle and say things such as “he’s all boy!” or, when his son was endlessly splashing my kids in the kiddie pool, he would say in the smallest and sweetest of voices: “No no. No splashy Tommy!” My feeling was that this “all boy” needed a little time out and behavior control.

    You don’t mention any of that in your story, so I don’t know if your boy gets firmly instructed to knock it off, or are you simply adoring his all-boy ways at the expense of the other kids around him?

    • Aly Windsor says:

      Thanks for your comment, Sam. You’re right that I left out any discussion of discipline and that was intentional. The topic of discipline is one of those parental warzones that I’d rather stay out of but I can assure you that any time Avie has behaved roughly with other children, he’s been disciplined. What that’s entailed has changed over the years (he’s four now) but I’m definitely not the kind of parent who would laugh or shrug off things like hitting or mean words.

  3. Andrew Pollom says:

    “Every day I realize more and more how much of what I do as a parent is experimental.”

    I thought this was an exceptionally thoughtful piece. My partner and I have encountered this same sentiment and approach when raising our daughter and you are correcting in suggesting the work ahead will begin as your sons become more influenced by the rigid gender roles and norms that they will confront in society. It starts in school, with peers, and even in the books they read or the shows they watch- frankly, it’s an uphill battle at times for us parents (or so it feels). I particularly attached myself to the above statement. I had not considered myself just how “experimental” parental approaches can and frankly should be. If ever there was a phenomenon that suggested there is no such thing as a perfect science, it would be the act of parenting. Really loved this piece.

  4. Cameron Conaway says:

    Dear Aly,

    I was excited when I heard about this story coming out. And then I read it and it surpassed my high expectations. I absolutely loved this bit: “And then I realized there’s nothing wrong with that.”

    Well done!


  5. But if I’m truly committed to raising our boys without gender expectations, that means accepting and valuing all outcomes, “all-boy” included.

    Very good. A more fervent believer in “blank slate” theories might simply conclude that the boy turning out as “all-boy” just meant that the “oppressive expectations, gender and otherwise” from the surrounding heteronormative patriarchal culture infected him and overrode your attempts to raise him “with as few gender limits as possible.”

    • Aly Windsor says:

      Very true, Megalodon. And kids–even very little ones–certainly are sponges so I have no doubt that they absorb and reflect all kinds of messages that their parents can’t control. Seeing Puss and Boots immediately increased my son’s interest in swords, for example. But having seen him morph into an “all-boy” before my very (worried) eyes, I can’t help feeling that at least some of his “all-boy” behavior really is innate–and this is coming from someone who, pre-parenthood, was a strong believer in gender being at least 99% social construction. I still believe gender roles are constructed but behaviors are more murky for me.

      • I can’t help feeling that at least some of his “all-boy” behavior really is innate

        Really? One wonders what brought about this changed perspective on the percentage of behavior attributable to “nature” rather than nurture.

        If you thought that his “all boy” behavior were not actually innate, but might still be attributable to inculcation and influence, would that change your opinion and response to his development?

        • Aly Windsor says:

          Maybe the problem here is that our culture sees certain traits (being loud, physical, and bossy, for example) and attributes those to gender when these traits may just indicate extroversion. All I know is that my older son has been loud, physical, and bossy from the very start, while his little brother has been much more mellow from his get go. That to me suggests innate differences.

          • these traits may just indicate extroversion

            Changing the basis of the trait from one of “gender” to one of character trait like “extroversion” does not seem to settle the nature/nurture feud much. As if psychologists are not constantly sniping over whether introversion/extroversion is an innate trait or a product of inculcation and rearing.

            All I know is that my older son has been loud, physical, and bossy from the very start, while his little brother has been much more mellow from his get go.

            Perhaps different cultural contaminants have had differing amounts of influence on the two. Or the assertion and dominance of the older one have squelched those traits in the younger one.

            • Hi Megdalon, I strongly suggest you read the book, “As Nature Made Him: The Story of the Boy who was Raised as a Girl,” by John Colapinto. This tells the true story of Dave Reimer born an identical twin in 1967 who was accidentally castrated as a baby. John Money of Johns Hopkins was strongly promoting the theory that gender identity was a sociological construct, persuaded the parents to gender re-assign the baby, raise him as a girl, and never reveal the truth of his birth. Psychology books promoted his so called successful identity as a girl as proof of Money’s theories and thousands of lives were affected by it due to surgical re assignments on infants. But the data was made up. Though a “girl” loaded with female hormones and never knowing he was born a male, Reimer was masculine in every sense, teased for being masculine, and always thinking he was a freak. This book had a huge impact on my thinking. We owe it to Dave Reimer, who took his own life as an adult, to read this important story.

  6. Kathryn DeHoyos says:

    Absolutely LOVE this! As the parent of a “wild beast” myself this post really hit home! My 2 1/2 year old E is the only girl her age in the family, the rest are boys (one distant cousin that we never see is the only other girl this age) and I can’t tell you how often we have had to “defend” our choices as far as letting her run wild, wear boy underpants, or go shirtless when all her uncles, cousins and daddy are doing just that…What people fail to see (because like you it mostly emerges at home with just us) is how much she loves her tutus, how nurturing she is with her new baby sister and her baby dolls, and how she insists that she is a “princess rina” (princess ballerina) while dancing on tip-toe around the living room. We just want her to be HER, no matter what that means on any given day, and at barely 3 she’s just starting on the very long road to figuring that out…

  7. Joanna Schroeder says:

    I think the biggest mistake parents make when they’re raising kids with high expectations based upon gender is that they allow for bad behavior that we consider gendered to be allowed.

    “He’s all boy” isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing – but only because it’s how he naturally expresses his gender. It’s not better than, “He likes girl stuff” or “He’s very sensitive and prefers quiet activities.”

    But if “He’s all boy” means that the parent doesn’t find the destructive or harmful behavior problematic (because it’s somehow “natural” for boys to be destructive or hurt others) then we have a problem. I firmly believe that children need to be taught empathy at every opportunity. “How does Sally feel when you jump on her? Scared? Sad? Hurt?” etc.

    Same goes for typically gendered “girl” stuff like teasing boys, chasing/kissing boys without their okay, cattiness, and cliquishness – all of which starts frighteningly early (and probably always did). I’m facing this problem with my son right now, where girls seem to be the bullies of boys at school and they get away with it more because it seems so “natural” for girls to chase boys and tease them.

    So I think you’re spot on with this article. Being boyish/girlish/something else is great, if it comes naturally to your child, and if the parent can see through the gender-binary cloud that allows many parents to excuse harmful behavior.

    • It’s a good thing – but only because it’s how he naturally expresses his gender.

      Naturally? How do you know that his behavior is entirely natural? Couldn’t his “all boy” demeanor be the result of observed gender behaviors from television, adults, other children, etc. which influenced and indoctrinated him (despite the efforts of his parent)?

    • Aly Windsor says:

      Great points, Joanna! Empathy is the number one quality that I hope to instill in my boys. I try to take every opportunity to model empathetic behavior, to find books that teach empathy, and to help my kids understand their own feelings and each other’s. As I mentioned in response to another comment, we don’t laugh or shrug off Avie’s destructive or aggressive behavior. We always find that behavior problematic and deal with it accordingly, plus we try to provide safe outlets for him to burn off excess energy that can sometimes lead to aggressiveness bouts.

      And I can relate to the bullying of boys by girls. Avie is four now and we’ve been through multiple rounds of girls telling him he can’t play with them (at preschool, on the playground, at a bounce house playspace, etc). These experiences have had a far greater impact and have happened more frequently than any negative social experiences Avie has had with other boys. It’s been yet another unexpected part of raising sons for me.

      • “And I can relate to the bullying of boys by girls. Avie is four now and we’ve been through multiple rounds of girls telling him he can’t play with them (at preschool, on the playground, at a bounce house playspace, etc).”

        Is it possible that your son’s “all-boy” behavior doesn’t jive with the way most girls want to play? If a kid was acting the same way your son acted, I wouldn’t be surprised if my kids avoided him. And please understand that I say this without any intentional shaming. We try to raise our kids “right” but they all go through stages that embarrass us. My oldest child (who’s now almost 10) went through a period around age 3 where he would randomly push down another kid. It never seemed to be aggressive, just experimental. Nevertheless, the draw for him to do it was so intense that we had to socially isolate ourselves for a while. Whenever he’d ask to go play with our friends, I would remind him that he might push them and we couldn’t be around them if he was going to push. We then starting visiting friends at parks and such, but for only a very brief period of time, always leaving immediately and unceremoniously if he pushed someone. Eventually, through monitoring and gentle reminders, he stopped that behavior. Anyway, I’ve digressed.

        I do find the “all-boy” label here to be a little frustrating. My youngest (who’s a bit over 3) is usually described as “all-boy”, which seems to mean games which involve hitting, punching, chasing, building, etc. Regardless, consent is always a must in any game he plays. If he does any of these or other things to anyone else without asking and getting a “yes”, game’s automatically over. I don’t find the behavior in the article to be “all boy” but rather socially unacceptable. Kids go through stages (whether it’s unchecked aggression like above, overt shyness, whatever), it’s up to us to try to steer them in the right direction.

        • And I’m sorry, it seems my comment missed the point of your article:
          “…if I’m truly committed to raising our boys without gender expectations, that means accepting and valuing all outcomes, “all-boy” included.”

          If you mean “valuing all gender-related outcomes” I completely agree.

  8. Veronica Grace says:

    I totally relate to this! I’m very mindful of raising my sons without gender expectations. My older son was sort of confounding in that he just absolutely loved only traditional boy stuff, he sounds very much like your son. My younger son on the other hand is very different, so I feel like raising them without the gender expectations is exactly where we need to be. We need to allow them to be who they are and sometimes that will be “all boy” and sometimes it won’t but the point is that it will be who they are not who we try to make them.

    • Aly Windsor says:

      Thanks for your comment, Veronica. Our younger son seems to be following in your younger one’s footsteps. Of course there are some differences in how he’s been raised because I had a chance to practice on his big brother first but so far he’s much less wild than Avie. It’ll be interesting to see how they grow from here.

  9. Thank you for this article! Chiming in here too that we are also a family that had trucks right beside the dolls and clothing colors across the spectrum while the kids are growing up. When he was growing up, my son absolutely was obsessed with his toy trucks and nerf guns and who is now a thoughtful and very funny young man. My daughter (teen) who it seems from birth has always loved shoes, glitter, and makeup but yet prides herself in her athleticism and accomplishments at school. And I think both kids are extremelty confident in theirselves and who they are.

  10. Larry Daloz says:

    Provocative piece. I scanned it for any indication of the sex of the partner. Trying for “gender neutrality” is an admirable goal, but the sex of one’s parents (both of them) is invariably part of what kids learn about what it means to be the sex they are. Our understanding of the issue would be greatly enhanced if we knew whether Artie has a father in his life or two mothers.

    • Aly Windsor says:

      Thanks, Larry! Avie has a mother and a duda–which is what he calls my partner who is female but not feminine. Avie’s duda is more like a dad than a mother in a lot of ways but the masculinity messages Avie might be absorbing from his duda are not of the “all-boy” variety.

      • Larry Daloz says:

        Sorry for messing Avie’s name. And thanks for the clarification. Let me be clear that I do not want to suggest that his behavior is related to having two female caretakers. For one thing, kids don’t make much meaning out of what their sex is until Avie’s age at the earliest. That’s testosterone talking. It’s just that your challenge is different than what hetero parents face in this particular instance because there isn’t an older male in the house with whom he can identify in a direct, bodily way. As a father of a girl and a boy and grandfather of three magnificent girls, and as a man who has worked with men for years, I can only say that as Avie grows I hope he can find some good men who can help him both celebrate that explosive male energy and channel it into productive, non-violent directions. He looks like a sweet kid. Congratulations and good luck!

        • Aly Windsor says:

          Finding “some good men who can help him both celebrate that explosive male energy and channel it into productive, non-violent directions” is exactly why I’m here. Well that and I came to read about how else I can help him become one of those good men himself. Thanks for the kind words!

          • On this topic, part of it is roughhousing, which is apparently (from what I’ve read) important for children, and especially boys. This not only gives them experience in tumbling and confidence in their physical abilities, but is a good opportunity to put limits on that which is out of bounds. Able to say immediately the precise instance when something moves beyond play.

  11. Joe Sparks says:

    Boys and girls are very much like each other. Being told that we are different or must be different is a kind of hurtful nonsense that we need to interrupt. Both boys and girls are all-round human beings and can do anything, be anything, achieve anything they wish.

    • I agree.

      More to the article itself, while I can empathize with the desire to raise a kid in a gender- neutral way, I think it’s an impossibility unless a person raised their kid without any social or cultural experiences. Even then, the kid would be picking up “gender cues” from their parents, who were raised with the same social norms and expectations they were hoping to avoid. Though I bristle at the idea that women should do “x” and men should do “y”, I’ve come to terms with the idea that we don’t have that sort of control over our kids. Sadly, my daughter and sons will be exposed to harmful messages of what they should be, and they’ll probably internalize at least some of those messages. My approach is to simply raise my kids with the values that I think are important, and to encourage them to think critically about the messages they receive. As the author said, parenting is an experiment, sadly we won’t know the results until it’s too late to do anything about them.

  12. We had the same experience with our kids. One of the first things my 4-yr-old daughter did when she could walk was wrap a scarf around her shoulders as a reboso, and put a stone in it as her baby. She arranged lego blocks according to size, and dubbed them “Daddy”, “Mummy”, “Baby”. Her favourite colour is pink (usually) and she spends all her time talking about princesses (except last week, when she said being an astronaut would be more interesting). My 2-yr-old son likes getting thrown around and running in circles, and he dances exactly as you described your son dancing. He is far more physical.
    And sometimes my daughter builds things with blocks, and sometimes my son drags a doll about with him.

    In my experience many people who say they are raising their children “without gender expectations” really mean “with different gender expectations”.

  13. What is wrong with you….How are you even fit to be a parent? This article’s message is so disturbing. There is nothing wrong with being masculine, ever. The fact that your son “turned out” to be masculine is obvious you moron.

    The “right” way to raise a man isn’t through the feminization of a young male. “All-boy” DEFINES a male and anything less than that is clearly “less-boy.” You obviously have no understanding of what it means to be a young man growing up. All you have is a woman’s interpretation of masculinity, but you don’t know what it’s truly like to have your masculinity tested by your male peers. If you fail the test over and over, men won’t respect you. (Aww so sad…welcome to reality).

    I pity the many young men of this generation who are sexually confused from the bombardment of effeminate messages. I have friends who were raised by single “independent” fem-dom mothers and are weak, social outcasts, and awkward. My company literally hires females and these “less-boys” to do admin work, then works them to the bone. The chain of command is always strongest-weakest.

    Reading a few of the comments makes me laugh. You’re preaching to the female choir here. Try posting this BS on a site like askmen or any bodybuilding forum, see how many males agree with this convoluted nonsense.

    • Aly Windsor says:

      You’re right about one thing: There’s nothing wrong with being masculine. But it’s a mistake to call a 2.5 year-old masculine, or even “all-boy.” Little kids lack impulse control, period. I can look back now and see that’s really what people meant when they called him “all-boy.” He’s still a physical, enthusiastic risk-taker now but he’s not even close to the tiny tornado he once was. And that’s not from us “feminizing” him. It’s just from his brain developing on schedule.

  14. $50 says some teacher, very soon, will be hinting about meds…

    • Aly Windsor says:

      Hi, I’m the author of this post. A funny thing happened when Avie went to preschool the year after I originally wrote this essay (on my own blog). His teachers reported back to me that he listened well, was well-liked, and viewed as the class leader by the other kids. He’s 4.5 now and while he continues to enjoy physical play, his impulse control and sense of his own strength are much more developed and he very rarely, if ever, hurts or upsets his friends. I don’t think we’ll be in the market for meds any time soon.

  15. Chris Hofffman says:

    Interesting. Boys & girls have differnt brains & biology & evolution so naturally different.

  16. Hmm, this website may want to rethink the ads. I had a very long reply written out, but the banner ads refreshed my page and I lost it.

    It’s a nice article and I was just reiterating some of the points with experiences that I’ve had, but I don’t really wish to write it all out again.

  17. I just wanted to say that I enjoyed this article and also that he sounds like he was just like my son!
    I’ve read your responses as well and it was reassuring to read about how your son has developed since he was 2.5. I sometimes worry about how rough my son can be- we’ve limited his movies/shows to the most non violent after seeing how he now wants to shoot everything (He saw a western at his nana’s). He’s also so sweet, loving, thoughtful, and helpful. Like you said- there are two sides :)
    I am only worried about how his rambunctiousness will come out with other children and how to Handel it. I don’t want to squash his “boy ness” but I don’t want it to go to far either. If you have any suggestions or “tricks” I’d be glad to hear it! Thank you -

  18. “All I know is that my older son has been loud, physical, and bossy from the very start, while his little brother has been much more mellow from his get go. That to me suggests innate differences.”

    Sure, but it doesn’t suggest that the innate differences are down to gender, does it? Bet if the younger child was a girl, that would be the temptation.

    Nice article, though, and I know what you mean. I’m also doing gender-free parenting, and it would be kind of embarrassing if, given all that freedom, my son turned out to randomly tick all the ‘boy’ boxes. Even though I tick a lot of them myself….


  1. […] Dolly Parton now and then, and wading in streams is our life. He’s also, I’m told, about as “all boy” as he can be. I don’t always feel like I understand him but the same goes for everyone else, […]

  2. […] A blog post from November 14, How We Talk to Kids, was just featured over at The Good Men Project, a really cool website that focuses on what it means to be a good man in the 21st century.  Go check ‘em out!  They’ve got a lot of really great content.  Right now, for example, there’s a great article on marriage called, Be Kind to Each Other and another called Parenting Without Gender Expectations Means Accepting All Outcomes.  […]

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