Jolene Vargas’ son was a year old when he became “really obsessed with the movie ‘Moana.'”

Vargas was a young mom when she accepted her son’s enthusiasm for the Disney movie. However, Vargas began to feel pressure from others around her.

“A couple people in my life were kind of just like, ‘Moana is a princess. It’s a girl thing,” she said. 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. Her journey is shared on TikTok by @mommademagic.

Jolene Vargas and her son at Disneyland.

“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. The couple is not the only one. 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.”

Maher’s family believes that this is a way to use only gender-neutral pronouns for their child. It also means they/they can not limit what clothes or toys they wear.

Maher said, “If the kids want to wear, let’s say, a Batman Tshirt and rainbow tutu, then they are more than welcome… (and) We’ve got a mix of My Little Pony figures, so it is just very open.” “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.”

They say that they want their child to not feel compelled to conform to any type of image of themselves. Their gender is still unknown at the moment, as our child is only 2 1/2 years old. 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.'”

Gender creative parenting: Why do people choose this?

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

“I hope it helps instill a strong sense if identity and self. It’s something I believe is important for all.”

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. The “children have much to tell us about themselves,” she said. “I think it is very important that they do this.

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.”

She adds, “It’s an extraordinarily powerful thing to do for a child.” Having their identity journey hampered can be “psychologically, emotionally very hard on children.”

These were the challenges Maher faced growing up, with gendered expectations placed on him solely by “how I saw 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.

Newman states, “Limiting children’s freedom to choose their gender identity can have social consequences.”

“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 children can visualize their individuality in their toys, and how they interact with the world around them, the better we will be able predict their ability to accept others visions. This includes other people, other peers, or other viewpoints.

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?”

It can also be helpful to talk with your children about their gender identity and gender.

Some children are able to speak fluently at 2 years old, but others can take off by age 3. Linguistically, the average child is more comfortable with language between 3-5 and 4-5, when our “labels and names” really start taking hold.

“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. That’s fine if it’s what the stepparents are okay with.

Another way of learning is through play dates with people from different backgrounds, says she.

“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’). If there is interest you could have a conversation,” she said. 

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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