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"You got it wrong": Sparrow and Hazel are being raised by multi-adult parents as 'theybies'.

“I am Ari Dennis, I’m 32, and I use they/them,” is how Ari Dennis introduces themselves.

Ari does not identify with a gender – and most of their family is equally non-traditional.

“I live with my partners,” Ari tells Mamamia. “Luna, who is 26 and uses they/them, and Brynnifer, who is 32 and uses she/her.”

As for their children, there’s “15-month-old ‘ante gender’ Sparrow, and ‘non-binary’ eight-year-old, Hazel.”

Those terms mean Sparrow and Hazel are ‘theyby’ children; they are referred to by their parents using pronouns they/their/them, rather than genders.

And yes, in what Ari describes as a ‘multi-adult household’, there is no biological definition of parent.

“I believe genetics are not the most important factor when it comes to relationships between parents and their children.

“We don’t focus on it in our household. Being a parent is about the choice to commit to and prioritise a child.”

gender neutral baby
Clockwise: Ari, Luna, Hazel, Sparrow and Brynnifer. Image: Supplied.

But Ari, who educates people on gender-open and gender-creative (exploring, questioning, and rejecting gender norms) parenting, admits that they could, or should, have done something different when Hazel was born.

And they were determined not to repeat the ‘mistake’ with Sparrow.

“I found out about the fact that people were not disclosing their children’s anatomy, and they were using neutral pronouns such as they in Canada, or ‘hen’ in Sweden, when Hazel was a toddler,” Ari, who is from Florida in the US, explains.

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“I remember thinking to myself even back then, ‘Wow, I wish I had known that was an option.’ I did gender creative parenting with Hazel in all aspects, but wish that I had been open with pronouns for them.”

Ari, who had always questioned the concept of gender as they were growing up, was intrigued.

“I was raised by very supportive parents in an open environment,” Ari explains. “Whatever we wanted to do or learn about, my parents encouraged.

gender neutral baby
Sparrow. Image: Supplied.

"When we were young, my mum would put me and my siblings of mixed genders in matching outfits that were very neutral, like a yellow shirt and purple shorts.”

Now, as a parent, Ari educated themselves further on gender neutrality, beyond the concept of clothing and toys.

“I eventually figured out the language to describe my gender after years of struggling with the options only being man and woman.

“I felt neither category fit me and was relieved when I found non-binary terminology.”

Hazel is now a non-binary theyby, which Ari explains means not existing within the two main gender categories (male and female).

Ari adds, “that vocabulary discovery helped Hazel find the identity that fit them best as well.”

But Ari confesses that as a parent, they found it challenging.

“Having a child transition from an assigned gender to a self-determined gender was an emotional experience for me as a parent,” Ari admits.

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“It is humbling to have a child say in so many words, ‘You just guessed when you chose for me this vital and personal thing, and you got it wrong.’

“I felt a large debt to them. I felt that I owed it to them to help them figure out what expression was genuine for them.”

Knowing what was possible after Hazel’s transition, Ari was determined to have a different approach with Sparrow.

There was no gender assigned at birth, a fact which is reflected on Sparrow’s birth certificate; and is why the child is now described as ‘ante gender’.

“Ante gender means ‘before gender’, much like how an anteroom is the space you step into before entering a room,” Ari explains.

Fortunately, the law in Florida allowed for the option of recognising gender as ‘unknown’ on Sparrow’s birth certificate, and that’s something Ari is grateful for.

“Currently Sparrow's birth certificate say 'unknown'. The 'unknown' marker or something similar is available in multiple, but not all, states in the USA,” they explain.

In Australia, in April 2019, Tasmania amended the Birth, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act to allow, as of September this year, the registration of genders by self-identification. Further, parents can ask birth certificates to not include a gender marker.

For Sparrow, being ante gender is keeping the identity options open for them to determine their identity for themselves.

As Ari see it, “it takes two to five years for a child to fully understand how gender fits in with identity and society roles.”

“In those years, their beliefs about themselves are heavily shaped by the education they receive.

“That is why I feel it is most respectful to acknowledge that vulnerable state and provide space for the child’s interpretation of themselves, rather than only external interpretations.”

It’s an experience Ari hopes other parents can learn from in their approach to their own children – to consider gender concepts from birth, rather than doing so later.

Not only because of the emotional work it took as a family when it came to Hazel’s transition, but also because becoming non-binary in Year One created challenges at school.

Hence Ari’s decision to home-school Hazel from next year.

“Already we have networked with LGBTQ+ home-school groups locally and nationally. I feel that this shift will allow Hazel an even greater level of autonomy, and the ability to begin tailoring their time to what their goals in life are.”

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As Ari sees it, the world has some way to go in understanding theyby children and their parents.

“I think that people believe that we are forcing an idea or a belief or an identity on our children,” Ari says. “That’s totally the opposite of what is happening.”

The theyby approach, according to Ari, is quite simple.

“All we are doing is letting Sparrow wear clothes of all colours and styles, play with toys of all types, and express themselves regardless of the gender mainstream society associates with those things.

“We don’t tell Sparrow ‘you aren’t a boy/girl.’ Nor do we tell them, ‘you have to be non-binary.’

“We call them their name, we tell them they are a baby or a toddler, we talk to them about their body parts using proper anatomical labels. There’s no restriction on them in any part of the process.”

Ari adds that parents can assign gender to their children, but still be supportive of exploration.

“Gender can be a common and comfortable topic of conversation at home. Exploration and questions can be supported by parents and caregivers.

“These discussions can be beneficial to helping a child have a healthy relationship with gender and identity, regardless of what their gender may be.”

It’s an awareness Ari hopes to see more of in society.

“I wish that people would see gender as something powerful, but ultimately, personal. It isn’t something we can tell just from looking at another person.

“There isn’t a wrong way to have a gender or display a gender.”

Ari says the discomfort people often exhibit around Sparrow is evidence of how deep our conditioning is.

“Strangers feel they wouldn’t be able to interact with Sparrow because they wouldn’t know what’s in their nappy.

“Society needs to stop feeling like we must know what someone’s genitals look like before we know how to treat them.”

What do you think about children being raised as gender open? Would you do it? Tell us in the comments section below.

For more on raising gender neutral kids, listen to Mia Freedman's interview with Kyl Myer on No Filter about why she is letting her child choose their gender.

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