Monday, May 23, 2011

Can You Raise a "Genderless" Child? Should You?

This story  seems to be a hot topic. It’s a question of debate over at Good Enough Mother and The Bump message boards.

The story is about a couple who have chosen to keep the gender of their third child, Storm, a secret. This isn’t entirely new territory, as a pair of Swedish parents made the same decision a few years ago about their child, Pop, which I blogged about here.

And concern over gender roles in childhood is certainly not new. It’s something I started thinking about myself during pregnancy (as you can see from some earlier blog posts here and here), and I'm sure that it's something a lot of parents consider when making decisions on parenting methods.

Storm’s parents mention in the article traveling and flipping a coin to decide if they would present Storm as a boy or a girl during the trip. The coin landed on “boy” and they noted that “The language changed immediately. ‘What a big, strong boy,’ people said.”

I’ve noticed this phenomenon myself. Though I do not try to hide my daughter’s female identity, I do dress her in some gender-neutral clothes (often greens and yellows, which I prefer to pink for aesthetic reasons more than anything else), and she’s been mistaken for a boy in public. It doesn’t bother me, but it clearly embarrasses others when they realize their mistake: “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Then they usually immediately overcompensate by making sure to point out her girly-ness to me: “Just look at those eyelashes!” “She’s so pretty!” And when you thought she was a boy? Those eyelashes weren’t there? Was she “handsome” before?

And I know, absolutely know, that language shapes our reality. So I understand these parents’ motivations (even if the vast majority of the people commenting on The Bump do not—most of the comments point out how ridiculous and silly the parents are being). However, I can’t say that I condone this choice.

This is not because I think the parents’ urge to break out of gender norms is wrong; in fact, I celebrate it, but I can’t see this being a successful way to do it.

Diane Ehrensaft is a psychologist who wrote Gender Born, Gender Made (yet another book added to my ever-growing list of to-reads), and she’s interviewed for the article:
“But she worries by not divulging Storm’s sex, the parents are denying the child a way to position himself or herself in a world where you are either male, female or in between. In effect they have created another category: Other than other. And that could marginalize the child”

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? We can’t have a non-category. There is no category outside of the dichotomy society has created. There is female, there is male, and there is other. To be “other than other” is to be not just marginalized, but doubly so.

And I also worry that it might deny the child the opportunity to learn the language and the nuances of gender that are necessary to break down gender norms. Just as the confines of racial discrimination cannot be broken down unless the stereotypes that define them are tackled head on, gender identities cannot, in my opinion, be freed without understanding the confines surrounding them. And that’s a kind of understanding that comes with lived experience.

So, what do you think? Is it enough to allow children free gender expression in the clothes they wear and the toys they play with? Or do you need to go to these types of extremes? What’s the responsible thing to do as far as the child is concerned? And is that different from the responsible thing to do when it comes to progressing societal norms?


  1. I think it is a very good idea to raise a child to think about things and hopefully navigate their way through the craziness.

    For a fairly rubbish analogy (I'm blaming sleep deprivation), Driving is the most dangerous thing one can do with themselves but against my mothering instinct I will not stop my kids from driving, but I will try to teach them to drive responsibly. I'll also encourage them to ride a bike or walk when possible as it is better for their personal health and that of the environment.

    I have a daughter who loves fairy suits, but she also has a mum who works in a traditionally male oriented field. Her father and myself will do our best to arm her with confidence and a healthy skepticism to question the worlds expectations of her and be the woman she wants to be. The fairy, girly girl thing has thrown me, but stopping it would be confusing for her, as she loves it! So we celebrate her joy, as we will when her little brother discovers her dress up box and pinks it up.

    The world is a tricky place for ones own self. When charged with helping a small person find their way through it, its even more confusing. I don't think there are any easy answers but I would be concerned for Storm because difference can be difficult when you are trying to figure our the way of the world. But I have long since learnt that I definitely don't have the answers, anymore or less than Storms parents. Best of luck to them.

  2. I can see why the parents might want to do it, but it's not a choice I would make for my child - it seems to me to be a bit like choosing a religion for them. I'd rather let them choose for themselves, when they have enough maturity to do so.