Genderless Child-Rearing II

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about genderless child-rearing which introduced a Swedish child named Pop who didn’t even know what sex s/he (it?) is. Now that s/he’s almost two years older I wonder how that’s turning out for him/her. Of course, s/he still hasn’t started school yet. That’s when it will really get difficult to maintain the pose that this child is genderless.

Yes, I wrote “the pose.” I could as easily have written “the fiction.” Because I think that’s all genderless child-rearing will ever be: a social experiment where one’s own child is the guinea pig.

Now there’s a new family in the news, this one from Toronto, Canada, which has decided to raise  its newest child gender-free. See the video below:

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89% of over 52,000 people who responded to a poll about this story thought that genderless child-rearing is a terrible idea. That doesn’t surprise the expert who was interviewed on the show because “most of us are conventional and like to put things in a box.” But is that the only reason we think children should be raised according to their genitalia?

You’d think a feminist would be all for this idea. After all, the most radical among us have argued that gender is nothing but a social construct. The logical conclusion of this belief is that a child who is raised gender-neutral will eventually pick his or her own gender identification. That’s what baby Storm’s parents believe. They got the idea to keep Storm’s sex a secret from the way their older children are responding to their parents’ willingness to let them decide what they like to do, wear, and play with. Their oldest son sometimes wear dresses. The youngest is often mistaken for a girl. The kids don’t seem to mind.

I might be a feminist, but I’m uncomfortable with this. Just because we often go too far in shaping gender identity (forcing trucks and baseball on boys and dolls and dance lessons on girls, for instance) doesn’t mean that knowing which sex you are is not an important part of your development. I think it’s enough to teach our boys that they can be  nurturing and our girls that they can be aggressive. To blot from our vocabulary the phrase, “Little boys/girls don’t do that.”

At the same time, I recognize that it’s awfully easy to slip into gender-imprinting behavior. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to. And the fiction won’t be sustainable once children hit puberty.

The real problem is that in our attempts to teach our children to identify with their sex, we teach them to dislike the opposite one. The worst epithet that males can hurl at each other is, “You’re such a girl.” Girls are taught that boys are smelly and dirty and loud  and that they in turn have to be fragrant, clean and quiet. If we could somehow convey to our children that the opposite sex is just as important, interesting and acceptable as they are, we’d go a long way toward erasing sexual discrimination.

In a way it’s easier to raise a child without gender than it is to teach our boys and girls that the opposite sex is not some kind of alien condition that they cannot possible relate to.

Let’s raise our kids to respect and enjoy each other no matter what sex they are. We need to prevent them from thinking that one sex is better than the other. If our kids ask, “What does it mean to be a boy/girl?” we can tell them that there’s very little difference between the sexes, except for their role in reproduction.

We don’t need to obliterate gender identity; we just need to expand it.



2 Replies to “Genderless Child-Rearing II”

  1. Hi,
    Almost eighteen years ago, when my daughter turned one, I asked that any gifts given for her birthday be non-gender-specific. (In other words, no barbies for the baby, K?) She was not even walking, after all, and any teddy bear looked fun to her! This was really challenging for people, though, even in my most-progressive nook of the world, and belies all of the lip-service people pay to supporting children being whoever they want to be.

    AND… when this same daughter was even younger, just months-old, people would sometimes assume she was a boy baby. They would say, “Hey, little guy, how are you doing?” and banter assertively and playfully with her silence. However, when they then asked me “his” name and I corrected their assumption, they would tend to apologize profusely, change the pitch and cadence of their voice, and assure my daughter she was so pretty and sweet. It was jaw-dropping!! I was so glad that I hadn’t known her gender in-utero, since I’d guess this same gender-specific treatment would have begun even earlier. I really wonder how we can assert inherent differences in brains when this boy/girl recognition seems to be the MOST important question of new parents.

    I believe these parents are good parents. I believe that they were/are trying something out that doesn’t have to be damaging to the young one. I doubt the “experiment” or decision would last much longer. Too bad they have to endure such front-page criticism of their thoughtful attempt to give their baby a bit of breathing room before the onslaught of “snips and snails” versus “sugar and spice” affects their every interaction.** (Which, despite all of our fantastic claims to the contrary, still rule the ways of our society.)

    I think people’s criticisms are not based on anything happening this moment. This 4 month old is just fine. Are people projecting what the parents are going to do in the future? That remains to be seen. As to me and my daughter, my gender-neutral gift requests ended with her first birthday. By her second, she could ask for a doll and a book herself. And she’s better than fine.

    **See nursery rhyme, “What Are Little Boys/Girls Made Of” for explanation of reference

  2. I think there is a lot of confusion in this video regarding gender and sex. Sex is the biological reality, while gender is the socially constructed reality. I do not think there is anything wrong in taking a more gender-neutral stand in child rearing. This, however, doesn’t mean that parents are to ignore the child’s biological sex.

    Personally, I think gender–and even genderlessness–is socially constructed. Raising a child genderless still involves choosing a specific social construction for the child (even if that construct is non-normative). The parents in the video seem to have a false sense that their children will be “free” from social influences. In this case, how is one social construct more healthier/beneficial than any other?

    While I do support allowing one’s children to explore the performative acts of different genders, I also think that parents should be conscious of the possible difficulties that their children could eventually face as they enter the social sphere

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