Raising Children without Gender

By , June 24, 2009 2:22 pm

From an article about a Swedish family:

Pop’s parents, both 24, made a decision when their baby was born to keep Pop’s sex a secret. Aside from a select few – those who have changed the child’s diaper – nobody knows Pop’s gender; if anyone enquires, Pop’s parents simply say they don’t disclose this information.

“We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother said. “It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”

…with a second child on the way, Pop’s parents have no plans to change what they see as a winning formula. As for Pop, they say they will only reveal the child’s sex when Pop thinks it’s time.

I think this is pretty cool. There’s something powerful about allowing a child to notify the world of their gender, if and when they choose to. But, of course, there are those who are objecting:

“Ignoring children’s natures simply doesn’t work,” says Susan Pinker, a psychologist and newspaper columnist from Toronto, Canada, who wrote the book The Sexual Paradox, which focuses on sex differences in the workplace.

It sounds to me like the parents aren’t “ignoring children’s nature,” they’re allowing their child to identify for his or herself what that nature is. At the same time, I do think this statement of Pinker’s is probably more accurate:

“It’s unlikely that they’ll be able to keep this a secret for long. Children are curious about their own identity, and are likely to gravitate towards others of the same sex during free play time in early childhood.”

But, nevertheless, I think it’s worth it to give Pop the ability to state his or her own gender, rather than having it be built into every interaction before he or she makes a conscious decision about it. Thoughts from the peanut gallery?

6 Responses to “Raising Children without Gender”

  1. Rachel_in_WY says:

    I. love. this.

    I’ve been told time and again that I’m “sacrificing my children’s social well-being for the purposes of my theories on gender.” Whatever. Not requiring my girls to wear pink everyday, act “ladylike,” play with only “girl toys,” only read books that indoctrinate them concerning gender, wear their hair long if they don’t want to, etc doesn’t seem to be harming them at all. As my kids thrive these voices have less and less of an impact on me.

    It is frustrating, though, that no matter what you do, the rest of the world is bent on gendering them properly. From the bank teller handing out stickers to the dental hygienist giving out free toothbrushes to the ads they see on tv, they’re told every day that girls like princesses, and pink, and ponies. And they’re told implicitly by preschool teachers and daycare workers that there are “proper” ways for girls to behave and a different set of behaviors appropriate for boys. So sometimes it feels like a losing battle, and if this family had their kids in daycare, there’s no way they could keep Pop’s physical sex, and thus the gender that must align with it, a secret. And that’s depressing.

    • Rebecca says:

      It is frustrating, though, that no matter what you do, the rest of the world is bent on gendering them properly.

      I hear that. One of the things I’ve thought a lot about is my own childhood, how I was raised, and what (if anything) I wish had been different.

      Ultimately, I’m unable to put my finger on many specific things my parents did that I felt was gendering me: I was allowed and encouraged to play with dolls and action figures, had a rockin’ stuffed animal collection, had ‘Free to Be You and Me’ as part of my regular audio library (the record is now framed on the wall next to my bed), and so on. My parents did everything “right” in raising a well-adjusted liberal kid who knew judging someone (or something) based think race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and so forth wasn’t OK.

      But no one explicitly told me, as these parents did, that my gender was my choice. And so, as you’re saying, the rest of the world stepped in to gender me, even if my parents didn’t overtly try to. (Although they didn’t try not to either, which I think is why this article is interesting. There’s a difference between absence of intent about something and intending to keep something absent.)

      So sometimes it feels like a losing battle, and if this family had their kids in daycare, there’s no way they could keep Pop’s physical sex, and thus the gender that must align with it, a secret. And that’s depressing.

      I think you’re right here, too. A friend of mine, who is cis and not immersed in gender theory in perhaps the way I am, said of this article, “Well, what about this? What about that?” I ultimately responded that 99% of kids will know what their gender is, and want to be ‘correctly,’ gendered. And that situations like preschool, playgroups, and so on will push them toward choosing ‘correctly.’ But for parents to tell their kids that it is their choice still seems incredibly worthwhile.

  2. Andi says:

    This is a very interesting story. It must be difficult to raise your child with no specific gender role set into place for them. From the time a child is born they are thrown into a pink or blue onesie and given the appropriate colored blanket(mine happend to be Strawberry Shortcake). As they get older they are expected to play with different toys and watch certain TV shows. This is fascinating to me because I’m not sure what the results would bring. At some point the child will identify with one gender more than the other but they could possibly be more sensitive or open minded to the other gender. It would be interesting to have a follow up to see if raising them gender neutral had any effects on the child. I like the idea either way, its not fair to the child to shove things in their face that they might not even identify with.

    • Rebecca says:

      I agree – I’m more curious about what Pop is like, and thinks of the experience of being raised in a gender neutral fashion, ten or fifteen years down the road than the idea that the parents are doing this in the first place. Pop will most likely be cisgendered, which is completely fine. I just hope that, as you said, Pop will have a better idea of how constructed gender can be, and more sensitive to whatever the ‘other’ ends up being.

    • Rachel_in_WY says:

      I actually suspect there would be a lot more people who would negotiate some sort of genderqueer compromise as they grew up (more than now, anyway) if more kids were given this kind of freedom. I know I most definitely would have, if it had seemed like an option to me. Especially in my teens. As it was, I sort of did that, without the label, by just being extremely tomboyish, athletic, and androgynous as much as possible. And I still got a lot of shit for it, but the fact that I sort of effortlessly fit into the norm as far as appearance goes let me off the hook in many ways, because it’s more acceptable to behave in an androgynous way if you look properly gendered to people. Which is a bizarre and cruel feature of our culture.

      But if I had been equally exposed to “boy” and “girl” clothes and games and books, and if I had been encouraged to take on the roles and behaviors of whichever gender I wanted, I’m pretty sure I would have combined them rather than choosing one or the other. Although I don’t doubt that many would still choose either predominantly masculine or feminine identities. But I would expect to see more “none of the aboves” or “masculine girls” and “feminine boys” if this were the norm.

      • timberwraith says:

        That makes a lot of sense, Rachel. I tend to agree with your prediction.

        If I had been raised in a gender neutral fashion, I have no clue how I would have turned out. Woman? Man? Both? Neither? I honestly don’t know. One thing I’m fairly certain of is that I would be a very different person from who I am now.

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