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Gender is What Gender Ain’t: Can We Raise Gender-Neutral Children?

Gender is What Gender Ain’t: Can We Raise Gender-Neutral Children?

The other afternoon I was at the park with my child (the place where parents quietly and surreptitiously compare other children to their own) and I was introduced to a sort of hellion child with all of the bombast of the character Beetlejuice, but lacking any of the charm. He tore through the playground like a category 5, pushing other children, yelling at random, and locked in some sort of temporary psychosis claiming that he was a bad superhero. Most of the other children around him just sort of backed off and gave him a wide berth to carve out his own hellion reality. His mother, as much as she sincerely tried to mitigate the damage her son was unleashing, eventually gave in and said something to the effect, “Well, he IS a boy.” My thinking at the moment was, “No, that is not a boy, that is just a playground plague.” Bad behavior is one thing, but giving that behavior particular, and distinct, gender identification is another entirely.

Every few months I have been known to write a post or two about gender identity in children, as it is an issue that is endlessly fascinating and reveals much more about adult society hang ups than it does about actual gender identity (whatever that might be). A few years ago I reported on a parent-led experiment of sorts going on in Sweden with a child named “Pop.” The child, who was born a few years back, was being raised without any clear reinforced gender identity, and therefore cultivated to be a true gender-neutral citizen. No word on how things are going for “Pop” but now there is another genderless child by the name of Storm. This 4-month-old Storm is coming from the north, but not the European north – Toronto, Canada. Storm’s parents, Kathy Witterick, 38, and David Stocker, 39, feel strongly that gender expectations constrict and damage children, and by omitting the child’s gender identity from the equation, they are effectively liberating the child from the constraints of gender identification. The couple sent out a notification, of sorts, to friends and family to say this action (or inaction) around gender is ” a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place?).”

To be sure, the Witterick’s fall in the very liberal/very progressive spectrum of parental identity. With their two other boys (who have more of a fixed, but not altogether rigid, gender identity) they practice something called “unschooling” which is an offshoot of home-schooling centered on the belief that learning should be driven by a child’s curiosity. This means that tromping through the mud is just as important as learning to count in the Witterick household. That said, “unschooling” is potentially a small endeavor compared to the logistical difficulties that may come from keeping Storm as genderless as a violent weather pattern (even hurricanes are given gender specific names). When interviewed on the subject for the website parentcentral, Diane Ehrensaft, a California-based psychologist and author of Gender Born, Gender Made, a guide for parents of nonconforming children, says she believes parents should ultimately support gender-creative children, which includes the transgendered, who feel born in the wrong bodies, and gender hybrids, who feel they are part girl and part boy. Then there are gender “smoothies,” who have a blended sense of gender that is purely “them.” However, Ehrensaft expresses concern about not divulging Storm’s sex, and how it may further marginalize the child and not afford him/her the ability to easily find a position in this male or female world.

Granted, parenting itself is a sort of experiment to begin with, but by embracing this sort of non-conformity and opening up all the possibilities for a gender-neutral child, are we just eventually complicating things down the road, for everyone? Is it fair for parents to impose such beliefs on their children (isn’t that what we do as parents anyway, to differing extremes)? Have you wrestled with gender identity in some way, shape, or form and found a sense of balance where there once was just confusion?

Read more: Babies, Children, Family, Love, Parenting at the Crossroads, Sex, , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

68 comments

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11:39AM PDT on Apr 19, 2013

Children, it's the angels, but sometimes they are given to us, as a test.

9:56AM PDT on Aug 30, 2012

Interesting...as if we have a choice. I believe we are who we are no matter what our parents try or try not to do. My mother wanted me to play with dolls and I wanted to hang out with my brother and his friends all the time. When he went to school (I was 3 years younger) I took his bike and taught myself to ride it...it was a boys bike and I rode it anyway! Did I grow up gay? No, I always enjoyed hanging out with the guys, still do. No matter what people do, we are all gender specific but there are just more genders now than there used to be and I think all genders should and will be accepted as simply part of life. Live, love and be happy, no matter what gender you are.

4:06PM PDT on Apr 23, 2012

Raising this child as a gender neutral person is as unnatural as pretending he or she won't have sex in the future, or even worse, it's like pretending sexual intercourse doesn't exist at all. I hope this fad ends here. By the way, a huge setback on every right transgenderism has achieved: trans men and women fight all their lifetime for the right to have their true gender acknowledged both by the society and the Law.
Besides, there's so much richness in being a woman/female or a man/male, whatever word you choose: both my sons know they are very different to women but both have equal rights, opportunites and duties. And I've raised them to play or be interested in whatever thing a child may like, I don't think there are "girly" or "boyish" games or toys. And by the way, I never liked playing with dolls. I was practically "forced" into playing with them due to peer pressure or I'd have die of boredom!

12:17AM PDT on Apr 22, 2012

Thanks for the info

1:04AM PST on Mar 3, 2012

Thanks for the article.

10:14AM PST on Nov 8, 2011

I was lucky enough to be a girl who was allowed to play with trucks, dolls, blocks, books, and the like, who was told that boys and girls could do essentially the same things. Hygiene and self care were a huge deal, and I knew that the usual constructs existed but that my parents didn't demand that I limit myself to any such role.

I think the one place this really goes wrong is in insisting that sex and gender are a secret, rather than going the full mile to make it the child's decision what to wear and who to share with.

When the adults are calling all the shots on their child's identity, it doesn't matter whether they tell the child that they must act masculine and be a boy, act feminine and be a girl, or act secretive and be neutral. They are all constrictive standards that deny the ultimate goal of choice for the child.

The important thing to give them is in-depth understanding of caring for their own biological needs, a basic understanding of social mores, full and complete love and acceptance, and the opportunity to choose for themselves.

9:02AM PDT on Oct 16, 2011

Another thing... I'm not sure the name Storm is gender-neutral. The writer Storm Jameson was a woman!

8:48AM PDT on Oct 16, 2011

I'll be interested to see how this works out.

3:21PM PDT on Jun 27, 2011

Liberal progressive.? I think you mean morons don't you ? I'll bet the kid commits suicide before age 20 because there is a difference between male and female.

2:23PM PDT on Jun 18, 2011

Hmm I don't know what to think about this, i'm more traditional

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