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?