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Can we raise gender-neutral children? A Toronto couple is attempting to do just that. Kathy Witterick and David Stocker have decided to allow their third child, Storm, to decide which gender he or she identifies with. This has caused some confusion. It is a basic impulse for people to approach the parents of babies and ask “So, is it a boy or girl?” It is very unusual for the parents to reply, as this couple does, “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now…” Many people applaud their decision and support the belief – gender equality – underlying the decision. A Facebook page has been created in support of the family. On the other hand, many people have expressed outrage over their decision and believe withholding this information is akin to child abuse. One man is so upset that he has created a Facebook page in opposition to this couple and has threatened to report them to child abuse investigators. At this time, the support page has twice as many “friends” as the opposition page.
Scholars have demonstrated that gender, like race, is socially constructed. While there are biological differences between males and females (such as their sex organs), the meaning of gender is a social construction. The values placed on males or females are dependent upon a number of factors which change over time. For example, we once thought that education would ruin women for wifehood and motherhood. Some scholars went so far as to suggest that women’s wombs would shrink if they exercised their brains. This was, in the end, proven false and exposed as just another way to keep women ignorant and subservient to men.
This Toronto couple are not the first to try to raise a gender-neutral child. The Discovery Health website lists gender-neutral parenting as one of its Top 10 Radical Parenting Methods and suggests that there is “movement” made up of like-minded parents who wish to circumvent traditional gender constructions by altering their parenting methods. Such parents eschew the usual pink or blue color scheme for nurseries; give toy trucks and baby dolls to both male and female children; and refuse to disclose the biological sex of their offspring. The problem is that we do not live in a gender-neutral world.
These parents readily admit that their biologically male children often prefer toy trucks and footballs and that feminine-acting males face bullying and teasing when they start school. We still expect females to be more nurturing and males to be tough and strong. Just as knowing that race is social construction does not immediately dismantle racism in our society, knowing that gender is a social construction does not eliminate sexism. But it does raise important questions about how children are socialized: How do baby boys and baby girls (who, as far as we know, do not think about their gender any more than they think about race) learn to be women and men? While parents may try to raise children in gender-neutral ways, is this really possible and do gender dynamics exist within families that have not been addressed? What happens when the children start to interact with others who have not been raised in gender-neutral households? What is the effect of the media or the school system on children’s gender identity? We do know that gender is not simply biology. We know that interactions, within and outside the home, forge gender (and other) identities. How can these couples shield their children from the sexism and gendered expectations that pervade every segment of our society?
The coverage of the Toronto couple, and parents like them, exposes biases within our media (and perhaps within ourselves). Articles about this couple are quick to point out that baby Storm was born “in a pool of water at home” and that his mother was attended by midwives. In addition, they disclose that Witterick home-schools her children (Storm has 2 older brothers) and that even her home-schooling does not conform to traditional home-schooling methods. In short, Storm’s parents – particularly his mother – are discussed in the press as if they are kooks. The truth is that home-birth is not a weird thing. Until the advent of modern medicine almost all babies were born at home. Home births are on the rise in the US – increasing 20% between 2004-2008. Even water births – while still not common – are becoming increasingly popular, are available in some hospitals and are often covered by insurance if done at home. Finally, home-schooling has become a viable alternative to over-crowded, underfunded schools and is not the fringe movement it once was. In 2007, 1.7 million children were home-schooled and researchers believe that number has continued to grow.
It is unlikely that Witterick and Stocker will be able to keep Storm’s gender undisclosed forever. He or she will begin to exhibit gender-identifying traits as part of the normal process of getting older. Hormones will cause Storm’s face and body to change; his or her gender identity will no longer be shielded by the androgyny of babyhood. Although Storm will likely be homeschooled like his or her siblings, Witterick and Stocker will not be able to keep this child away from all media or social interactions with others who will make assumptions and have expectations based on their own beliefs about gender roles.
Gender-neutral parenting may have limitations and, so far, it has not drastically altered gender relationships in society at large. But by raising children without gender assumptions, these parents may be working towards dismantling traditional gender roles. Their children, and those with whom they come into contact, will at the very least be forced to consider how and why they hold certain views of gender. Just as we have constructed gender over time, gender-neutral parenting may be part of deconstructing it in the future.