NEW YORK — Ridiculous or ultra-enlightened? A Toronto couple's decision to keep the gender of their 4-month-old baby a secret has touched off a sometimes nasty debate over how far parents should go in protecting young ones from society's boy-girl biases.
Kathy Witterick and David Stocker recently landed on the front page of the Toronto Star, explaining that they hope their third child, Storm, can remain untouched by the connotations of pink versus blue, male versus female, long enough to make up his or her own mind.
The decision has online haters and supporters of the family on hyperdrive. Child development experts, meanwhile, question the impact on the cherubic infant later in life and whether the couple has gone too far in their quest for gender neutrality.
"This is not a secret without consequences," said Mike Brody, a child psychiatrist in Washington, D.C., and instructor at the University of Maryland. "This seems more controlling than the helicopter parents."
Soon after the baby was born, in a pool of water at home, Witterick, 38, and Stocker, 39, sent an email announcing to loved ones: "We've decided not to share Storm's sex for now – 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? ...)."
The couple has been overwhelmed by attention since the story was published last week, telling The Associated Press in an email Friday the idea that "the whole world must know what is between the baby's legs is unhealthy, unsafe and voyeuristic. We know – and we're keeping it clean, safe, healthy and private (not secret!)."
Storm's two older siblings – both on-the-record boys – know the baby's gender, along with a close family friend and the midwives who delivered the child. They plan to keep the secret as long as Storm, 2-year-old Kio and 5-year-old Jazz are OK with it.
There's nothing unusual about Storm's genitalia, the parents note, but they've been stung by criticism of their older children for liking pink and purple clothes, bikes and other "girly" things, like the occasional dress and long hair for Jazz, who's currently sporting braids.
Among neighbors and others, the couple has faced the cringe-inducing question so many other parents have also heard: "Oh what a lovely child. Boy or a girl?" But, Stocker told the paper, "If you really want to get to know someone, you don't ask what's between their legs."
Liza Hough, 29, a student of traditional medicine in Alameda, Calif., isn't a parent but felt so strongly about the family's "courage" in trying to knock down gender walls that she began a Facebook page in support. She called their approach "peaceful radicalism" and told the AP: "Whether these parents intended it as a political move or not, it is precisely what it has become."
Throughout history, Hough said, people have had to go to what was considered "`too far' and radical in order to break down barriers."
Witterick "unschools" all three of her children. It's a fringe style of home schooling based on a no report card, textbook or test philosophy of letting kids explore the world for themselves. She and Stocker, who teaches at a small alternative school, say they have the support of the children's grandparents, though the grandparents were confused at first about the gender-free secret for chubby-cheeked, blond-haired Storm.
Can a child at a very young age navigate a gender choice for him or herself, as these parents hope? Or is it a case of political correctness gone awry?
"When I read the article it kind of angered me, that I would read something like this about parents doing this kind of social experiment on their own kids," said Stephan Tan, 36, a music school owner and father of four young children in Brampton, Ontario.
He put up a Facebook page in opposition to the family's secret and has commenters hurling insults and threatening to report the couple to child abuse investigators.
"What struck me was that the father had made a statement that he found it obnoxious that so many parents make so many choices for their children, but it's plain to see that he himself is making a very extreme choice for his child," Tan said.
Jayme Poisson, the Star staffer who wrote the story, spent a couple of days with the family and told the "Today" show she believes "they care very deeply about their children," regardless of whether you agree with their approach.
The `70s "free to be you and me" strategy to gender neutral child-rearing had mixed results back then, noted Diane Ruble, a New York University researcher of early gender development.
Some girls loved Barbie at all costs, no matter how many toy trucks a parent or child researcher thrust her way.
"There's been a little bit of movement, but not that much," Ruble said. "I don't expect this will have a major negative or powerful influence on Storm. It certainly has influenced the people who are objecting, however."
Storm isn't the first child put in this position by his or her parents. Books have been written on identical family experiments and a Swedish couple tried it in 2009 with the child they called Pop. That couple told the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet at the time the decision stemmed from a feminist philosophy that gender is a social construction.
"We want Pop," the mother said, "to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mold from the outset. It's cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead."
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.