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Bringing Up Baby Without Gender: A Risky Social Experiment?

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STORM GENDER SECRET
AP

Baby Storm is four months old; it lives in Toronto, Canada, and is as cute as can be. Wait -- "it"?

That's right. Storm's parents are keeping the infant's sex a secret from everyone but the immediate family and a handful of confidants in an effort to provide the child freedom to eventually decide on a gender identity, without the influence of societal expectation and narrow, traditional gender roles. Instead of dolls for girls and trucks for boys, Kathy Witterick and David Stocker have decided that "anything goes."

Storm's parents have gotten a fair amount of venomous feedback after a recent Toronto Sun article on their decision by Jayme Poisson went viral, and I have no intention of feeding the fire. It's fairly clear that they are loving parents with admirable intentions -- to see fewer children limited by stereotypes or stigmatized for their differences, whether it's what they want to wear, do or be.

Letting kids express their gender "creatively," as Poisson puts it in her story, is great; it's good parenting to let them sample lots of different kinds of roles. But the fact is that gender differences are not all socially invented, and they're not all chosen -- there are differences in male and female brains that show up rather early in children's development. It's not just a stereotype that girls tend to develop language skills earlier, and find it easier to sit still, while boys tend to be more rambunctious. Some of the typical variation in boys' and girls' play -- the trucks vs. dolls -- is based on those inherent differences between the majority of boys and the majority of girls.

What we want for all children is for them to be comfortable in their own skin, to feel good about their bodies, their gender identities and their sexual preferences -- whatever they may be, and whether or not they're typical. That isn't to say that these are choices, either, though children experiment with clothing and play and personas as they develop knowledge and confidence about who they are.

Raising Kids In A Bubble

Being secretive about a child's gender seems rather antithetical to this necessary process of developing an identity. Witterick and Stocker seem to be raising their three children in a kind of bubble by creating an expectation-free zone, which may be great for experimentation but doesn't help them develop the strength and confidence to be comfortable in the world inhabited by other children and adults.

Indeed, their oldest boy, Jazz, who at 5 is often mistaken for a girl because of his penchant for wearing his hair in braids and sometimes donning a dress, apparently elected not to start school last year, though he is eligible, for fear of being teased. "People -- children and adults -- would immediately react with Jazz over his gender," Witterick tells Poisson. "That's mostly why he doesn't want to go to school."

I can't help thinking of the more sensible approach another mom I know took when her young son asked her, "If I wear this pink thing to school, will people make fun of me?" Her answer: "Yup. I don't know why, but yes." This is the truth. He needed that information to decide what he wanted to do. Learning to get along with other kids is one of the tasks of growing up. Keeping them in the nest indefinitely, with what Witterick and Stocker call their home "unschooling," isn't going to help them learn to connect with other kids and navigate social universes. Teaching them that they are only safe -- understood, accepted -- at home is not a very character-building message.

One wonders whether all this focus on the children deciding for themselves -- not only what to do during the "unschool" day but whether to go to school -- really helps make kids sure of themselves, or is a kind of "unparenting." Research suggests that children do best when parents are comfortable with their own authority, that children appreciate, and benefit from, structured homes in which parents are warm but clearly in charge.

Still, we're not too worried about these children. That fact is that kids are incredibly resilient, and they're also joiners by nature. The pioneering (if not welcome) research of Judith Rich Harris suggests that peers are far more influential in socialization than parents are. What parents can do is guide their children towards peers they think will do a good job helping their kids craft their own identity -- which does not appear to be happening yet in this household. And as many a clever commenter online has pointed out, the inevitable teenage rebellion of these free-spirited youngsters could very well be to simply wear pants and do well on math tests.

Secrecy Is Unhealthy For Children

What is most disturbing is the secrecy -- that Witterick and Stocker have charged their two sons with staying mum about Storm's sex. The boys say it's OK, but that doesn't make it OK. Gender is a part of who we are, even if we hope that it wouldn't matter as much as it often does. Pretending it doesn't exist isn't a good message to send to a child-or an infant. It magnifies, rather than reducing, its importance. And charging young children with keeping family secrets can be seriously unhealthy.

It smacks of a social experiment that may have more risk than benefit for the subject. Research is normally vetted to make sure it is both scientifically sound and ethical -- that potential harm to the subjects participating is minimal. This isn't scientifically sound, and the risk is that Storm is turned into a sideshow -- with everyone the child meets wanting to literally look into those diapers.

The two older children have clearly been enlisted in the family cause. "Let your kid be whoever they are!" reads an exhortation in a booklet by Jazz -- who, incidentally, calls himself the "Gender Explorer." "Help girls do boy things. Help boys do girl things," it also reads. All fine, but what's missing there is the key caveat: "if they want to."

His mother seems even more confused. "Everyone keeps asking us, 'When will this end?'" she tells Poisson. "And we always turn the question back. Yeah, when will this end? When will we live in a world where people can make choices to be whoever they are?" Suggesting that identity is entirely a matter of choice is almost Orwellian and definitely not a message for children. If anyone ever asks you to choose who you are, tell them, "No thanks. I'm free to be me."

For more information on this topic and on the Child Mind Institute, visit www.childmind.org.

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