I am sure that you have heard about the Toronto family that is keeping the sex of their 4-month baby a secret. It seems that the story is popping up everywhere. And people are taking sides. Some are condemning Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, baby Storm’s parents, as utterly flaky, sentencing their child to an outsider’s life. Some herald them as heroes battling oppressive convention and inspiring a more liberate approach to raising kids. It really is a story that divides people.
I think that Storm’s parents are being extreme, but I can see where they are coming from. There is so much emphasis on ideas of gender in the very young. You can see it when a friend holds a newborn – girls are more fragile somehow, boys more ready for rougher noises. Or so it must be because that’s how we often treat them. And, as the babies grow, this division seems to grow as well.
I remember being at drop-in mornings when each of my children were tiny and listening to parents explain their children’s behaviour in terms of sex. If he is running around screaming, it’s his boyish energy. If she is whiney and clinging, she is being dainty and sensitive. What about seeing the needs that the kids are exhibiting and responding to that? Maybe he’s trying to get your attention and maybe she’s overwhelmed and needs your encouragement. It drove me mad that parents would describe reasons to their peers rather than actually be present with their children. I wanted to run around screaming. Or maybe get all whiney. Instead, I just remembered my mother’s advice not to discuss my children in front of my children. (Would that we could always keep our mother’s advice.) I still wonder what effect it had on the wild little boy to hear his rambunctious behaviour described as “boyish.”
But, of course, all this involves more than just parents and parenting. Anyone who has been shopping for little ones recently will know what I mean. All those adorably and dreadfully gendered clothes. Blue and rugged. Pink and precious. It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to find decent play clothes for girls. Can a six year-old really climb a tree in a miniskirt?
And toys, too. I was watching Beangirl at school the other day. It was before the bell rang, and several of the children were gathered in the outdoor play area. It’s roofed, but with open sides, and everyday there are different toys and books arranged on tables. On this day, there was a collection of magazines and catalogues. The children have been learning about money, so I guess they were meant to be educational. But, as I watched Beangirl flipping through the pages of the catalogue and heard her talking with one of the boys, I was really taken aback. They were talking about girl toys and boy toys, and were drawing firm lines between the two. This, my child, raised with wooden trains and blocks and books and soft animals and zoo stories. But also this, my child, who really loves flower fairies and princess dresses and likes to carry a purse when we go to the grocery store.
So, I get what Storm’s parents are trying to do. Trying to dodge this gender muddle makes sense. And I think it’s great to make the space for all the ways in which children experiment with different ways of being. (Beangirl and Blue both like to wear eyeliner whiskers on their cheeks and to venture out into the world as cats.)
But I have some concerns, too. I fear that this social experiment will divide their children from the rest of the world. I fear that their kids will inevitably judge the kids who are most comfortable in the most conventional gender roles. Because, just as it should be fine for a boy to wear his hair long and play with dolls, so it should be fine for him to wear his hair short and play with trucks. I hope that Kathy and David talk about that with their kids, too.
Next week, I’ll be posting a review of Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender: The Real Science behind Sex Differences. You can tell from her title that Fine wants to debunk gender assumptions, and in doing so, she speaks to this current discussion in challenging and fascinating ways. And don’t worry – it’s a funny read, too.