Simonson Says: Raising children without gender identity sends wrong message

Apparently, one of the latest perks of being a parent is using your children as lab rats for your social experiments in hopes of bringing about your warped idea of Utopia.

UK parents Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper have revealed their child to be a boy. And he’s not awaiting birth; he’s five years old. If the child, Sasha, hadn’t had to start school, where knowing each student’s gender is somewhat important if only to know which restroom they should be using, his parents would have continued to simply refer to him as “the infant” to avoid ever having to use a pronoun for him — unless, of course, they would prefer the pronoun “it” for their son?

This is the second report of its kind within a year. Kathy Witterick and David Stocker of Toronto have made a big deal out of concealing the gender of their baby Storm (they still haven’t gone public with it, but pictures of the baby make it fairly obvious, so nice try). Their two other sons, Jazz and Kio, are encouraged to dress however they want to, and, according to the parents, they freely choose to wear pink dresses and have long, braided hair — though it should be noted that 5-year-old Jazz eventually had to ask his mother to tell his teacher that he wasn’t a girl.

Similarly, Laxton and Cooper let Sasha dress “however he wants,” which includes sparkly pink swimsuits and, for his school uniform, a blouse and skirt — but nothing traditionally associated with little boys, like skull T-shirts. So he can dress however he wants, unless he wants to dress like a boy. Over-the-top feminine outfits are healthy, but “masculine” clothes enforce harmful gender stereotypes?

Both sets of parents have emphasized that the purpose of all this is to let their children be themselves, unencumbered by gender roles. Gender, apparently, is nothing more than a pesky biological state that we would all be better off without. Of course children should know that stereotyping is wrong and they can be who they want to be, but surely there are better ways to show them this than pretending their sex doesn’t exist or even that their biological gender is something to be ashamed of? We’ve accepted for a long time that it’s all right for boys to cry and for girls to be smart and ambitious; young children, in fact, probably deal with the least gender bias of anyone alive. It seems like the only ones making a big deal out of children’s genders are the very people who claim it doesn’t matter.

Plenty of child psychologists have weighed in on these child-rearing tactics. While some have said the lack of gender identity will be harmful to the children’s development and set them up for horrific bullying, others have said there’s nothing wrong with it and cited the case of Baby X as a precedent who showed no formative problems as a result of not knowing his/her own gender. I personally think the parents’ hearts are in the right place, but, in my humble, currently childless opinion, I think they’re going about it the wrong way.

I might not have children of my own yet, so obviously I don’t claim to know the secrets of parenting better than actual parents. However, I have been a child, and I remember gender being a point of pride for me and all the other children I knew. Of course, from the way these parents like their sons to dress, I have to question if they have a problem with children being proud of their natural gender, or just with little boys. But then, if they have little girls, I imagine it will be just fine for them to wear traditional boys’ clothes. Judging by the clothes and hairstyles their little boys wear, these parents don’t have a problem with gender stereotypes; they have a problem with adopting the gender stereotypes of one’s natural gender. As long as their children embrace the gender stereotypes of the opposite sex of themselves, that’s progress. Um, all righty, then.

Now, to be clear, in no way am I saying that we must rigidly adhere to gender stereotypes, which in themselves are dangerous when taken to extremes. But neither should we pretend that there are no differences between the sexes or that gender doesn’t exist. Gender is not some antiquated conservative invention designed to keep women in the kitchen or a dirty biological necessity to be ashamed of or conceal. It gives children an identity foundation to build off of at a time when they don’t have much else they know about themselves. Whether they want to embrace the conventions of their gender, the opposite gender or no particular gender at all is a choice they will later have the knowledge of themselves and their society to make on their own, just as children raised in their parents’ religion are free to choose a different religion or none when they are mature enough to know what they believe.

But pretending that they don’t have a gender or that they should automatically try to avoid showing off that gender sends the opposite message of what these parents say they are trying to achieve.