Gender-Free Kids

There was an article in The Star on Saturday about a Toronto couple who is keeping the gender of their new baby a secret because they don’t want the child growing up with any gender-imposed limitations or expectations. Only the parents, siblings and midwives who delivered little Storm know the child’s gender. They want the child to decide for his/herself when or if to reveal his/her gender.

Storm also has 2 older brothers (Jazz and Kio), who everyone has always known were boys, but who have always been allowed to choose for themselves what they want to do with that information.

The boys get to decide how they want their hair – Five-year-old Jazz likes to wear his long in 3 braids. Two-year-old Kio likes his curly hair about chin-length.

They choose their own clothes and their own toys. Jazz likes pink, loves to paint his nails and wear sparkly jewelry. Kio likes purple. Both boys are usually mistaken for girls. This apparently upsets Jazz because he wants people to know he’s a boy.

I have no problem with letting kids make choices. I’m a big fan of child-led parenting, but that doesn’t mean the kids are in charge of everything. I think you still need to parent. You need to establish some sort of schedule – mealtimes, play times, quiet times, bath times, bed times. You need to make healthy food choices for your kids. You need to establish boundaries for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

And, to some extent you need to give some sort of guidance on how the kids present themselves in public. Firstly, because you want to make sure the dress for the weather. Secondly, because part of parenting is guiding your kids so they will establish a healthy relationship with the culture in which they are living.

That doesn’t mean your kids have to be little clones of all the other kids. That doesn’t mean they can’t push some boundaries, be individuals and express their personalities. For instance, if 5-year-old Jazz likes to wear pink dresses, that’s great. But if he’s also upset about getting mistaken for a girl and about other kids not wanting to play with him, maybe Jazz’s parents could explain to him why this is happening and suggest that if he wants to fit in more there are ways of achieving that.

It’s all very well for parents to have a non-conformist philosophy and rebel against cultural norms, but, while they think they’re letting their kids choose everything for themselves, they are also imposing their own philosophies and choices on their kids.

Is Jazz really choosing pink for himself or are his parents, ever-so-subtly, perhaps even unconsciously guiding him in that direction to prove to the world how nonconformist they are?

Storm’s parents are forcing Storm’s brothers to keep their sibling’s gender a secret. They’re not allowed to refer to Storm as he or she – they have to say “Z” instead. When changing the baby’s diaper in public, they hide in closets so no one will accidentally see.

What sort of impact will all this have on Storm in the long run? And on the two brothers?

In my experience, gender identity is not something you can impose on a child or free a child from. Nor can you protect your child from cultural gender expectations and biases. I get that these and many other parents want their children’s identities to based on who they are, not what gender they are.

But pretending gender doesn’t exist? That can’t be healthy either, can it?