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?

25 responses to “Gender-Free Kids

  1. I agree with you. Completely. I also think it’s arrogant of the parents to assume that they themselves are entirely free of gender bias, and that Storm will grow up free of all gender bias if nobody outside their family knows his or her sex.

    Also, I think that by going so far out of their way to try to minimize the impact of gender, they’re having the opposite effect – gender has become THE single most defining feature of that household.

  2. They are likely setting their kids up for derision by other kids when they get older.

    If there were a gender identity issue, I can understand the parents being supportive in dealing with it. However, they may risk inducing a gender issue where one otherwise wouldn’t exist.

  3. More bullshit from a generation of parents who seem to still be focused on themselves and how they are perceived and NOTHING else.

  4. Thanks, XUP, for drawing our attention to this article, even if it gave me a headache reading it. I also agree with your comments. They are, as always, sound I will now address the rest of my remarks to the alleged parents of this poor kid.

    “If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs,” says Stocker.

    Ummm… actually, if you REALLY want to get to know someone, you kinda do. One of the things about getting to know someone is starting off with who and what they are. Getting vague non-answers on this basic subject sends up red flags with people. Maybe keeping gender a side-issue is a good idea. But that’s not the way it is. Asking/knowing a person’s gender is the way it is.

    It’s all very cute for the parents to play this little game but how long, seriously, do they think it’s going to last? Do they think the child is going to be in on their scripted responses to those outside the family? Is it fair for the parents to impose this experiment on their child once it is old enough to speak for itself? Right now, the parents communicate with the world on its behalf but soon.. and before they know it… the child will have its own very vocal opinions. Are they going to go so far as to keep the child’s gender a secret from the child itself?

    “What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It’s obnoxious,” says Stocker.

    No. It’s called being a responsible parent. Check it out sometime.

  5. Zoom – You agree with me completely? Wow – that has to be a first, no? Ha ha. And you have an excellent point about gender now being the most defining aspect of the entire family.

    Mike – You’re right. I’ve been wondering the same thing.

    Aliastaken – Succinctly put, as usual.

    Daniel – Sorry about the headache. Parents influence their kids in so many ways –ways they don’t even realize. If I take my 5-year old son shopping for a new outfit and I casually point out the jeans and t-shirt option and then enthusiastically point out the pink dress option, the child will want to please the parent and choose the outfit they think the parent wants them to choose. Kids desperately need and look for cues from their parents. The world is a big, confusing, often scary place and the only way kids have to cope with it is to take guidance from parents and other big people – whether or not the big people are willing to give it directly. Think of how difficult it is for us, as adults, to make decisions without input of any kind. We rely on family, friends, research, Oprah and other gurus to help us choose. And we have years of experience to fall back on.

  6. Kids (and adults, for that matter) have enough trouble figuring themselves out. At least defining their sex/gender gives them something to act as either a model to follow or counterpoint to rebel against.

    – RG>

  7. Perhaps Storm should also not be told that “Z” is human, then perhaps without species bias, “Z” could grow up to be the squirrel “Z” was always fated to be.

  8. I’m with Zoom, too. Also, as Cesar Millan says, you have to give your followers rules, boundaries and limitations, otherwise they start making decisions for themselves that they are not qualified to make.

  9. I agree with you all. I too was thinking that the parents are probably subconsciously pushing the pink and purple and long hair. I think these parents are going to give their kids complexes by trying not to make them have any complexes. So twisted.

  10. Grouchy – It certainly is a strange thing to choose to experiment on your children with.

    Jazz – The 5-year-old has a pretty cool name though, eh?

    LGS – YES! There is a lot of species discrimination in the world We shouldn’t be defined by our species, but by what we are inside.

    Julia – He’s talking about dogs though, right? But I think the sentiment is good for kids, too. There are a lot of decisions kids aren’t qualified to make, nor do they want to have the responsiblity of making them, I think. Nor should they. It has to be incredibly overwhelming for a child to have no guidance; no boundaries.

    Finola – The experiment isn’t even for the kids’ sakes, it for the general public and extended family really. To see their reactions, gauge their responses to non-gender specific children. Poor kids.

  11. i have so missed your blog. i don’t get any of this sort of discussion on the others i follow.

    it would seem that these parents are putting their kid up for a very interesting sociological experiment. which i think is very irresponsible. i agree that even though they are towing the line that they want their kid to make it’s own choices, they are really forcing their own ideologies on them. and what sort of pressure are they putting on their other two children. imagine how terrible the kid would feel if they accidentally let is slip. it’s all around a bad idea, in my humble opinion.

  12. I personally know a few “non cconformist” parents who’ve chosen to forego all traditional parenting methods.

    They let the free-ramge kids decide if (or when) they cut their hair (which is never). If or when they decide to potty train. If or when they have to wear shoes. Or wear clothes (even when company is over).

    No boundaries. No rules. It’s all up to the kids.

    And guess how THAT’s been working out?

    All I can say is…I can’t wait to see their teen-age years.

  13. With luck, the friends and more distant family members of those kids are building a fund to pay for the therapy that will be necessary by the time they are teens/young adults.

    Teens can be merciless, and I really fear for them when they get to high school. I see depression and potential suicide in their future.

  14. Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, all of our opposition/disgust at this idea is based on the assumption that it will lead to the kids being totally messed up. Is there any empirical evidence to suggest that this would be the result? If not, then perhaps this genuinely is an experiment that may yield unexpected (to us) results.

    For an analogous example, consider how many people have a knee-jerk reaction to legalization/decriminalization of various drugs. (There are many other examples in this vein) Although for legalization/harm reduction we already have plenty of evidence that it would be a good policy decision.

    – RG>

  15. Do the parents not think it will have some effect on this kid that it is suddenly set apart from his entire family by being the only one without a stated gender? And that they go to such great lengths to hide it from society? No only, as zoom said, has gender now become the biggest defining factor for this family, their entire existence – and more so this kid’s existence – has become a spectacle. So while maybe it was important not to assign gender roles to their child, they’ve created a possibly more damaging monster by making such a big deal of it that it’s now an international headline.

    Also, XUP, I like your new design. 🙂

  16. Smothermother – Thanks Smo! There was quite an angry backlash over that article the last couple of days apparently. The couple said they hadn’t taken the decision lightly and that they would be giving no more media interviews. I don’t know what they expected. People don’t like it when parents use their kids as objects in an experiment.

    Friar – How DID it turn out? I’m guessing the kids aren’t lot of fun to be around. On the other hand, we’ve come a long way from kids being seen but not heard and it took some brave souls to try crazy experiments like letting kids speak sometimes. Then again there are far too many homes where the kids rule the roost…probably the parents let them do what they want and give in to their tantrums and whims because they feel guilty for never spending time with them or something.

    Squid – If they go to high school. They are being “unschooled” at the moment. And they might be perfectly fine. Who knows?

    Grouchy – I wouldn’t call it disgust, just sadness. Evidence is clear that young children are not capable of making wise decisions, that they need the adults in their lives to guide them and make decisions for them. As for Storm…well gender identification is a pretty big deal for any kid growing up. I think there is plenty of evidence to back that up. Not allowing a child to identify themselves as male or female is a little disturbing.

  17. Linsey – Thanks, I like to shake things up every 8 months or so. I wonder how far they can take this. Do they hide all images of genitalia from Storm so he/she won’t know that not everybody looks like he/she? And like someone else said, how crazy is it for the other 2 kids not to be able to address their sibling as sister or brother? I certainly appreciate that they don’t want their children defined primarily by their gender, but I don’t even think that’s a big problem these days is it? No one bats an eye if a girl wears jeans all the time and likes to play with trucks or if a boy has long hair and likes to play with dolls.

  18. Linsey – I don’t think it’s fair to blame the parents for the media exposure. I suspect the media’s tendency to put ‘different’ people on parade is a larger contributor.

    XUP – Sorry, “disgust” was just a placeholder word (I guess for “reaction”). Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the point was to let the kids find their own ways of expressing their gender by suppressing outside influences thereof. Not to prevent the kids from identifying themselves. (As for the kids revealing each other’s gender, I’ll point out that the both of us are using pseudonyms and I don’t think it’s been an issue…)

  19. Yes, Cesar talks about dogs. But dogs are followers who need guidance, just like kids are. His show is full of examples of what happens when dogs have to make decisions that they are not qualified to make. It’s a rare dog who is a true pack leader who can make certain leadership decisions, and even then, they aren’t qualified to make the human decisions!

  20. well for starters they have girls not boys. Normal parents encourage boys being boys and girls being girls. Kids can be very mean and those kids will be the grunt of it, who would let a boy wear a dress to begin with much less paint their nails…..good luck with therapy later on in life for them girls they will need it……

  21. I’m conflicted about this because gender identity is important to us on the family level too. I’m not assuming the worst of this family. I’m assuming Storm sees his family nude and knows (or will when aware of differences which happens between 3 and 5 naturally) and will know which parent to identify with. I expect, given that the others know their gender and are referred to as suck that Storm will recognize the similarities and identify gender via the standard sexual genitalia that shares with members of the family. ut until that point this child will be unfettered by sports merchandizing on their clothing or pink Disney princess advertisig , in gifts etc from others.

    I think our society is very sick and that corporations market directly to children and they, not children, not families, not the community are dictating gender roles more and more. I hate it. I can see wanting to avoid that until a child has the most basic sense of self.

    At the same time this seems mighty contrived.

    I dunno I raised my kids free range, let my oldest wear whatever he wanted – including a pink sparkly tube top that ALL my boys have LOVED (its dragon scale armour!) and my daughter never cared for. Gender was always a nonissue in our home, long hair short hair play with guns play with dolls. It was all good. I focussed on avoiding advertising and consumer culture rather than shielding my kids from gender norms though.

    I’m queer, the entire 1 in 10 thing was always something we were aware of and it’s certainly played out as I’ve gotten in touch with childhood friends via Facebook. What’s surprising me (but not bothering me) is that of my friends who were strong enough and self aware enough to be out in high school, about 10% of them are now coming out as trans.

    We are at a point in contemporary history when gender confusion is a recognized fact. My son and his girlfriend attend a summer camp for teens who identify as queer. This summer the Youth Services ureau is offering two camps – an inclusive queer camp for GLBTQ teens, and a second one specifically for Trans and Gender Questioning teens.

    I let my kids decide on hair length (but not whether or not it gets combed), when they were ready to potty train (but didn’t allow fecal play of any kind), and if or when they’ll wear shoes or clothes most of the time (no vapes while climbing trees, and please wear shoes when you collect eggs from the coop). They’re nice kids, all of them. I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

    Why parent this way? Well because it allowed my already quirky kids (the eldest is on the autism spectrum) to develop a strong sense of self when that is really hard to do in this society. It helped my oldest feel better in his skin. It helped my daughter avoid gender biased traps – I have a very social preteen daughter who is modest in dress – and usually in costume!,who still plays happily with dolls, loves science, and chooses her friends based on their kindness, not social status. I have a 6 yr old who hasn’t had his belief in magic battered out of him, and a 3 year old who is as happy shovelling manure as he is listening in rapt amazement at a classical music event.

    All my boys have painted their nails, their sister does it for them…my rule is they need to clean under them if they want a manicure.

  22. And….it occurs to me that gender confusion, gender discomfort may well be because the corporation wants us in such narrow definitions of male and female. I think we wouldn’t find femininity or masculinity so stiff and unbending a concept if we laid off the hyper extremes that are pushed to us. arbie didn’t always look like a drag queen. GIJoe didn’t always look like a massive steroid filled body builder. There were wooden toy kitchens, not pink ones for girls and blue ones for boys. You could find unisex clothes for kids.

    we talk about what Abercrombie and Fitch is telling little girls when they market push up padded bathing suit tops to 7 year olds, but we talk about it in terms of sending them hyper sexualized messages. What if those just fly over their heads, what if they make them question their femininity? “I’m not THAT so what am I?”

  23. Real Grouchy – I was just thinking of the fact that the siblings can’t say “my sister” or “my brother”

    Julia – Sometimes I don’t think I’m qualified to make human decisions.

    Paula – It’s not so much that he’s wearing a dress, it’s that he’s upset that people mistake him for a girl.

    Mudmama – I was wondering if I’d hear from you. I agree with most of what you said – especially about the sexualization of kids and the merchandising to kids. And yes, I like the child-led parenting paradigm, too. But I think I balanced that more with wanting my child to “fit in” as well. That seemed to be very important to her, too – especially as she got older.