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Raising a Genderless Child: Possible?

With the decision not to tell people the gender of their 5-month old baby, a family in Toronto has evoked everything from passionate support to hostile criticism.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

With the decision not to tell people the gender of their 5-month old baby, a family in Toronto has evoked everything from passionate support to hostile criticism.

The parents, who named the baby Storm, say their goal is to promote freedom, choice and a more progressive future, according to news reports. And while some experts support the idea of offering children an opportunity to grow up free of gendered expectations, others challenge the notion that such a thing is even possible.

After all, each generation of parents develops a new set of rules and styles and ways of talking about gender and everything else. Yet, each new crop of kids manages to grow up, form identities, get jobs, marry and procreate.

So, Storm's parents are sure to make a statement. But it is far less clear what the effects on the baby's life will be, or even if the experience will affect him or her much at all.

"My guess is that Storm is going to figure out who she or he is pretty much on schedule," said Jo Paoletti, a University of Maryland fashion historian who explores the relationship between children's clothing and gender in her upcoming book "Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America" and on her blog.


"No matter what parents try to do," she said, "children learn what is between their legs and what it's called and the results of that by age two or three."

The public's reactions about Storm parallel the response to a recent J. Crew ad, Paoletti added, which showed a boy getting his toenails painted pink.

"Both people who thought it was terrible and people who were supportive saw the parents as being these really powerful decision-makers who were going to shape their children's lives," she said. "I thought, 'You know, you can shape some of it, but I think we tend to overestimate the range of things we can do.'"

Storm's parents, Kathy Witteric and David Stoker, are not the first people to try to raise a child free of gender stereotypes. A family in Sweden earned its share of media attention in 2009 when news came out that they were doing the same thing with their two-and-a-half year old child, named Pop.

Both cases illustrate how deeply gender is woven into everything we do, said Naomi Scheman, a professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in the departments of philosophy and Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies. Gender affects the pronouns we use, the bathrooms we choose and the expectations we put on children to be either sweet or tough.

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In an ideal world, she said, everyone would be more open to accepting a range of people outside of two distinct gender categories. In the real world, no one can say what the long-term consequences will be for kids like Storm and Pop or if bullying will be a problem for them as they grow up.

"I feel completely positive about everyone making the choices these parents have made," Scheman said. "I think they are brave, and it would be wonderful if everyone did it. The only question is what it means that they are the only ones doing it in a world where it's not a normal thing to do."

Giving all kids a chance to figure out what gender means might be better than offering them a set of expectations to conform to, added Juana María Rodríguez, a professor in the Gender and Women's Studies department at the University of California, Berkeley. That would give them a chance to explore a wider range of options for both themselves and others.

Still, Rodríguez said, refusing to reveal a child's gender is like trying to erase the influence of culture on gender, even though the two are inextricably linked. A better strategy in her mind is for parents to initiate conversations about gender and to expose their children to a wide variety of stories, people, toys and other influences.

"There's no escape from culture," Rodríguez said. "What is associated with masculine and feminine is always attached to cultural meaning. But there are ways to escape or try to act outside the gender binary created in this culture where boys are associated with certain colors, styles, practices and behaviors and girls are associated with others."

In fact, our culture's approach toward teaching children about gender has changed dramatically over the last century, Paoletti said. In the late 19th century, all babies wore white dresses, regardless of sex, and that practice lasted until the late 1950s in some places.

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By the first decade of the 20th century, little boys were wearing pants, but not until they were three or four years old. That development marked a cultural shift from an aversion toward sexualizing young children at all toward a belief that nurture was what mattered most, and that parents were responsible for teaching children everything they needed to know.

In the 1970s, after people who had struggled in the women's rights movement started having kids, unisex styles came into vogue for children's-wear, alongside strong beliefs that boys should have dolls and girls should wear shorts. But a total reversal followed in the mid-80s, when suddenly most clothes became geared toward either boys or girls. Pink headbands for baby girls appeared around the same time, ultimately leading to all-pink princess sections for girls and sports-themed overalls for boys.

Despite all the flux in fashion, however, kids tend to follow a predictable progression of curiosity and identity when it comes to gender, Paoletti said. The prevalence of homosexuality has also remained steady for as long as researchers have been measuring.

"People are concerned that if you put a boy in a dress, it's going to make him gay," Paoletti said. "That's not going to happen."

"Maybe we're making way too much fuss over something that means much more to adults than it does to children," she said.