When meeting people, the first thing we cannot help but do is draw our attention to the individuals’ genders. How people represent their sex usually stands out and tells us a lot about a person. Why do we let individuals’ appearances define them? Society has taught us that the way we wear our hair and how we select clothes define our normalcy. We even let it define us to the extent that it affects our children. Parents automatically assume “boys are played with more roughly than girls” (Golombok & Fivush, 1994, p. 227) and that their “girls will be more vocal and more interested in social interaction than their infant boys” (pp. 22-23). Because of this erratic way of thinking, raising children to be gender neutral would be beneficial to society.
To many, parents raising a child to be gender neutral sounds unfamiliar and even unattainable; however, it has already been done and is occurring in numerous households today. Kathy Witterick and David Stocker in Toronto Canada are one of these examples. On New Year’s Day, 2011, baby Storm was brought into the world and since then, only the child’s two brothers, midwives, and a close family friend know the child’s true sex. When the couple was asked for reasoning behind their secrecy, Witterick and Stocker responded in an e-mail, “We decided not to share Storm’s sex for now, a tribute to freedom and choice in a place of limitation, a standup to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime” (James, 2011, para. 3). The couple will inform Storm of his/her true sex when he/she is old enough, but for now Storm will be raised in a similar way to their two sons Kio and Jazz. Not only are the two boys allowed to wear their hair however they want, but they also decide their clothes and toys according to their preference instead of by their gender-assigned isles in stores (James, 2011).
Rebecca Hagelin (2011), author of 30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family, is critical of Kathy and David’s way of raising their children. Many people agree with Hagelin’s mindset, that “Good parents teach their children to celebrate the identity that comes built in: male or female. Each child’s innate masculinity or femininity is a stable platform that supports rich individuality, distinctive style, and personal talents” (para. 16). Every parent wants his or her children to celebrate their identities; however, there is so much more to identity than whether or not we have breasts or testes. It would be beneficial for Hagelin to have been informed that there are sixty-five thousand children born yearly that are not considered male or female. It would also be nice to know how Hagelin believes good parents should raise children born without a defined sex or “stable platform.”
Hagelin also makes a point that “as parents we must teach our children that their identities are no mystery to God” (para. 20). She then further bewilders her readers by stating a quotation from the Bible: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5), therefore stating that God never new individuals born with chromosomes XXY, XXXY, XXXXY, XXY, XXX, X, XX with male testis, XY with a vagina and so many more. If God was so set on there being only two sexes, why are there numerous others out there? Take for instance female pseudo hermaphrodites; these woman “have a 46, XX karyotype and have ovaries, but their external genitalia include fully or partly formed penises and scrotums. Male pseudo hermaphrodites are 46, XY, but their genitalia is partly or fully female. Male and female pseudo hermaphrodites usually have normal sex chromosomes but carry abnormal genes on other chromosomes” (Callahan, 2009, pp. 87-88).
One in every thousand girls is born with Trisomy X Syndrome. The females have an extra X chromosome in every cell and some physical signs can be tall stature, increased width between their eyes, or proportionally smaller head size (Boyse, 2010). Tuners syndrome is another example of an undefined sex. In about fifty percent of the children affected with Turner’s, they are missing an X chromosome completely. These children grow up as females but still only obtain one X chromosome in every cell. This syndrome is caused when a pair of sex chromosomes fails to separate during the formation of an egg. When this irregular egg unites with a sperm, the embryo may end up missing one of its X chromosomes (“Learn,” 2012). Callahan has a phenomenal way of defining the difference between male and female when he states, “men and women were not two poles of humanity, but one people provided with essential, minor differences that allowed for procreation” (Callahan, 2009, p. 11).
However, some studies done have seen that there are more differences in the two sexes besides genes. Scientists have found that “girls exposed to unusually high levels of androgens (male hormones) prenatally are more likely to display behaviors associated with male stereotypes. Androgen-exposed girls preferred boys as playmates and spent more time than other girls playing with toys associated with the male role, such as cars and trucks” (Feldman, 2012, p. 187). This goes the same for boys exposed prenatally to unregularly high levels of estrogen.
Society has a way of sculpting our adolescents’ minds. From kids’ meals, to movies, to toys, parents have no say in the fact that their sons and daughters are shaped into the people they will become largely from the standards set by their peers. Daughters are taught from the second they turn on Disney movies that beauty and cleanliness are the most important qualities in a woman. Snow White for example is excessively happy for a woman that is always cleaning up messes – she even whistles as she cleans. Due to this, there is now a whistle while you clean play-set sold for the lucky little girls being raised to succumb to a life of work.
The Disney classic Little Mermaid also teaches young girls a great lesson, when she not only gives up her voice for a man she has just met, but also all of her family and the life she knew. The character, Ursula, from Disney’s The Little Mermaid also gets a great point across to young ladies when she states, “You’ll have your looks, you’re pretty face, and don’t underestimate the importance of body language” (Clements & Musker, 1989). In other words why does Ariel need her voice when all men care about is a woman’s body and face? Society is sending the wrong message to children when we say that looks and cleaning are all that makes up a woman. Instead, more young girls should watch Disney’s animated film Mulan, a woman that goes against social norms and makes something of herself; or another exceptional Disney film, Shrek, where Fiona decides to stay in her Ogre state instead of being a princess: after all, Shrek didn’t fall in love with her because of her looks.
Every day, television shows tend to go by the old gender roles known by society. “Females are more likely to appear as victims than males. They are less likely to be presented as productive or as decision-makers, and more likely to be portrayed as characters interested in romance, their homes, and their families” (Feldman, 2012, p. 225). To some theorists, in order to be able to come to a conclusion about who we are as people, we need to establish a gender identity, or being as male or female. The following is a good, but problematic example:
Females begin studying faces as babies, which shows their brain development. Research demonstrates that the skills of baby girls in making eye contact and facial gazing increases over 400% in the first three months of life, while facial gazing skills in boys doesn’t. In one study, [one] year-old girls looked at their mothers faces 10 to 20 times more than boys, checking for signs of approval or disapproval; while the boys, driven by testosterone, moved around the room to investigate their environment and rarely glanced at their mothers. (“Columbia”, 2009, para. 2)
Many argue that individuals’ gender identity comes from biological factors and that our brains and hormones are differently attributed in males and females. “Girls may be genetically ‘programmed’ by evolution to be more expressive and nurturing, while boys are ‘programmed’ to be more competitive and forceful. Abnormal hormone exposure before birth has been linked to both boys and girls behaving in ways typically expected of the other gender” (Feldman, 2011, p. 245). Another way that gender development has been thought to apply to children is through the lens of a psychoanalytic approach, wherein children get their sense of gender development by identifying with the same-sex parents.
Same sex parents with children shed some light on this topic. It has been found that “boys and girls whose parents of the same sex behave in stereotypically masculine or feminine ways are likely to do so, too” (Feldman, 2011, pp. 245). The third approach to gender development is through social learning; a lot like the psychoanalytic approach “children learn gender-related behavior and expectations from their observation of other’s behavior” (pp. 245), only this time it’s from same sex paradigms all around them, not just their parents’. The last gender development approach is the cognitive approach. This is where children develop their own gender schemas through their own lenses of the world: “[B]ecause they have just developed gender schemas that don’t yet permit much variation from stereotypical expectations” (Feldman, R. 2011, p. 245), preschoolers are much more stern when it comes to the right and wrong behavior for their gender. There is no question that all of these approaches suggest the effect of who we become as individuals, however, when it comes to what we see every day and are constantly being told how to live by making social comparisons to others, we are imprinting what we want our children to become instead of letting them show who they really are. When we put a label as to what is socially awkward for girls and boys, we put limits on who they can become and put limits on how they respond and connect with the opposite gender.
Adults engage with children on different levels according to their gender. Girls, for example, are responded to with lots of emotion, eye contact, and patience. Boys are held under a tad bit more criticism and taught to be individualistic and competitive. In academics, one study found that “girls had higher reading scores in every one of 43 countries surveyed” (The Literacy Company, 2012, para. 1). In another study of behavior, it was found that parents pushed their male children harder to complete certain tasks than that of their female children (Block, 1984). Society’s way of responding to gender is affecting the way children learn and who they become. Due to this, we have put a label on who our children become, instead of letting them define themselves. By raising children genderless, we are giving young girls the extra push for competition most never see, young boys the compassion they should be raised with, and so much more that all together leads to a brighter future for everyone.
Being raised gender neutrally can be taken too far, and some are accurate in the fact that parents may be raising the child to prove a point on gender equality rather than to supervise and nurture their growth as youngters. The point of gender-free parenting is not to change the sexes of our children (teaching our boys to wipe after they pee or that women should never cry), and we are not in any way saying that raising a child has everything to do with their environment and nothing to do with their genetics and hormones. We have been taught by numerous occasions that some children are born with the sex that matches perfectly to their desired gender and to play with that proves detrimental in some cases.
David Reimer is one of these examples; born as one of two male twins, David’s life would be forever changed when Doctor’s misconstrued his penis during a circumcision. A malfunction in the doctor’s electro-cautery needle had left David’s penis burnt from the tip to the base. From here on out his mother had been persuaded by Doctor John Money to have her son’s testis removed and to be re-assigned as a female. David’s mother was to never tell David he was born as a male and to raise him as Brenda. David sadly never truly accepted his role as a female. When growing up David was bullied in school being called cave-woman and due to his habit of standing while peeing was even kicked out of the girl’s room by classmates. He eventually dropped out of school, and was told the truth by his parents when he threatened to kill himself if he ever had to see Dr. Money again. After being told about his true sex, David decided to switch back to his original sex at the age of thirteen; this explained to David why he preferred to play Army with his brother, didn’t bother with makeup, and was sexually attracted to girls.
Even though Dr. Money saw this in his yearly visits with the child, he continued telling doctors otherwise and publishing papers that conflicted with the truth behind David’s disposition. Dr. Money became well-known by his experiment and data through David. Along with his falsely acclaimed ego, many infants that were born with indeterminate genitalia after Dr. Money’s studies underwent gender reassignment. When David discovered Dr. Money had been stating that himself being raised as a girl was successful, David was upset and decided to come out about Dr. Money’s inaccuracy to help those that may be caught in the crossfires. After all was said and done, however, in May of 2004, thirty-eight year-old David Reimer took his life (“Dr. Money,” 2011).
This story shows anyone that when it comes to raising a child by the wrong gender and raising a child gender neutral are two very different, very paramount things. When it comes to raising a child gender neutral it is to better confirm who they are instead of letting society provide their label. Simply letting a child decide what they would like to wear to school or what toys they would like to play with is not going to lead them down a depressed path ultimately leading to their suicide; parents that let their kids decide for themselves while keeping no secrets as to what sex the child is are simply looking out for their child and teaching them that they are so much more than just their little boy or girl.
So, is raising a child genderless a gift of freedom in a world of the single-minded, or an unfortunate psychological experiment that could end up hurting a child? As a society we need to stop thinking of gender as a binary. Gender is not the anatomy of humans but rather the character, and character never comes in only two approaches. Girls are taught as they grow up to be emotional, beautiful, clean, and submissive. We are raising our daughters to be princesses, which is a careless way to raise a child seeing that princesses are not a part of today’s story. We raise our sons to be tenacious and commanding, which is a good quality; however, they also should be taught more social skills and that there is much more to being a man than just moving his way to the top by forgetting to have compassion for others. It is erroneous to think that women are less than men; to think that they are put on this earth to clean and conceive babies. It is also foolish to think that men have no feelings, and by doing this we are simply teaching men to bottle up every emotion, which is absolutely unhealthy. In a future that puts fewer restraints on what we choose to let our children see as gender, ultimately this will lead to a more diverse culture with much more to our sons and daughters than we ever saw them to aspire as.
Block, J.H. (1984). Sex Role Identity and Ego Development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Boyse, K. (2010). XXX Syndrome (Trisomy X). Retrieved from http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/xxxsyn.htm
Callahan, G. (2009). Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the myth of the two sexes. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
Clements & Musker (Directors). (1989). The Little Mermaid [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney.
The Columbia Consultancy. (2007). Understanding Ourselves Differences in the Brain. Retrieved from http://www.columbiaconsult.com/pubs/v52_fall07.html
Dr. Money and the Boy With No Penis. (2011, April 7). YouTube. Retreived from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUTcwqR4Q4Y
Feldman, R. S. (2011). Development Across the Life Span. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Feldman, R. S. (2012). Child Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Golombok, S. & Fivush, R. (1994). Gender Development. Cambridge, New England: Cambridge University Press.
Hagelin, R. (2011). FIRST – PERSON: Genderless Children and the Real Culture War. Retrieved from http://www.bpnews.net/BPFirstPerson.asp?ID=35741
James, S. (2011). Baby Storm Raised Genderless Is Bad Experiment, Says Experts. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/baby-storm-raised-genderless-gender-dangerous-experiment-child/story?id=13693760
Learn Genetics Genetic Science Learning Center. (2012). Turner Syndrom. Retrieved from http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/disorders/whataregd/turner/
The Literacy Company. (2012). Girls and Boys – The Gender Reading gap. October 24, 2012 Retrieved from http://www.readfaster.com/articles/the-gender-reading-gap.asp
Kirsten Pelkey wrote this essay for Palabras's official Website back in April 2013.