Saturday, May 21, 2011

No Sex Please, We're Parenting

It all started when Cory Doctorow posted this bit on BoingBoing.

It's a story from a Canadian parenting site about a family with three kids, ages 5, 2 and 4 months. The parents are clearly countercultural, and their older kids, both boys, have managed to develop a love for pink, purple and things that sparkle; they've also kept their hair long and styled in ways unusual for their sex these days. As you might expect, they are frequently assumed to be girls.

So when the third child, Storm, was born, the parents decided to not tell anyone outside the immediate family the child's sex. And it sounds like this has confounded most people they come in contact with, including the commenters on the original post, and to some extent, the BoingBoing commenters as well. Many folks seem to think the two older boys have been forced to have long hair and wear some pink clothes, when the story makes it clear that it has been their choice. Others pontificate that the kids will all end up in therapy. A few advocate that the children be taken away from their parents and placed in the hand so the state.

The strong reactions reveal the throbbing unease about gender that lies just below the skin of social conventions.

When I was in graduate school, I was acquainted with a woman, an undergraduate anthropology major, who was doing something similar in raising her child, then about 18 months old. I didn't know her well, and never met the child. As I recall, she and her (male) partner also didn't refer to other children as boys or girls -- they called them all just "kids" when talking with their child.

That child is about 25 years old now, and I have occasionally wondered how things turned out. My suspicion is that s/he (I use that pronoun because I never was told sex the child was) affirmed a gender by around the age of 5, but that s/he continued to be more open-minded about gender identity than the average person. Who knows, though; maybe it turned into an Alex Keaton/Family Ties situation, and instead s/he became a Stepford Wife or a hyper-masculine linebacker.

I've been persuaded by the likes of Steven Pinker that there is more to gender and sex roles than just socialization, but I continue to hold that it's not a binary as much as it is a continuum: that there is a noticeable area of overlap, with only some people at the extremes whose behaviors and self-presentations could most appropriately be described as binary oppositions.

And I also believe that the forms gendering takes are largely social. The famous examples are that pink was considered a masculine color up until World War II, or that all American babies wore long white lace dresses and had long hair up through the end of the 19th century.

This doesn't mean I think the many people with young daughters/granddaughters who will only wear pink or dresses are deluded. But the way those girls came to insist on pink or dresses is a social construction, not a biological one. The fact that they chose a color or clothing style that "fits" their sex is probably based in biology, but there are also girls who don't like pink or dresses and boys who do like them, and that doesn't make those kids any less a girl or a boy.

When Daughter Number Three-Point-One was born, I impressed on my friends (and family as much as possible) that we wanted to raise her in as gender-neutral a way as possible. My mother-in-law was chagrined when I asked her not to make little smocked dresses, but she cooperatively made other clothes in colorful prints. There were a few dresses along the way, but DN3.1 mostly wasn't interested in them, or in clothes generally, until she was almost a teenager.

We consciously refrained from referring to all the unspecified animal characters that crowd childhood popular culture as "he." We even had our own version of the "Where is thumbkin?" song that left out the "sir" bit. (What an odd idea for a girl to think that her thumbs are male.)

She liked Legos (her father's influence) and never cared for baby dolls, but she was obsessed with organizing sets of animals, blocks, and other miscellaneous toys into groups and making up stories about them. She liked trains and cars, but was never carried away by them.

Was this all just her genetics playing out, as the biological child of relatively androgynous parents? There's no way to tell. But any people who insist that she'll need therapy or that we were unfit parents because of the choices we made should check the walls on their glass house.

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