Thursday, June 25, 2009

Parenting and the Construction of Gender

Rebecca wrote about this story yesterday, and I must say I'm loving it, although it makes me sad that I don't have this degree of control over the gender influences in my own kids' lives. According to the article:

A couple of Swedish parents have stirred up debate in the country by refusing to reveal whether their two-and-a-half-year-old child is a boy or a girl.

Pop’s parents, both 24, made a decision when their baby was born to keep Pop’s sex a secret. Aside from a select few – those who have changed the child’s diaper – nobody knows Pop’s gender; if anyone enquires, Pop’s parents simply say they don’t disclose this information.

In an interview with newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in March, the parents were quoted saying their decision was rooted in the feminist philosophy that gender is a social construction.

“We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother said. “It's cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”

The child's parents said so long as they keep Pop’s gender a secret, he or she will be able to avoid preconceived notions of how people should be treated if male or female.

Pop's wardrobe includes everything from dresses to trousers and Pop's hairstyle changes on a regular basis. And Pop usually decides how Pop is going to dress on a given morning.

Although Pop knows that there are physical differences between a boy and a girl, Pop's parents never use personal pronouns when referring to the child – they just say Pop.

"I believe that the self-confidence and personality that Pop has shaped will remain for a lifetime," said Pop's mother.

Of course, this kind of openness about gender just can't go on without invoking much hand-wringing and pearl-clutching.

“Ignoring children's natures simply doesn’t work,” says Susan Pinker, a psychologist and newspaper columnist from Toronto, Canada, who wrote the book The Sexual Paradox, which focuses on sex differences in the workplace.

“Child-rearing should not be about providing an opportunity to prove an ideological point, but about responding to each child’s needs as an individual,” Pinker tells The Local.

“It’s unlikely that they’ll be able to keep this a secret for long. Children are curious about their own identity, and are likely to gravitate towards others of the same sex during free play time in early childhood.”

Pinker says there are many ways that males and females differ from birth; even if gender is kept ‘secret,’ prenatal hormones developed in the second trimester of pregnancy already alter the way the child behaves and feels.

She says once children can speak, males tell aggressive stories 87 per cent of the time, while females only 17 per cent. In a study, children aged two to four were given a task to work together for a reward, and boys used physical tactics 50 times more than girls, she says.

There are so many issues here it's difficult to decide which one to respond to first. So here goes.
  1. From the description in the article, it sounds like Pop's parents are doing the opposite of "ignoring Pop's nature." Allowing Pop to explore the world in Pop's own way and discover what Pop likes, what tendencies Pop has, etc. is simply allowing Pop's nature to flourish. In other words, they're responding to Pop's needs "as an individual," rather than as a gendered child. On the other hand, forcing a child into one box or the other does count as ignoring their nature. Telling a child that some behaviors are appropriate for them based on their genitalia, while other behaviors are off limits is ignoring their nature. And shaming them for having any characteristics or propensities or preferences that don't fit into the little box to which they've been assigned is "ignoring their nature." Got it lady? Moving on...
  2. As anyone who's read any Lacan or Irigaray or other reasonable thinkers in the psychoanalytic tradition knows, culture is acquired with language. And with culture comes gender. Yes, one acquires their niche in the patriarchy as they acquire language. By the time a child can speak well enough to tell aggressive or non-aggressive stories, they've been socialized into our compulsory system of binary gender. So that means they know good and well which kind of behavior (aggressive or passive) they're supposed to engage in and how competitive or empathetic they're supposed to be. It's already been communicated to them in a million little ways.
  3. By the time a kid is socially sophisticated enough to work with others for an award, they're profoundly socialized. So it's hard to make any sense of this whole "from birth" shtick. None of the gendered behaviors that the ironically named Ms. Pinker cites as evidence of our different natures "from birth" would actually qualify as evidence of difference in any study which controlled for things like, oh, say, socialization.
  4. Ms Pinker's expertise doesn't really seem relevant to very small children, as she writes on gendered workplace dynamics, and presumably anyone who's old enough to enter the workplace has been thoroughly socialized and gendered by their culture.

Beyond the annoying Ms. Pinkers of the world, I would suspect that the parents of Pop will continue to encounter confusion, disapproval, and hostility by the people they interact with every day. I've been asked before whether I'm afraid my daughter will grow up to be a lesbian because I often dress her in "boy" (i.e. not pink or ruffly) clothes and don't insist that she play with girl toys and act girly. My response is "why would not being forced to be girly make her a lesbian, and why would I be upset if she was a lesbian?" This just always serves as a conversation-stopper, since the other person is never willing to explicitly state the things they've just implied.

And this is all very ironic, because all of the gay and trans people I know were raised in a conventional way. My cousin and I were treated no differently where gender is concerned, but she decided at the age of 32 that she could no longer live as a man. In fact, she grew up in a more conservative part of the country than I did. So I don't get this fear that not strictly indoctrinating your kids into a rigid gender construct is going to lead to homosexuality or being transgendered. But it also seems like the people who believe this are so committed to it that pointing out this fact won't change their minds. In my experience, anyway.

On the other hand, I can understand how a parent could be accepting of gay people themselves, and trans people themselves, without wanting their children to grow up to be gay or trans. After all, that means a life of social stigma and physical risk, and nobody wants that for their kid. On the other hand, being stuffed into a box which doesn't fit you isn't the kind of life you would wish for your kids either. So I guess my future response to questions or comments that suggest I'm putting my kids at risk by allowing them the freedom to negotiate gender in their own way will be "I hope they will be happy, well-adjusted, autonomous adults, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity." And what more can you hope for?


  1. Joanne6/25/2009

    Very interesting post and great analysis...I was having a conversation with my pregnant sister and our parents recently about my hope that if she has a daughter, she won't just dress her in frilly pink but will allow for a multitude of expressions in clothing that don't have to say anything about gender. My sister is worried about people mistaking her daughter for a boy, or her son for a girl, depending on who her future child will be. Sigh. (I am not a mother btw). I wish I'd had some of this language to help me say gender doesn't matter so much...

  2. Thanks, Joanne.

    We thought it was funny how freaked out people were when they guessed my daughter's gender wrong. She was always dressed in gender-neutral clothes (really hard to do) and we didn't care if they got it wrong. But they act like you're going to be really upset and like it's some huge deal. Which really shows how significant and central we take gender to be. Which is depressing.

  3. Thanks for the article, Rachel. That story was many shades of awesome. I’m glad that Pop is being given an opportunity to find a way of being in the world that truly suits hir, rather than being shoved in to a box and expected to remain in that box for a lifetime. The extent to which adults try to slather stereotypical gender expectations all over children disgusts me. It starts before a child is even born with people buying pink or blue onesies.

    I was raised in a home with very traditional gender roles. That’s not surprising, as my parents were born in the early 20s. My dad "wore the pants" in the family, was the sole breadwinner and did the traditionally male household chores while my mom was a submissive homemaker who did the traditionally female household chores. In spite of having traditional gender roles modeled for me during my entire childhood, I embarked on my transition to female when I was 24. So yeah, traditional gender roles? That worked out real well. Neither of my brothers turned out to be the most masculine men in the world. My sister has been a tomboy all of her life. Can you say irony?

  4. I'm lovin' the irony, timberwraith!

  5. Is it just me, or did anyone else think it was strange that this article implies that you can know the gender of a kid from changing hir diaper? Umm, that's the sex of the child.

  6. Lyndsay6/25/2009

    This made me think of how I feel funny if I get the sex of a DOG wrong. For babies, I think we are used to boys and girls being dressed so different and being easy to tell apart that we feel funny if we get it wrong.

  7. Zoe,

    Yes, I picked up on that too, but was too busy responding to Ms. Pinker when I wrote this post to mention it.


    I think it's a classic feedback loop. Some people take gender distinctions very seriously, and you can sell more shit if it's all gender-specific, so people become used to always seeing babies in the approved-boy-costume or approved-girl-costume. So that makes us thin that it's veryvery important whether a baby is a boy or a girl, or why else would we go to such great lengths to distinguish them? So then that reinforces the need to distinguish between them... And on and on and on. And it's a marketers dream, because it requires so many extra purchases.

  8. Jennifer4/14/2011

    This is a great article!
    What Pinker is actually saying in her popular book, The Sexual Paradox, is that women are by nature dumb and have evolved for the sole purpose of reproduction. She just implies this in an indirect way to avoid criticism( and of course her book sells!)
    She and her likes are the modern versions of the priests oppressing women, and by that I mean they have the same beliefs about women as that of the conservatives but have replaced the words "creation" and "God" with "evolution" and "science".