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children and gender

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The newspapers and blogs have been making a big deal out of a Toronto couple that decided to keep their youngest child’s gender a secret. I end up thinking a lot of different thoughts on this. The snowsuit I had for Ella was the same one I took my other two children home from the hospital in. It was dark blue and people assumed Ella was a boy. That didn’t matter at all to me. If it was someone I would see other times I would introduce Ella to him or her. If it was a stranger I’d just smile and nod.

I’ve read before about studies about how people treat babies differently depending on what gender they assume the child to be. I believe there’s truth to those studies and that tiny details like how quickly a baby is picked up when it cries or how the child is swung and played with probably does make differences in who the child is later on. It is quite possible that most of us subtly communicate gender roles to our children from birth on, even when we make an effort to allow our boys to play with dolls and our girls to play with cars. In this way, I can understand parents wanting to keep the gender secret. When a child cries, the child should be heard and responded to, rather than the interpretation of the child based on our assumptions of the child’s gender.

At the same time, I can’t understand keeping gender a secret. I mean, presumably the parents and siblings are the people that are most frequently responding to and interacting with the baby, and they know the gender. So they are either going to be sending those messages anyway, or they are going to be sending the opposite ones in desperate attempts to avoid sending the traditional ones. Or perhaps they are somehow enlightened enough not to do what most of us do without thinking. So that’s the first issue. Can keeping the gender a secret from strangers prevent the child from being given the subtle cues when by necessity the gender will be known by those who care for the child most?

The second issue is, doesn’t this send the wrong message in the first place? The stories about the couple mention the older children, particularly the oldest, a five year old named Jazz.  Jazz apparently likes to dress up like a princess but dislikes it when people call him a girl. That strikes me as an important detail in the story. It sounds like he wants to be a boy who is allowed to break gender roles. A boy. Not a genderless creature or a person who gets to choose his/her own gender but a boy still able to do whatever. In some ways that sounds like the opposite of what they are doing with the baby. The message with the baby is “to be free to be who you are, people can’t know what’s between your legs.” The message it sounds like the older boy wants for himself is “being a boy doesn’t have to limit who you are.”

That said, it is hard to tell from an article how successful the messages are getting through. Its hard to tell if Jazz is happy with how things are or not. It sounds like the parents blame whatever unhappiness there is on the world being too tied into gender stereotypes. But blaming the world for being what the world is… well… I’m not sure that helps the child.

And this is where everything gets murky for me. The question left in my mind is that of “to what extent should we compromise our values so as to live lives of less struggle?” If dressing a little bit more normal makes life easier, why not do it? Why encourage a child to believe that his sense of self, his freedom, his happiness, depends upon him dressing in a way that confuses other people and causes struggle? Does freedom and individuality require a person to act in accordance to his or her preferences the whole time? And for that reason, I think, if a son were inclined to wear pink and braids but didn’t want to be called a girl I’d probably say “I’m sorry dear, but I can’t wave a magic wand and change the way everyone else thinks. You need to decide which is more important; dressing the way you do, being called a boy, or not having to explain to everyone that you really are a boy. Because you get two out of three of those but not all. That’s just how things are. We can work to change them, but it will take some time and in the meantime, I don’t want you to be scared of being around other people.”

As it is, both of my boys went through a stage where they identified primarily with female characters in books, but that seems to have just been a stage. I could possibly pat myself on the back and congratulate myself for handling it so perfectly that it is a non-issue but really, it was probably just the luck of the draw. I have no clue what I would have done if my sons had really shown an interest that way.

During each of my pregnancies I would complain to my parents about what a big deal people were making about gender. Why does it matter to anyone what gender the child will be? A baby is a baby. And whenever I complained to them about that, my dad would reply, “because, Christy, they just want to make small talk.” And I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

But I also know there are people out there who think it does make a big difference what gender a child is. There are people who think that boys are harder to handle than girls, or that it must be nice to have a “balanced” family. I had a lot of comments when my little girl was born like people think I must be so happy now I have a girl because obviously I’ve been waiting all this time for the chance to buy dresses and won’t I be closer with her because she’s a girl? And I sometimes I just smile at people when they say things like that and sometimes I challenge them, (“no, why would I be glad she’s a girl? How exactly will that change things?”) and most of the time when I’m home I roll my eyes and cringe at those comments. It isn’t that the people think the child’s gender will make a difference to them, but they want the ability to guess and predict about my life, based on their own assumptions and experiences.

It is one of those things where… sometimes I think we live in a pretty gender-neutral world. I read older classical children’s books to my kids, and the gender roles there stand out and make anything of today look pretty pale in comparison. Then I go out and have strangers at the church or grocery store or where ever make comments about my kid’s genders and I think… okay, people really do believe more in the stereotypes than I thought.

I think people are curious now about the child in the news now simply because the family decided to to do this. It’s like the children’s game where one child says “I have a secret” just to taunt another child. It’s just something fun to guess at. But I also think people wonder about this particular child because everyone has their own little theory about gender and they wonder if this situation confirms or denies it. One of my theories is that raising relatively “gender stereotype free children” becomes harder if the third child is a different gender than the first two, so my guess is that if they decided to do this experiment after they knew the child’s gender, then the child is probably a girl. If they decided to do it before they knew the child’s gender… well, then their decision doesn’t reflect either way on my theory and I couldn’t care less what gender the child is.

I also wonder… they are very accepting and celebrating of the oldest child being into stereotypical “girls” things. I wonder if the third is a girl, and that child was into “girls” things, would they be okay with that too? Probably they would, but there does seem to be a certain segment of the population that things it is a liberating thing for a boy to be into girls things, (because that’s a sign that the boy is being true to himself, right?) but a bad thing for a girl to be into girls things (because that’s a sign she’s bought into the stereotypes, right?).

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One Comment

  • Las Clases de Kinder

    Excellent post, Christy! While I can understand why a couple would go this far — little boys and girls are typecast — it just seems like too much work! Personally, getting in sleep and time to get dressed was hard enough, much less having to worry about whether grandma and grandpa see the baby’s genitalia. -Elisa from MotherTalkers.com

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