A Gender-Neutral Upbringing

I am sure many of you have heard the story about baby Storm, whose parents will not reveal his/her gender to family and friends, in an attempt to avoid the imposition of gender stereotypes onto the child. Storm, now about six months old, is part of an interesting experiment by his/her parents to challenge gender norms in our society.

Not only does this save baby Storm from stereotyped gender expectations, but it also draws public attention to the issue of strongly embedded gender stereotypes. Many people think Storm’s parents have really gone too far. Maybe. But maybe not. I’m not sure at what point raising your child with your beliefs, that go against social norms, goes too far. Is it more important to make one’s children conform to social norms so they are not teased and taunted at school? Or is it more important to raise them in a way completely consistent with one’s beliefs and allowing them to develop themselves based on their own identities, rather than being excessively preconditioned by the environment? My tendency is to strongly believe in the latter. But perhaps it is really about reaching a gentle balance between the two. Regardless, parents should be more concerned with nurturing the qualities and tendencies that their children have, rather than nurturing qualities that follow social convention. Of course, some level of social norms is acceptable (we don’t want to raise the next generation to be socially awkward and unable to participate cohesively in society), but this does not mean that one should conform to social conventions that one does not believe in.

In Storm’s case, it does sound extreme to hide your baby’s gender. However, the baby and its immediate family are aware of its gender. His/her parents are just not revealing it to additional people to avoid what they would impose onto the baby based on stereotypes… so that doesn’t sound as extreme.

There are various ways in trying to raise a child “gender-neutral,” from Storm’s parents to parents that let their sons play with Barbie and their girls play with trucks until they reach a certain age. However, society often justifies girls having “masculine” qualities more often than it justifies boys having “feminine” qualities. Gender roles are so ingrained in everyone that parents worry over something so simple as their son wanting to play with a doll or make-up. Even worse, “feminine” tendencies like these make many people think their son must be gay. The fear of one’s son being “feminine” or gay is a good illustration of how society still devalues females and homosexuals, compared to straight males.

I do not see any logical reason to expect girls to play with dolls and enjoy dress up while expecting boys to play with trucks and enjoy baseball. Encouraging such stereotypes with one’s children perpetuates the expected roles of women to be nurturing mothers and concerned with their physical beauty, while men are expected to be physically and emotionally strong, sometimes to the point of apathy. Such roles limit women from developing physical and emotional strengths, and also limit men from developing strong nurturing characteristics. In an attempt to avoid such gendered expectations for their own child, it’s possible that Storm’s parents have just the solution to making the world more gender-equal. Historically, physical differences have been major causes of discrimination. If you take away the obvious physical characteristics of clothing and hairstyles, as well as stereotyped ways of acting, it will be more difficult to discriminate based on gender. Thus it’s possible that a world where you cannot easily tell the difference between a boy and a girl would be a step towards gender equality.

I must caveat by saying one should not approach the upbringing of one’s child in terms of making statements to the world. But parents should be highly concerned with promoting their child’s individuality, regardless of how “non-conforming” it is. Creating a future generation that is accepting of all differences would be ideal.