Feminist Philosophers

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Update: Mum of genderless child speaks out May 31, 2011

Filed under: gender,Uncategorized — Tracy I @ 2:49 pm

Last week we posted a story about parents in Toronto who have chosen to raise their most recent child, Storm, without telling anyone the child’s gender.  The mother gives some background to their decision here. Thanks for posting this update in the comments.

 

25 Responses to “Update: Mum of genderless child speaks out”

  1. s. wallerstein Says:

    I read what the mother says and she seems like a very intelligent and well-intentioned person, but she assumes that the world as it is will continue and that is a dangerous assumption.

    I have seen all too many seemingly ideal, loving families broken up by the death of one parent, by bitter divorces, by economic crisis, by political unrest, and often children, raised under the best of circumstances, protected from the cruelity and injustice of the rest of society, then have to face a world which they are not prepared to face and which indeed few sensitive people are prepared to face.

    So I feel that the parents of the genderless child are handicapping “him” and that “he” will face unnecessarily cruel shocks if and when “he” has to face a school playground or look for a job or even walk down a street in a tough neighborhood.

    It’s fine that adults engage in experiments in living, but they shouldn’t experiment with their children.

  2. Richard Says:

    @ S. Wallerstein

    How is any of what you are saying different from people criticizing a biracial couple 100 years ago when they decided to bring a child into the world in the U.S. or Britain or any of so many other countries that would have given them a somewhat less-than-welcoming reception at the time?

    Should we still accept “whites-only” drinking fountains, as well?

  3. Nemo Says:

    Richard, I think it would be shorter if you listed the reasons why that would be *similar* to what S. Wallerstein is saying.

  4. blue-monarch Says:

    Hey, S. Wallerstein, I get that you’re threatened by non-binary identity and all, but “The world is rough” is not actually a good reason to enforce a binary notion of gender onto a child. Zie gets to define hir own gender like everyone else, and zie might well be quite happy as a boy or girl by the time zie gets to school. The big point is: you can’t know. Genitals at birth don’t actually tell you who that person becomes, or what their gender is.
    But really, I’m sure you’re right that it’s “handicapping” (wow, ableism much?) for a child to not have to feel like they must absolutely be one gender or another. Because coercive assignation of gender is totally great for mental health!

  5. undertoad Says:

    I always find it odd how people claim that the reason why parents should not let their children present in a way which makes them feel comfortable is because they will get bullied or abused. Children have agency too, and denying a child the right to present in a way which makes them comfortable, or forcing their child to present in a certain way leaves some deep and nasty scars.

    I mean the argument is easily defeated by appealing to the experience of any child who presents as anything other than strictly within their respective cultures. That goes for children with physical or mental disabilities, being part of an ethnic minority, having a different social background to their peers etc etc and also for being -perceived- to be any of the above, even if they aren’t. Children get teased or bullied for anything. That doesn’t make it right, but that doesn’t mean empowering the kind of institution which lets that happen by forcing children into roles merely to protect them. It won’t work and the effects of that will be far more unsettling than letting them be comfortable.

    I respect the way the parents have acted in this case. What makes me uncomfortable is the way that the media are treating it like it’s some big secret. Like the fact that it’s a “secret” has some kind of moral significance. There should be no expectation in which the media, or anyone, has the right to your own private information. That does not make it a “secret” and it does not make an ounce of moral significance. It’s respecting a family’s, and an individual’s right to own that information and do what they choose with it.

  6. s. wallerstein Says:

    Since I seem to be so popular, first let me say that when my son, age 32, reproaches me for his upbringing, it’s because I tried to foist my leftist (including feminist) principles on him as a small child, thus
    “handicaping” him for future success, as he defines “success”.

    I reread the article. First of all, the mother’s preoccupation with color and dress strikes me. If I were trying to raise a non-sexist child, which is not to be confused with a genderless one (whatever that means), I would be less concerned with color and dress (which seem trivial in the long run) than with letting a small boy be weak, passive,
    physically meek, whimpy, etc., and with letting a small girl be aggressive, forceful, dominating, etc. So much emphasis on color and dress style is a bit superficial, isn’t it?

    Is the mother so sure that she does not subtly influence her child’s decisions? It is a bit naive to think that a small child freely chooses his or her lifestyle options, independent of often subtle parental cues, such as body language, facial expression and tone of voice, etc.

    Finally, rather than experimenting with the gender image and dress preferences of very small influenciable beings, shouldn’t we try to raise critical, thinking children, who when they get older will have the tools to fight against and deal with sexism and other forms of oppression and who when they are 25 or 32 will be able to show their parents by means of reasoned arguments how absurd the way they were brought up was?

  7. Matt Drabek Says:

    I guess I can see some merit in some of the things both S. wallerstein and blue-monarch have said. One thing that jumped out at me about these articles is that the child Jazz seems to have been raised in a kind of ideal way, or at least the way I think I’d want to raise a child – given a space to develop his own interests and given loving support when those interests are non-normative, but not completely hidden from gendering. It reminds me of the “controversial” magazine ad that was posted here at the femphil blog awhile back that most people at the blog exemplified a really…refreshing and healthy approach. I wonder in some ways why the parents took a different approach with the other child (Storm). I didn’t quite put it together from their explanation.

    Then again, blue-monarch is surely right to point out that there’s a really unhealthy aspect of social ownership taking place. It would be nice to have a society with public ownership of neither the means of reproduction nor the products of reproduction. But, I think you might be missing out on something. We’re all gendered in some way or another. Using non-normative gender pronouns (zie, hir, and the like) for small children is itself a form of gendering, because those pronouns themselves mark out people for gender roles.

  8. Nemo Says:

    It’s one thing to argue the possible benefits to the child of what the parents have resolved to do; it’s quite another to dismiss or ignore the foreseeable disadvantages to the child of this decision, as some commentators have appeared to do. Presumably in arriving at a conclusion about the relative merits of the decision you need to be able recognise both and to weigh them against each other. I think S. Wallerstein is doing some very thoughtful writing in this thread.

  9. blue-monarch Says:

    S. Wallerstein: You seem to have grasped quite firmly the notion that this family is trying to raise their child to be genderless, rather than what is actually the case: they’re refusing to assign a gender identity to the child on the basis of genitalia. But really, keep on talking about how one example of her son being gender-policed by other people ‘proves’ that the mother is superficial and not interested in teaching her kids about feminism and critical thinking about gender. It’s not like her 7-year-old is aware enough of gender politics that he can comment on the split in responses to babies on the basis of assigned gender or anything.
    I must admit, I’m confused though: you clearly think raising non-sexist children is important and what the mother should be doing, but you also believe that she can’t possibly raise her child without instilling subtle gender biases/expectations in hir? In which case I assume the solution is to talk openly and frankly about sex and gender with kids… which is exactly what she does.
    As for the whole “whatever [a genderless child] is” thing – can you please refrain from snide erasure of people’s lived experiences? There are in fact agendered people out there, and your ignorance of that is not grounds to suggest the idea is absurd.

    Nemo: By the logic you’re employing there, we should also “weigh the benefits” of raising girls to be anything but submissive and patriarchally feminine. They’ll have so much trouble finding work and relationships otherwise!
    In other words: it’s important to talk about the possible dangers this kid faces growing up in a world that is hostile to non-binary gender identity and is invasively interested in the genitals of infants. But the responsibility does not lie with the parents to conform to cisnormative accounts of body in order to ‘protect’ their child – it lies with the rest of society to not be complete assholes to a child. You don’t tell a kid who gets bullied for being queer “Just don’t be queer”. Or are we comfortable with victim blaming in circumstances where the victim isn’t clearly a boy or girl?

    Matt: As inelegant as it may be, I find using a gender-neutral/absent pronoun like zie at least provides a polite breathing-space for gender identity. It’s generally a better idea in my book to use neutral terms for those whose preferred pronouns you aren’t privy to, after all.

  10. anonymous Says:

    A little charity, please. S. Wallerstein’s concern for the child in the story need not be a sign that she (or he) is “threatened by non-bianary identity.” Nothing supports that assumption. Likewise, it’s possible to wonder what “genderless” means without being “snide”, “erasing other people’s identities,” or suggesting that the idea is “absurd.”

  11. blue-monarch Says:

    You’re right, it is possible to wonder what genderless looks like without being snide. “Whatever that looks like” is not wondering, it is dismissing. Someone who says “A feminist who likes men (whatever that looks like)” is still making the case that the idea is somehow unreasonable or laughable.
    But no, I don’t actually owe charity to someone who has contended that parents of a child are irresponsible and naive for declining to indoctrinate that child with cisnormative notions of gender and sex.

  12. Nemo Says:

    @Blue-monarch:

    Yes, by “that” logic (I daresay the “that” is optional), if you want to assess the net benefit or harm to a girl of “raising [her] to be anything but submissive and patriarchally feminine”, you do have to weigh them. Curious that you should find this shocking, since much feminist effort and study has been expended, to excellent effect, on precisely that question. Partly as a result, we’re now in a reasonably informed position to make judgements about it. Perhaps you’ve simply internalised that assessment, which is why you think it is an unnecessary one to make.

    Not only does it stand to reason that a similar assessment is called for here, but it’s at least a little harder to make. As the APA’s LGBT czar has been widely quoted in relation to this news story, that body did not have enough of a research basis for concluding one way or the other about the potential harms or benefits to a child under these circumstances – but that doesn’t mean we can’t apply a little common sense in speculating about both potential harms and potential benefits.

    It’s clear that other individuals have a responsibility “not to be complete assholes to a child”, but it’s not clear what you think the relevant parental responsibilities are here and why. Since you mention victim blaming, are you suggesting that reproaching the parents in this scenario is victim blaming? If the parents did not do what they are doing here, would they ipso facto be “indoctrinating that child with cisnormative notions of gender and sex”?

    If you “owed” charity to S. Wallerstein, it would be justice, not charity. (You do, in my estimation, owe SW an apology for your groundless charge of ableism that the use of the word “handicap” reflexively triggered.) But I agree with Anonymous that your consistent imputation of bad motives to SW is unwarranted.

  13. Monkey Says:

    Hello, folks. Please remember we have a ‘Be Nice’ rule here. Some of you are sailing a bit close to the wind here.

  14. undertoad Says:

    s. wallerstein:

    (I’m using they for a third person neutral pronoun)

    I think that you might be confusing a couple of ideas. Raising the child as genderless is no more than letting them explore their own gender identity when they are ready. Raising a non-sexist child will no doubt be one of the motivations behind that so that they learn different genders don’t have to subscribe to one kind of lifestyle. There’s no reason why raising the child without forcing them into a gender role should be incompatible with teaching them to be a critical thinker or a person with other virtues.

    The parents are not experimenting with the child’s gender; they’re just refusing to share the knowledge of their child’s sex with the world nor force the child to present in a way that would subscribe them to a typically masculine or feminine presentation. It’s not groundbreaking stuff.

    I’m sure if the child expressed an interest in typical feminine appearance, and this happened to be in harmony with the sex they were assigned at birth then the parents will let them do that. It’s about letting the child choose for themself.

    You’re treating the situation like it’s either the child grows up wearing a t-shirt it doesn’t like the colour of -or- the child grows up to be seriously bullied and hating their parents. Which is not granting enough weight to how damaging it can be to be forced to present in a way that makes you uncomfortable. Nor is it granting enough weight to the fact that free choice in clothes can help to raise a child who is independent and confident with themself.

  15. [...] subscribe to an awesome blog entitles feminist philosophers and today I read  this post which followed up on my previous post, Is it a girl or a boy? Does it matter?. I thought some of [...]

  16. c_willis Says:

    I agree with s. wallerstein and here’s why. These parents are attempting to do the impossible. The child at that early age will internalize some notion of his/her gender identity. This is just a fact of psychology. So instead of *not* imposing any gender identity these parents are imposing some sort of mixed gender identity that will most likely be the cause of confusion or other sort of trouble later in life.

    There is nothing wrong with merely having a sense of one’s gender from an early age. As long as the parents are accepting of re-evaluations of that identity on the part of the child later in life, I see no harm in merely allowing one’s child to be classified as a girl or a boy.

  17. s. wallerstein Says:

    Now how is this wonderful experiment supposed to work?

    No one is supposed to know the child’s biologial sex. The problem is that until age 2 or so, child need help to go the bathroom. Does that mean that until age 2 the child will not be allowed to play in the houses of other children, to go to playschool, to spend a day with his or her grandparents or other trusted relatives, since in those cases, someone other than the parents will have to be in the bathroom with him or her?

    Won’t that cut the child off from the normal process of socialization with other children and with members of his or her family (grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles)?

    Isn’t it good for a child to have a wide number of contacts with others besides his or her biological parents?

    How can the parents be so sure, so convinced that they and only they know how to raise their child, that no one else in the child’s social and family circle can have any wise input into the child-raising process?

    Given that such an experiment has never been carried out before, as far as I know, isn’t it a bit risky to carry out an experiment with unknown results on the life of your child or of any child?

    If we were to read that Cuba (or any hypothetical authoritarian country) had decided to carry out a similar experiment on the lives of a number of children, would we approve of it?

  18. From a discussion of the same topic over at the Oxford Practical Ethics blog, here is a link to my general comment on the harmfulness of gender stereotypes and the importance of both resisting them and trying/doing what we can to promote egalitarian changes:

    http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2011/05/a-new-life-unexamined-may-be-more-worth-living/#comment-3421


  19. profbigk Says:

    I submit that if this parent is “experimenting,” then every parent is “experimenting.” The connotations of the word choice are pejorative, but thinking about it, I cannot but conclude that every parent experiments, including my own parents. Unless they somehow manage to parent without making decisions, which seems nigh paradoxical, they are testing hypothesis, trying out best bets, etc.

    Sarcasm does not translate well online. Try to avoid angry sarcasm here, please. I don’t always avoid it myself, but I ask commenters to try anyway.

  20. s. wallerstein Says:

    Actually, I don’t think that every parent is experimenting in the sense that those of the genderless child are.

    There are tried ( and not always true) childraising methods available to all literate starting parents. There is an ample debate on their merits and defects in both scholarly literature and books/articles available to the general literate public.

    What’s more, parents have access to non-written community “wisdom” about childraising practices, which, as all theories about human psychology, should be taken with a grain of salt, but certainly should be considered by any parent concerned about his or her children.

  21. brynhild Says:

    profbigk, you read my mind. I wonder also, how did we decide that these parents aren’t taking any parenting advice/wisdom from anyone? does one need to know what genitals a child has in order to share such wisdom with its parents?

  22. jj Says:

    I’m puzzled by the story and the discussion. I can’t quite figure out what is going on. Raising a child to be genderless sounds extreme, but I’m not sure it really is. If one discounts the social setting for a bit, it seems to me pretty easy just to assume that kids for some period are not really gendered. Since you are making so many choices for them as a parent, you just do not make gendered choices for them.

    I think SW is right that they’re in for a bit of a shock,as our child was when he moved from the Christopher Robin world at St. Anne’s College creche to a very gendered Princeton day care place. But kids are quick, and Jazz will presumably be a big help, deciding for himself when Storm needs a little more advice than the parents are giving him.

    What seems to me much more serious is their idea of unschooling. There is this huge culture out there. There are windows of opportunity; miss them and you miss out real possibilities – that is, among other things, excellence becomes much harder to impossible to achieve.. E.g., music, second languages, perhaps aspects of math, certain physical sports and arts, really do require early discipline, some before 10, others even much earlier. It may also be that the moral virtues have to be taught and character formed, if it ever can be, fairly early on. Apparently, highly “advanced” kids can be very emotional, and management of one’s emotions may have to be learned. So I’m not sure what they intend to do for all that, and I’d worry there.

  23. jj Says:

    BW, I was discussing a problem this summer about what one does about kids who opt out. I was with a very empirically minded philosopher who has a great deal of knowledge of ‘the relevant research.’ One problem I was thinking of was that of a friend who has a very talented child who is VERY good at programming, but who couldn’t care less at school and is failing out. One is at a disadvantage these days if one can’t even complete high school. Thinking back to my childhood, I realized that most of us – me and my friends – who stuck it out in boring high schools and were in fact achievers did so largely because it was clear to us that if we didn’t, we would not be loved. We were very angry at our parents as a result, but lots of us were definitely achievers, memories incredily boring lists of Latin verbs among other things.

    Anyway, my philosopher friend tells me that very strong empirical evidence says that the “if you don’t do this, you will not be lovable” is really the only effective strategy for parents. Sounds horrible, and I suppose there are very gentle ways to employ it. I remember at some point Philippa Foot recommending that we say to children, “But this is how we do it; we give to the poor, etc, etc.” I think that’s when she was arguing against the idea that morality is a matter of categorical imperatives. It may, however, be that if you say to children “This is the way our family does it,” the covert message is “If you don’t behave in this way, then you are not one of the family.”

  24. s. wallerstein Says:

    J.J.

    One reason for kids sticking it out in boring schools is that much of life, especially work, is boring and most people have to learn to tolerate boredom. Here I am translating boring stuff and that’s how I earn my living. Not everyone ends up working in something creative or that they enjoy doing.

    I see the “unschooling” as similar to the genderless project. Your child, as you describe him above, went to a non-sexist school, but it was part of a social, collective or community project.

    In the case, we’re commenting on the child is being removed from social interaction, both by the unschooling and by the parents’ refusal to let others know his or her biological sex. They seem to want to dominate the child, to possess him or her for themselves, inspite of the discourse about the kid freely choosing. Their family forms a closed, little world, shut off to others and that smells fishy to me.

    You, on the other hand, sent your child out in the world, using the educational resources which were at hand in your surroundings.

  25. brynhild Says:

    I agree that the unschooling should be more worrying than the not-telling-child’s-gender! but to be fair I should point out (I have an old school friend who unschools. much tongue-biting) that it’s not quite as extreme as it sounds. I think it’s more like Montessori at home. and (given it’s a ‘movement’) I suspect that the unschooling parents are all hooked up online the way homeschooling parents are, such that they can do things together, form sports teams, etc etc. (I’m not sure about this, but this is the impression I get.)


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