A Toronto family is raising their youngest child, Storm, gender-neutral by not revealing the sex of their baby to anyone outside their immediate family, their midwives, and a close friend. As you might imagine, their decision has brought a deluge of criticism from friends, experts, and non-experts who like to tell other people what to do.
Kathy Witterick and David Stocker plan to keep Storm’s sex a secret for as long as Storm and Storm’s brothers, Jazz, 5, and Kio, 2, are comfortable with it. Jazz and Kio are encouraged to explore their gender as well; their parents believe that they’re giving their children the opportunity to be creative and free from social norms that dictate male and female behavior.
Despite their good intentions, grandparents and friends worry that the parents are setting their kids up to be bullied. Witterick recognizes that her children, while resilient, are vulnerable as well. Once, “a saleswoman at a second-hand shop refused to sell [Jazz] a pink feather boa. ‘Surely you won’t buy it for him — he’s a boy!’ said the woman. Shocked, and not wanting to upset Jazz, [she] left the store.” At the same time, she sees value in adversity. “When faced with inevitable judgment by others, which child stands tall (and sticks up for others) — the one facing teasing despite desperately trying to fit in, or the one with a strong sense of self and at least two ‘go-to’ adults who love them unconditionally? Well, I guess you know which one we choose.”
Witterick and Stocker have also been accused of using their children as social experiments to further their own political agenda. While I’m not a mom, it seems to me that all parenting is experimentation. Life is all about uncertainty and bringing a new one into the world takes some serious trial and error. As as for pushing an agenda, I’d argue that it’s nothing unique to this situation. People becomes parents for all sorts of reasons, but it only makes sense that they’re going to raise their children according their values. But why does it take more imagination to acknowledge that even the most white-bread status-quo nancy normal family is “agenda-pushing” just as much as families that live out their more alternative principles? The answer brings us to today’s point: social constructionism.
Social constructionism is the idea that specific phenomena, actions, concepts. and things are not naturally meaningful, but are given meaning by a culture. Obscene gestures are an easy way to understand social constructionist views. Raising your middle finger at someone doesn’t inherently mean “fuck you,” but in the social context of the United States or Sri Lanka it’s considered disrespectful.
Gender, as most of you know, has been subjected to an incredible amount of social construction as well. Some beliefs, while ingrained, are easier to spot; pink hasn’t always been a “girl color.” Others, like the myth that men are more interested in sex than women, are more transparent. Historically, there were probably fewer consequences for a man to have sex than for a woman to do so. Perhaps men had something to gain by arguing that women weren’t as sexual. Maybe men held positions of power that allowed them to perpetuate this line of thinking. This isn’t to say that hormones and chemistry have nothing to do with the way we experience the world, but it does mean that we should consider that differences among males and among females are too diverse to accept without challenge. Looking at the construction of something requires you to look beyond beliefs and question the origin of knowledge itself. The idea of something being “natural” is in itself a construction.
Dr. Ehrenshaft, a psychologist who is herself the mother of Jesse, a “girlyboy,” expresses worry that Storm will feel lost in a gendered world and unable to position her- or himself. While her concern is understandable, it doesn’t sound like Storm is going to grow up unaware and confused. Witterick and Stocker aren’t withholding any information from Storm, only from the rest of the world. They aren’t trying to make sex or gender go away by pretending they doesn’t exist (this tactic doesn’t work), they’re attempting to change their child’s encounter with a set of cultural beliefs that equates sex and gender and dictates expectations based on sex.
As long as a child is safe, healthy, and loved, it’s not our job to tell other parents if what they’re doing is right or wrong. The problem arises when people believe that teaching children that self-exploration and knowledge is harmful. Life is full of wonder, love is never wrong.