During my Sex, Gender, and Culture class last semester, I wrote a reflection paper on the idea of a genderless world and how possible/impossible/difficult it would be to achieve.  The idea seems much more relevant lately, as I’ve been finding numerous articles about parents and schools attempting to eradicate some of our most in-bred gender stereotypes through creative gender-neutral language and decision-making.

Take, to start, Storm, a now six-month old child in the Witterick and Stocker household (covered in this article) who is being raised genderless.  Zir parents’ decision not to disclose Storm’s gender has received a barrage of criticism for being an unrealistic approach to parenting which will leave Storm unable to interact normally with zir peers and will ultimately confuse and alienate the child.

I’ve seen a number of people’s reactions to this article, and what I find most striking is the difference between Storm’s parents and the general public’s assessment of how well children are able to self-navigate the world of gender.  I’ve heard many comments from people who believe that removing parents’ guidance about gender will inevitably confuse small children and become unsustainable as the rest of the world reinforces gender norms outside of their parents gender-neutral bubble.

I think there are three different ways to look at this kind of problem.  The first is to accept that enforcing gender neutrality has to be a life-long commitment, wherein parents cannot be the only outposts for this teaching.  This is the thinking that has introduced Egalia School in Sweden, which uses the Swedish neutral pronoun “hen” to refer to all students and guests, and calls them “friends” instead of “boys” and “girls.”  You can read from the AP about their carefully arranged plans for playspaces that deconstruct gender stereotypes and allow young Swedish children to learn about their gender in a free and non-assumptive way.

Now this approach is legitimate and groundbreaking in its own right for the way it expands the scope of gender-neutral parenting into a whole new realm by adding a peer group with which gender neutral-raised children can interact.  I imagine this goes a long way in helping children relate to one another and explore gender as a supportive group without worries about bullying, misunderstandings, or negative reinforcement from peers or teachers who do not understand a progressive parent’s objectives in gender neutral child-rearing.  Kids can grow up using gender neutral-pronouns with their friends, dressing in counter-traditional ways, and expressing themselves with the support of their friends.  However, the problem with this line of thinking is the limit of scope.  If you don’t live in Sweden and have the substantial money and connections to get your child into Egalia, there aren’t a whole lot of options for your child.  You must, like Witterick and Stocker, face raising a gender-neutral child on your own.

Which brings up the second way of looking at this parenting conundrum.  Critics argue that by raising a child without introducing zir to the concept of gender norms will actually CAUSE gender confusion for the child later in life.  If maladjusted to the way that society treats gender, children may not be able to distinguish between their own unique perception of self-identity and the how it relates to these norms.  This school of thought focuses, I think excessively, on the idea that gender neutral parenting is trying to “eradicate gender,” a process which they claim is both impossible and a distinctly misdirected aim. The primary claim here is that gender creates structure in our world, and there are positive effects of teaching boys and girls how to act in accordance with these structures.  It makes the world run more smoothly.  If small children are not taught how to blend into these larger sub-groups, chaos ensues as gender collapses on the superficial feet it was built on.

However, I have a number of objections.  I agree that the objective of erasing gender is foolish.  Gender does offer structure and a sense of identity that is crucial to many people.  But gender-neutral parenting is not an attempt to erase gender.  It is a way of postponing the judgments of gender (what clothes to wear, what toys to play with, what professions to strive after- don’t believe me, see what an average parent says about a boy wanting to be a hairdresser when he grows up) and allowing children to grow up free to express themselves as they wish.

Gender-neutral parenting is also an exercise in acceptance of trans and gender non-conforming people (who, incidentally, I imagine don’t all believe in the erasure of gender either).  If a child can grow up and grow into any gender role that ze feels fit for, it prevents years of torment and judgment aimed at children who don’t fit the conventional standards of behavior, AND prevents the alienation and loss a parent often feels when their child announces that they want to transition, or to be start living life as an opposite/different gender.

Now the third school of thought regarding parenting suggests that regular ol’ boys and girls who are raised gender neutral will somehow be maladjusted without the introduction of gender roles early on in their lives.  I have only this to say: children as much smarter than you give them credit for.  Many trans-identified people note that they have known as long as they could remember that the body they had did not match the self they felt inside.  They were capable, at the tender ages of 3 and 4, to pick apart the difference between gender and sex in regards to their own personal identity.  Witterick and Stocker’s first child, Jazz, exhibits an even more nuanced understanding of his own gender, differentiating gender identity from gender expression: though he often wears dresses, keeps his hair long, and loves the color pink, he very strongly identifies as male, and requests that his mother tell his camp councilors that he is a boy.  This shows that Jazz understands not only his own internal conception of gender, but recognizes how gender norms influence how he is perceived by others.

My proposal is that Jazz is not an unusual child.  If given the opportunity, I imagine many, if not most, children are capable of the same understandings and navigations of gender.  With support and guidance from parents who help their children uncover and navigate a very gender-biased world, I honestly believe this style of parenting is legitimate and sustainable.  After all, we were all picked on in school for being different in one way or another.  If we grew strong from it, if our parents explained to us why other kids bully and why we should never stop being ourselves, shouldn’t we pass these values on to our children?