Thursday 21 June 2012

Children and Gender

I was out one day in a sunny park with my children. As young kids often do, they formed instant but evanescent friendships with some of the other children. My youngest daughter was playing with another little girl with dark hair tied in bunches.

I always try to keep some sort of eye on my kids when they are in public places, and I notice other parents naturally doing the same. I caught the eye of the mother of this little girl, as she and my daughter came over to show and share their toys. It's OK, I was trying to mentally say, I'm a parent too. You don't need to worry.

When it came time to leave, I asked my daughter to say goodbye to her little friend. "What's your friend's name?" I asked my daughter. "I don't know, daddy," she said (How can they play all day without knowing each other's names? But they can!). The mother had come over, and was standing a little way off, smiling. "What's your little girl's name?" I asked the mother. But then she frowned, offended. "He's not a little girl," she replied. "He's a little boy."

I boggled. The child was wearing a sparkly top and corduroy jeans, and gym shoes. He had dark hair tied in bunches in the manner of little girls. Nothing in his behaviour had given me any clue that he wasn't a girl, and clearly my daughter had taken him for a girl.

Speechless, I didn't know how to react. Why are you dressing your little boy like a girl? I wanted to ask. And assuming you know what you are doing, how can you possibly be angry when I don't recognise he is a boy? I am sure I am not the first person to make that mistake! I decided this might be one of the circumstances in which the Prime Directive applies. So we said a polite goodbye and left.

Later I mentioned these events to a colleague at work. "Was the mother Samoan?" he asked. I didn't know, but she did appear to be a Pacific Islander. "The child will be a Fa'afafine," he said. (Say it FAH-Fa-Fee-Nay, or at least he did). It turns out that it's culturally normal in Samoa to raise boys as if they were girls. But this wasn't in Samoa, but New Zealand.

I don't pretent to understand the cultural background or purpose to this behaviour. If she were really raising her boy as a girl, surely she should have accepted my reading of him as a girl and not protested? Unless in NZ it's illegal to overtly raise fa'afafine? It might well be, although I don't know. It might even be that the child isn't a fa'afafine, but just a boy whose mother likes sparkly tops and bunches.

According to Wikipedia, some fa'afafine resume the role of normal males in adolescence; some attempt to live as women in adulthood (and pursue sexual relationships with heterosexual men), while some seem caught in the middle, as a culturally-accepted third gender.

In May 2011, the Toronto Star reported the case of parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, who refused to reveal the gender of their third child, Storm. By the time I write this now, Storm will be about a year and a half old.
"If you really want to get to know someone, you don't ask what's between their legs," says Stocker. "What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It's obnoxious."
Stocker and Witterick are trying to allow Storm to make his or her own way in the world, unencumbered by the expectation that a chosen, binary gender imposes on him or her. (I know lots of people really well, and I must say I have never felt it necessary to ask what's between their legs!)
"Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what (s)he wants to be?!" writes Witterick.
The Toronto Star article provoked a storm of protest. If you've read my other blog posts, you will know that it looks like one of the biggest hurdles they will face raising Storm in this way will be their constant agony over which pronouns to use! Imagine how hard they must be trying not to give the game away with a careless use of a specific pronoun.

Both these parents and the woman I met in the park are taking an active decision to raise their children outwith normal gender roles. Though I respect their rights to raise their children as they see fit (the Prime Directive again!), I disagree with both points of view.

Third gender: Fa'afafine
In the case of the woman in the park, she is dressing her boy in such a way that he appears to be a girl. I don't know if she otherwise treats him like a boy, or whether he is expected to behave like a girl at home and is only given girly toys. I can't help feeling this is an extremely harmful thing to do. Kids have enough uncertainty in life, without wondering: why does my mum dress me like this instead of like the other boys in my kindergarten class?

For the parents of Storm, I understand the point they are making, and their need to make it forcefully by refusing to reveal Storm's gender to the world. On the other hand, children need some sort of structure: they can't simply choose the way the world works for them. As one mild example, my kids don't want to eat their vegetables, brush their teeth, learn their times-tables or even say please and thank-you. I regard these activities as more or less essential, but if I gave my children the choice, they would not do them. It doesn't trouble me one whit that Stocker thinks that's obnoxious! Likewise, I think I owe it to my kids to give them some sort of moral framework with which to interpret the world. As they get older they will (as I did) learn which parts of that framework to keep, and which parts to discard.

For what it's worth, we have always provided a mix of toys for our kids: they can play with the Lego and the trucks, or the toy kitchen and the dolls, whenever they want. In addition, we try to make sure that all our kids can come for a cuddle (or otherwise express vulnerability) whenever they want: they are never told to be "big brave soldiers" (as I was!).

Two things, I think, will confound both sets of parents. First, the personalities of the children involved. I believe personality is innate and cannot be modified, not even by gender-non-normative parenting. We might find that Storm decides quite rapidly whether she wants to play with the trains or whether he wants to play with the dolls' house, and expresses that preference repeatedly. (And the minute this happens, s/he will immediately cease to be newsworthy in any way! Shock: Small boy plays with Nerf Guns!) Likewise, the child in the park might start to assert his masculinity more clearly than his mother wants, especially after he starts school and starts to meet more traditional boys. I do fear for both children how their peers will react: I hope they will react with acceptance (and we raise our children to be accepting of all their peers), but they may react with cruelty or ridicule. That's no laughing matter.

Secondly, whatever parenting does, it can't hold off adolescence. It might be quite hard for Storm to keep his place in the rugby team when his periods start, or her place in the netball team once her voice breaks and she starts sprouting a beard. And the child in the park will declare himself to be a man eventually. No amount of paternal wishful-thinking can overcome the inevitability of adolescence, or the tendency of almost the entire human race to see ourselves as having only two genders.

Further Reading

Georgia at BroadBlogs has blogged about Storm here. The article is interesting and has a different angle from my own, and I also refer you to the wonderful X: A Fabulous Child's Story.

For more about this topic, I have written a continuation post here.


  1. Interesting post. Lots of parents do strange things. You make a lot of good points. I think it's overboard to hide your child's gender. I think what you are doing with your own kids is great, trying to get away from totally gender stereotyped toys, and letting your children play with various kinds of toys. Keep up the good work

  2. Haven't these parents read " As Nature Made Him: The Boy That Was Raised as a Girl?" If they haven't, they should. Clearly there are exceptions but as you've pointed out, the children's dominant nature will almost certainly prevail no matter what they try to do. Why make it any more difficult for the children than life already can be. As the book showed, experimenting on children can take a terrible toll.

    1. Thanks for posting. Even I haven't read this book!
      I can see how in a culturally-sanctioned environment, it could be OK to raise a child outwith gender norms. For example, in Samoa, for all I know every third schoolgirl could actually be a boy. It probably isn't as prevalent as that, but it wouldn't be considered strange in that situation, by the parents, the teachers or the other kids. But the examples I chose above represent very unusual parenting styles, which I personally consider harmful.

  3. How can you know from that brief meeting that the mother was somehow imposing her preferences on her child? Maybe the boy liked looking like a girl and had badgered her to let him dress like that? I think that's more likely than that she would force it on him. I've read of a number of families like that on the net, who have boys with very feminine tastes and decide the let them do what they like. I think that's quite cool. We don't see it as a big deal if girls are "tomboys", so why can't you have "janegirl" boys?

  4. Actually, having said I've read about it on the net, I actually knew a woman via internet chats some years ago, who had the same dilemna - her little boy loved anything pink and girly and sparkly and she had finally let him have some girl's stuff he could wear at home, but she was a bit worried about how people might react if he did it too much/outside home etc.

    1. Hi Oliver. Thanks for dropping by and adding comments.
      You're right, of course. I didn't know whether it was the boy or the mother who was expressing their preference for sparkly tops. I do know there are a few boys and girls who are extremely gender non-compliant. On the other hand, on the balance of probabilities I judged that the motivation lay with the mother (this was a preschool child, whose preferences are surely not that marked at that age?).
      It was a bewildering situation, which I am still struggling to analyse. Surely people are mistaking him for a girl all the time: the solution may be to get comfortable with it ("Actually, he's a boy. He just likes to dress this way") or to minimise it a bit ("Okay you can wear the bunches, but you're going with the Lightning McQueen T-shirt").
      In our society we consider tomboys to be laudable. There is no reasonable counterpart except "sissy", which is (outwith its fetishistic sense), extremely derogatory. I personally think boys should be allowed to express a little femininity from time to time: I wasn't allowed to, ever, but I make sure my kids can if they want to, without stigma.

  5. Yeah, I don't get why the mom would be angry that you didn't recognize the gender with the way she dressed the boy.

    I'm less worried than you about not being taught a specific gender. From what I've heard of other parents who have tried this -- maybe not so extreme but allowing a boy to wear a dress and play with a truck, for example (he chooses) -- once they get to school they do tend to conform to avoid teasing, but at least they would have had a few years of exploring and developing different sides of themselves. Personality traits are found in each gender, anyway. But then, I'm more concerned about developing a wider personality range than in allowing a boy child, for example, to have an affinity for dresses or dolls.

    That said, I suppose there is a possibility it could be harmful.

    If I were the parent I would stress developing a broad personality over an affinity for dolls or trucks. So girls could become more assertive and strong and learn more teamwork while boys could become more nurturing and attuned a variety of emotions.
    Re: “I believe personality is innate and cannot be modified, not even by gender-non-normative parenting."

    I believe that personality is formed in three major ways 1) the personality or porn with 2) social interactions you have with family, friends, and less so from others and 3) culture. The fact that you get both social patterns and individual differences suggests the role of all three.

    1. Many thanks indeed for commenting, Georgia.

      I guess with Storm what irritated me was Stocker's assertion that parents "make too many choices" for their children, which was "obnoxious". My response to that is that basically children are not in a position to make choices for themselves until they are older. Some parents seem to see this as carte blanche to impose their specific world-view on their kids. I flatter myself that we don't: my wife and I come from different continents and all our kids are bilingual and bicultural. They have been raised to appreciate variety and diversity. (And, FWIW, I wholly agree with you that teaching a broad range of behaviours is a very useful and valuable thing).

      But I don't think children can simply be allowed to choose the way the world works. Though it may not suit the parents, this is the world of which their child is a part, and standing, like King Canute with his hand out, trying to hold it back is folly.


  6. Grok here. I'm wondering if the next evolution of Western Civilization will include our version of "Third Gender." The Internet may serve as a catalyst, permitting contact between individuals who are otherwise too few and too scattered to find each other.

  7. Grok posting. came across a list ( of groups in different countries. I am impressed by the diversity of cultures with such groups.