Sisterhood Blog

A Gender-Bending Parenting Experiment Gone Wrong

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Even at a moment when I’m still transfixed by all those photo montages of Michael Jackson’s transformation from black boy to pale-skinned, snip-nosed mutant, this story from an English-language newspaper in Sweden called The Local, caught my eye.

It’s about a young Swedish couple keeping the gender of their two-year-old child a secret. They don’t use a personal pronoun when referring to the child, in this story dubbed “Pop,” they dress him/her variously in “boy” and “girl” clothes, and frequently vary the child’s haircut so as to mix up the gender cues that hairstyles often provide. According to The Local’s story:

The parents were quoted saying their decision was rooted in the feminist philosophy that gender is a social construction. “We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother said. “It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”

The child’s parents said so long as they keep Pop’s gender a secret, he or she will be able to avoid preconceived notions of how people should be treated if male or female.

Pop’s wardrobe includes everything from dresses to trousers and Pop’s hairstyle changes on a regular basis. And Pop usually decides how Pop is going to dress on a given morning.

These parents have misconstrued what feminism is and, worse, are imposing a rigid ideology on their poor toddler in the name of not imposing a gendered view of the world.

Now, when I had my first child 15 years ago, a son, I dressed him in all sorts of funky clothes. Lots of bright colors and patterns, along with some black leggings and turtlenecks (I am a New Yorker, after all) that would have worked on either gender. Never a dress, though. I just assumed that most of the clothes would work just fine for our next child, whichever the baby’s gender.

Out came a daughter, and the first time I put black leggings and a bold shirt on her, it just looked …. wrong. Not because she’s a girl, but because it simply didn’t suit her. This child looked best in very feminine, flowered prints. Now she’s 10 and out of the little-flowers-print-dress stage. But whatever she wears, it has girlish flair to it: A cute newsboy-type hat turned just so, or her hair up in some fun do.

Then we had our third delicious child, another daughter. This daughter’s style, like her personality, could not be more different than that of my elder daughter. Now 8, her clothing style is what I can only call (much to my reformed-prep-school-graduate chagrin) preppy. If the shorts or pants are plaid, the girl wants them.

What we choose to wear reflects who we are — one of the reasons I find it so discomfiting to see the fundamentalist Mormon girls and women in their matching prairie dresses, or orthodox Muslim women in their nearly identical face-covering burkas.

We all wear uniforms of one type or another, of course, broadcasting much about who we are and the slice of society in which we live. Here’s a Wikipedia page of categories of Jewish religious dress. Even when we dress to be wildly non-conformist, we’re conforming to some segment of societal norm. Chasidim have their uniforms, which vary significantly among the various Chasidic groups, and have subtle differentiations even within them — and Dead-heads have theirs, and we Brooklyn creative types have ours.

The problem I have with the story out of Sweden is not that they are trying to give their child the opportunity to be who he or she is, and really waiting for the child’s nature and style to emerge, but rather are imposing a rigid ideology on the poor thing.

Part of the delight of parenting is discovering who your child his. So, “Pop’s” Swedish parents, relax. Let your child pick out his/her own clothes, yes.

But forcing ungainly pronoun combinations when writing about him/her, purposely making him/her look like the opposite gender is going to do a head trip on him/her? It’s hard enough to raise emotionally healthy children in this complicated world. Don’t sacrifice his/her emotional health to an odd sociology experiment.

Beth Parness Fri. Jul 3, 2009

Horrific! Gender is not a social construction... Many of us who were born female or male are comfortable with our genders. When a person feels uncomfortable with their given physical gender they sometimes change it, stating they always felt male or felt female as far back as they could remember. However, trans gender people have a much harder adjustment to life than lesbian, gay or bisexual people. It seems to me that without any role models and without recognizing either gender in this child they are imposing a trans gender social construction. This will leave the child far more marginalized, far more vulnerable to attack both physically and emotionally than any other group of gender specific people. I would be interested to know if this child is exposed to the outside world via internet, TV, movies, or socialization/play groups.

arif Wed. Jan 13, 2010

thats wrong to rule yur childs life in such a way that he/she has to live in secracy to a certain degree thats wrong im thirteen and id kill if i was in the situation u may be doing this 4 publicty or anything but i say let him/her live a life of freeedom u only got 1 shot dont ruin his/her life so they live in regret its not too late cmongeting a teen to type up in deffence for some tiny unfortunate takes some serious stuff cmon look at your child do they look like there gonna live with this 4 the rest of their lives cmon let him/her live a life he/her will be discriminated if u let this carry on if u think yer protectinghim/her yer nt yer setting them up 4 a major let down might force him to take his/her own life think of the future

Hm. Wed. Jan 20, 2010

First, they aren't forcing ungainly pronouns on anyone; "Pop" is a great improvement over "him/her", and perfectly valid when referring to Pop.

Second, Pop chooses Pop's own clothes, they are simply giving Pop an array of options.

Your other point, that allowing Pop to choose when it becomes appropriate to tell people what type of genitalia Pop has is "a rigid ideology," is quite obvious. Yes, as you notice, we all behave in service of our own ideology. I invite you to raise your children not in service of your ideology: don't try to teach them anything or civilize them in any way, and see how well that works. Of course they're imposing their ideology on their child; that's called "raising a child".

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