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Do we harm our children by revealing their sex?

by Rebecca Roache

I am over a
month late reading
the news of the Swedish couple who have chosen to keep the
sex of their toddler a closely-guarded secret
, but the story is too interesting
to pass up the opportunity to write about it here.

The parents
of the two-and-a-half year old child, known as Pop, explain, ‘We want Pop to
grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the
outset.  It's cruel to bring a child into
the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead’.  The wish to protect one’s child from gender
stereotyping is understandable, but is refusing to reveal Pop’s sex going
too far?

To help
answer this, suppose that the principle that Pop’s parents are following were applied
more widely.  People are often
stereotyped on account of their sex, but they are also stereotyped on account
of all sorts of other factors too, including their hobbies, friends, favourite
sports teams, and musical tastes.  Would
children ‘grow up more freely’ if these aspects of their lives could be kept
secret?  I suspect not.  Whilst we risk being stereotyped by revealing
our hobbies, favourite sports teams, and so on, asserting our preferences
in these respects can be central to the way in which we express our social
identities.  Indeed, that these preferences
are expressed publicly is often so important to us that the prospect of their
being misunderstood can be horrifying: consider the distaste with which dedicated
football fans receive the prospect of wearing the shirt of their team’s
fiercest rivals (a distaste that
the DJ Danny Baker has exploited to raise money
for charity
Publicly revealing our sex, too, is an important aspect of the way in
which we express ourselves.  Transsexuals
go to a great deal of expense, pain, and social upheaval to acquire what they
perceive to be their true sex—not, presumably, so that they can fall victim
to the right sorts of stereotypes, but so that they can better express their identities.  

So, there
are costs and benefits associated with publicly revealing our sex: falling
victim to stereotypes versus asserting our identities.  Pop’s parents, we might suppose, are doing the right thing by refusing to reveal Pop's sex if the net benefits of growing up genderless outweigh the net
benefits of growing up gendered.  But do
they?  Empirically, it is very difficult
to tell: as far as I’m aware, there is no available data on what it is like to
grow up in Pop’s sort of genderless circumstances.  (Let us ignore the sort of genderless lives
experienced by people born with biologically indeterminate sex, or those who
do not decide until adulthood to live a genderless life—both of which are sufficiently different to Pop’s circumstances to confuse matters here.)  And
because nobody knows what it is like to grow up in Pop’s sort of circumstances, it turns out that whilst Pop’s parents may be protecting Pop from the well-known drawbacks of a
gendered life, they may also be exposing Pop to a host of unknown (and possibly
worse) drawbacks of a genderless life.  In this, as in many other matters, a precautionary approach is not necessarily a low-risk one.   

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23 Comment on this post

  1. “Publicly revealing our sex, too, is an important aspect of the way in which we express ourselves.”

    But Pop is 2½. What is your empirical basis for claiming that revealing their sex is an important aspect of the way in which 2½ year old children express themselves? It seems utterly baseless. On the other hand other people have strong urges to label and compartmentalize their actions towards the child based on crude gender role habits. By not revealing the sex the parents are lessening such effects.

  2. In my experience, gender is indeed an important part of how even 2½ year old children express themselves – it helps determines which role models they choose, which groups they identify with, the clothes they like to wear and the toys they like to play with, and so on. Of course, their choices in these matters may be heavily influenced by the expectations of others, and this is presumably what Pop’s parents want to avoid. However, from the fact that being raised as a child whose sex is known can restrict one’s freedom in certain ways, it does not follow that Pop is more free. Pop’s freedom may be restricted in other ways as a result of being raised in this genderless way. For example, suppose that Pop is encouraged to identify equally with boys and girls, by behaving sometimes in the way generally expected of little boys, and sometimes in the way expected of little girls. It is quite possible that, by failing to ‘commit’ to being either a boy or girl, Pop will not be fully accepted by either group. This certainly seems to be true in some similar situations: a football fan who openly switches support back and forth between two different teams is unlikely to be accepted by either set of supporters. Or, it could turn out that those people prevented from stereotyping Pop on account of his/her sex will nevertheless form a new set of expectations about him/her on account of his/her indeterminate gender. Or, the secrecy about Pop’s sex could leave Pop with the impression that there is something shameful about his/her sex. And so on.

    There is nothing to suggest that these potential problems are remotely likely to arise, of course. But neither is there anything to suggest that keeping Pop’s sex a secret will give him/her more freedom. Perhaps Pop’s freedom, in the relevant sense, could be maximised by less drastic means – such as by openly revealing Pop’s sex, but encouraging Pop to reject gender-based expectations if he/she wishes.

  3. I counteranecdote your experience so it is a draw there. Statistical data is what really counts here and there is none on gender-less living.

    “a host of unknown (and possibly worse) drawbacks of a genderless life”

    It is a priori equally possible that there is a host of unknown (and possibly supergood) advantages of a genderless life (not simply neutralizing negative aspects of gendered life but moving Pop far into “positive” territory).

    The only thing we know for now are the really bad features of gender-compartmentalized upbringing.

  4. Dennis J. Tuchler

    Rebecca and Jonah: Given possible consequences of an attempt at a sex-neutral upbringing how do you decide whether the probability of the harm is worth the attempt? My view of parenting responsibility precludes using ones child for ideological experiments unless one is damned certain that it will benefit more than harm the child when it enters into society and learns how to survive and prosper.

  5. The “less drastic” approach suggested by Rebecca is presumably what millions of parents around the developed world are already doing: it’s mainstream, it’s boring, and (in line with Dennis’s comment about not using one’s child for ideological experiments) almost certainly the right thing to do. On the other hand, society at large is surely benefitting from this “experiment”, and I would guess that this is likely to be a very minor factor determining the child’s welfare.

  6. Dennis and Peter – I agree with both of you. Boring parenting techniques are as likely to achieve the relevant good as Pop’s parents’ approach, whilst also (because familiar and established) being lower risk. So there is no good reason to adopt the wacky approach.

  7. Dennis: We have two upbringning alternatives, A and B. There is ample evidence that features of A cause bad effects for the individual. Alternative B does not seem to have those features. Everything else about B seems equal. It is possible that B has other, hidden bad-making features. It is equally possible that B has other, hidden good-making features. That totals up to what seems to be good reason to opt for B.

    Peter Wick: to bring up ones child in gender-compartmentalization is an ongoing ideological experiment.

  8. Rebecca: to say there is no good reason to adopt the wacky approach is a stronger statement than the one I was making. As an individual parent I would certainly not want to take it myself but that doesn’t mean there is *no* good reason to do so. Just that the reasons not to do so seem to me to outweigh those in favour. I also think there’s an interesting distinction to be made between (i) what we do, or would do, as individual parents, (ii) what we tolerate in others (should people be *allowed* to adopt the more wacky approach), and (iii) what we approve of in general. On balance, I’m glad the couple in question are adopting this approach, because the rest of us can learn from it and, as per my previous comment, I would not expect significant damage to the child’s welfare if the more important factors (such as a generally supportive and harmonious environment) are in place.

    Jonah: I take your point about the “ongoing ideological experiment” but this is not only about “gender compartmentalisation” vs “genderless upbringing”. It’s also about secrecy. The main worry I would have in this case is that the parents in question are encouraging the child to see gender as problematic in some way. There are other and I would say better ways to counteract undesirable gender biases.

  9. Good points Peter. Maybe members of the “parent community” so to speak even have some weak duty to help and support (not just tolerate) families that “break ground” like Pop’s family does, given that the gender problems we are in affect us all.

  10. I’m late in the debate, it seems, but this is indeed a topic of great interest. And while I wait for the news article to actually load, I would voice preliminary concerns.

    Having a particular gender is, for better or worse, the social norm damn near everywhere. Having a gender more generally is similarly a damn near universal norm as well (again for good or ill). Not only should males be boys and females girls, you must be either one or the other. There is no conception of neither in the social psyche. That given, I am at the outset concerned for the social life this toddler is experiencing.

    Unless “it” is being kept in selective isolation, few people she meets, her age or otherwise, would be accepting or understanding of her genderlessness. Whether this takes the form of mere puzzlement or outright phobia and hate is somewhat secondary, tough significant nonetheless. The point is that her social interactions will be compromised from the beginning, either way.

    Noble as the goal of the parents may be (and I do not think it is) it is “the road to Hell paved with good intentions.” As was alluded to in the original post, gender is an important part of identity. Now imagine yourself faced with a world that is (again, for better or worse) divided into two general (mutually exclusive and exhaustive) classes by which others identify themselves while you are effectively denied this option. Not a pleasant existence, if you ask me.

  11. Jonah: As well as upbringing alternatives A (which causes bad effects) and B (which does not have A’s bad effects, and may have other unknown effects, good or bad), we also have C (which lacks A’s bad effects, along with bad effects in general). C is the mundane way of protecting one’s children from the damages of gender stereotyping that we have been discussing. The availability of C makes B an undesirable alternative. That B may possibly come with unknown advantages is not a good enough reason to adopt it, given that it may just as well bring disadvantages: in my view, this is not a gamble worth taking with one’s child’s well-being. But I think we may need to agree to disagree about this!

    Peter: That there is no good reason to adopt the wacky approach is my view – I did not mean to ascribe it to you. I’m not sure we disagree about the fundamental point, though: I accept that there may be reasons to adopt the wacky approach (e.g. to satisfy the parents’ desires to do so), and my claim that there is no *good* reason to do so means something like your view that the reasons not to do so outweigh the reasons to do so.

    Dmitri: I agree. Pop’s parents assume that being genderless is like being gendered, only without the restrictions on one’s freedom. They fail to consider that it may attract a new set of drawbacks.

  12. “C is the mundane way of protecting one’s children from the damages of gender stereotyping that we have been discussing.”

    Can you give me a reference to empirical work that indicate reliable effectiveness of such strategies. I should also note that your argument, when applied in earlier decades, could have been used against those who broke ground then and effectively created alternative C. So there is something ironic over your appeal to that.

    But disagree we will. At root I’m very sceptical of vague objections to “minority family patterns” in the vein you’re pursuing here. If the family gets the basics right (ample love, care and time for the child, respect of basic rights, stable economic circumstances and so on) then extrinsic factors (people hating a child because of its gay parents or whatever) will have very little effect on the well-being and prospects of the child.

  13. Presumably, the intent of Pop’s parents is to shield their child from the harms of gender stereotyping and the confines of gender roles, not from any supposed evils of gender itself. Admittedly, I have not read this story except through the discussion here, but it seems that this parenting approach, at least as an idea, is compatible with the hope that the child will come to identify with a particular gender and will then find ways to express that gender through roles that are not pre-ordained for him or her.

    In practice, though, this compatibility is at least questionable. If this debate continues, I suggest that it not do so through discussions of the potential benefits or harms afforded to a child whose gender-roles are veiled. It might be more useful to examine whether it is possible for anyone to realize his or her gender apart from certain societally recognized roles. Those who think that this could not happen would not be offering a defense of gender-stereotyping or of paternalism or other gender-dominance systems, but would rather be expressing doubt about our ability to competently make sense of our genders (and not our sexes) as something prior to gender roles. In this, the argument would mirror those over whether or not the “self” is an intelligible entity prior to and apart from its historical circumstances. The question seems to me something like the opening comments from Jonah and Rebecca: Is gender intelligible without a reference point? Can we come to know it before we come to know its roles?

  14. We could generalise this even further and examine whether it is possible for anyone to build any kind of sense of identity at all “apart from certain societally recognised roles. I suspect that many psychologists would say that it isn’t.

    The narrower question suggested by Mark seems to some extent to be a question of semantics. If gender is taken (as most people do) to be a slightly more polite or politically correct way of referring to someone’s sex, then the social dimension would presumably be somewhat less essential than if it “refers specifically to socially constructed and institutionalized differences” (once again I borrow the phrase from Wikipedia), in which case the answer can, presumably, only be “no”.

  15. Isn’t this addressing though a wider rights issue which is a no win situation. Do children have a ‘right’ to be brought up free of any wacky or ‘normal’ parental preferences? If so what about the ‘right’ to be brought up under wacky or normal preferences? Just watched John Stewart and The Daily show about a prospective Muslim foster parent who was knocked back because she wouldn’t allow pork in her house. Now we could ask specifically what right do children from Jewish or Muslim families have to eat whatever food they wish to eat? Problem is if you then allow such a right the reverse kicks in and you deny them any ‘right’ to be bought up under their religion.

    Having said that what about circumcision? Given the prohibition in many Western countries against female circumcision should then practice be outlawed as well leaving it until the individual is old enough to make their own legal decisions.

    Or still on religion what about a child who says they are an atheist should they be forced by religious parents to go to Church or any ‘de-programming’?

    PS Peter Wicks did you get my message from my brothers Facebook account?

  16. Hi Simon, no I didn’t – wrong Peter Wicks perhaps? How do we deal with this without one of us revealing our e-mail address to the entire world? (Suggestions welcome!!)

    I think you’ve raised an intriguing issue in relation to rights. To take it to the most general level: if society gives anyone a “right”, then they are taking away that person’s right not to be accorded that right. Or again: whatever we do that impacts someone else, we are taking away their freedom not to be impacted in that particular way.

    Of course this does not mean that the concept of “rights” is not useful, but it perhaps suggests that it is not as fundamental a concept in ethics as some might think. Applying this to the case in point, the idea that a child has a “right” to be brought up free of societally recognised gender roles quickly becomes absurd if taken too far, and I think my response to Mark demonstrates this convincingly.

    As a further thought on the issue of gender, my own view is that it has become controversial because various societal (including technological) developments since the industrial revolution have made the traditional gender roles unsustainable in various ways. That doesn’t mean they were perfect before that happened, but it does suggest that we might be better off, at least in the short term, trying to find new, more appropriate gender roles than abolishing them altogether. In the longer term, perhaps we will indeed transcend the male-female dualism that biology has imposed on us up to now.

  17. Hi Peter, oh well the other Peter Wicks got a surprise 🙂 Rebecca has fixed this though.

    I actually think this is more complicated on a number of different levels. From adult/child rights and informed consent vs. willing consent, to gender roles within socially constructed identities, to the social construction of at least some ‘harms’ and ethical bias- that we accept/rationalize ‘harms’ from social norms we agree with, but see ‘harms’ we don’t agree with as reason not to allow that circumstance.

    In regard to gender, given the importance of early gender identity/roles for children as a means of fitting in with peer groups and the surrounding culture in general, not adhering to traditional gender roles could cause severe psychological trauma to the child. But is that reason enough to prohibit this preference of the adults?

    Considering the ‘harm’ that allowing a gay child or even just one that masturbates to grow up in a cultural group that strongly dislikes this behaviour, obviously psychological harm by itself isn’t the full story.

    Also I’m not sure if anyone caught it recently but a Nazi family had their kids taken off them because they gave them Nazi themed names. Does Freedom of Speech extend to names? & even if the family is racist, is that reason enough to take the children if they give good care in other ways? What about the kids rights to their ‘culture’ even if offensive to others?

    Lastly on a slight tangent what about a child’s ‘right’/interest in a good upbringing? (Whatever that is.) Or is it just not a harmful one? I think it would be a safe bet that many natural parents wouldn’t pass foster parents requirements; so isn’t that saying they aren’t fit to be parents? Is this then a kind of child abuse?

    I think that when population and resource issues come to a head a couples ‘natural right’ to have children may change, but then who decides what it is to be a fit parent?

  18. Related to this is the question, “What constitutes psychological trauma?” (severe or otherwise). Do we have an agreed and objective way to measure or at least define this? The most obvious candidate for a definition would seem to be “such as to lead to a long-term deficit of happiness”. But there is ample evidence that adversity in childhood doesn’t always have that effect. Exactly what determines how someone reacts to adversity is still a matter of considerable debate and controversy; certainly genes must play a crucial role, but so do ideas. Personally I find the “positive psychology” school of Martin Seligman et al to be among the most promising approaches in this respect.

    It remains the case that not adhering to traditional gender roles could be a causal factor leading to severe psychological trauma, but it seems unlikely that it would be the sole or even the most important one. Regarding your other examples Simon:

    – the gay/masturbating child example is linked in my mind to the question of how tolerant we should be of intolerance in general, and homophobia in particular. Like with abortion, I think some kind of a middle ground or “line in the sand” needs to be drawn, while accepting that this will to some extent be arbitrary. Another consideration is that the reason certain cultural groups strongly dislike this type of behaviour is often related to adherence to false (or unfalsiable) religious beliefs.

    – in the Nazi case the motivation, whether consciously recognised or not, may have gone beyond care for the child and included abhorrence at the perceived social pollution the parents were inflicting. Where did this happen by the way?

    As a more general comment, following on from my previous one about the limitations inherent in the concept of “rights”, I still think it is more useful to think in terms of *values*, and to be as explicit about them as we can. We can, for example, decide to value whatever increases peace and prosperity, including psychological welfare, and judge cases such as these purely on this basis. We may still disagree about facts, consequences, and the details of what we mean by peace and prosperity, but it would help to frame this and other debates – including discussions about who has a “right” to what – if we agreed that this is the ultimate goal.

  19. In response to Peter and Simon:

    First, I agree with Peter’s comment that rights are perhaps not as fundamental to ethics as we think they are. I would go a step further, however, and add that they are, in fact, quite unhelpful and are not useful at all in debates such as this one. This is not just because of the paradox that the recognition of one right is simultaneously the denial of the right to be free of that recognition. It is also because rights do not serve the function they purport to; they do not function as the U.S. Constitution does, offering the foundational principles by appeal to which we can hope to settle disputes. What a feminist means by “right to life” and what a Roman Catholic means by the same phrase is not graspable in the phrase itself. The phrase is short-hand for a more comprehensive body of thought in both cases, and the concept of “rights” distorts the deeper thoughts and gets us arguing about the wrong details.

    To add to this, Peter might be correct in saying that my previous comments were largely a matter of semantics. But I hope that in clarifying them they point to something more. In debates about the appropriateness or fairness of gender roles, there is a distinction (though not always clear) between sex and gender– sex may be defined biologically, while gender may admit of a psychological component, or we may point to other details that separate the two. Whatever the case, the point I was trying to make was about intelligibility. Gender roles are not something that just follow from an already-settled gender-identity. I don’t simply identify as male by sex and masculine by gender and then begin to live out that identity in roles; it is, by contrast, through acting out in roles that I am even able to understand my gender at all. It is not possible for me to identify my gender and make it intelligible to myself without a means to doing so, and that means cannot simply be a matter of internal reflection.

    As a final comment, then, psychological trauma need not be defined in terms of happiness (and I hope that it is not). Tentatively, it can instead become a matter of intelligibility: it may be psychologically traumatic for a child to be raised free of gender-identity because it makes part of the child’s concept of self unintelligible (even to that child). It is not that this way of child-rearing simply does not conform to cultural standards; it is rather that this deprives the child of something fundamental to the development of his or her sense of self.

  20. Peter I take your point about ‘rights’ though I do think it is a developing societal norm to think in this way. Regardless I think one should factor in societal inertia and resistance to change even if something considered objectively harmful. Consider male circumcision, smacking or that parents are still allowed to smoke around the children in some countries. Social construction will always have a lot of relativity about and it could just come down to when in Rome.

    As you know I’m all about consistency it just seems to me we have our own ethical bias in this regard in that we allow plenty if behaviour that can be harmful in many ways to specific children. Since that is so we either bite the bullet and clean our act up or allow things like withholding a child’s gender to go ahead.

    Maybe one could argue we have unwritten social norms/values involving families and unless the behaviour is either against a traditional societal norm or is at the extreme ends of what is considered objectively harmful, families are allowed a lot of wriggle room.

    “What constitutes psychological trauma?” Not sure. It would be interesting for experimental ethics to collaborate with psychology to get a better understanding of this.

    The Nazi family was in the US

    Mark how about a family that felt strongly about a unisex upbringing? A Unisex identity instead of the traditional gender dichotomy would then become the foundation of child’s identity.

  21. The point about societal inertia is important: we should not simply accept existing social norms unquestioningly because they’re there. For me this is where being clear about our most fundamental values becomes important. If it’s peace and prosperity, then this will guide our positions on other issues.

    Regarding the unisex upbringing, in many ways I think the trend during the latter half of the twentieth century was towards just such a concept of gender. Hence the increasing intolerance of any form of gender discrimination. One may argue that the pendulum has started to swing back the other way, and one may see this as good, bad or a mixture of both. From my perspective, it could be good to the extent that we are managing to find more appropriate (and flexible) ways of defining nevertheless distinct gender roles. It would be bad if it was just a regression to traditional roles based on fear and oppression.

  22. I find this concept of bringing up a child without a gender outrageous! Maybe between birth to ages 4 or 5 gender is somewhat irrelevant. But once that child developes a sense of what it’s like to live in the world and a sense of self they will be utterly confused.

    Once hitting school age and gaining peers who are ‘boys and girls’ the child will be boldly faced with the questtion ‘what about me?’. They will be utterly confused about where they fit and why they are different, and instead of gaining an education during their school years they will be searching for their identity!

    Parents simply cannot make the desision to with hold a childs gender, it’s simply nothing but a social experiment and could be considered a form of child abuse.

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