From Abracadabra to Zombies
Storm: caught in the behaviorist parenting trap
28 May 2011. By now most of you have heard about the Canadian couple who are not telling anybody, including grandparents, whether their youngest child is a boy or a girl. (OK. That's not quite true. They told the infant's siblings who are 2 and 5.) The Toronto Star says that its article on the couple's decision has become its most popular online story ever. The Star also reports that the couple is "shell-shocked" by the vehement reaction to the story about their decision to try to raise a gender-free child. The couple told the paper that "We've decided not to share Storm's sex for now -- a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime (a more progressive place? ...)." In an email to the Associated Press, the couple said the idea that "the whole world must know what is between the baby's legs is unhealthy, unsafe and voyeuristic." Apparently, television talk shows and bloggers are weighing in on the issue and much of the reaction has been vehemently negative. Some, however, supported the action as "courageous." Sorry, I'm neither outraged (it's their kid and I don't see how this action qualifies as abusive or obviously harmful), nor do I find the parents particularly courageous. If anything, they're naive.
Parents suffer from what psychologists call optimism bias and what others simply describe as self-deception. How we raise our children matters, of course, but parental influence on what our children become is far less than we like to think. When it comes to gender identity our influence is likely to be primarily genetic. In any case, gender identity involves much more than what's between your legs and whether you are conditioned to prefer pink to blue or dolls to trucks. Parents whose children are raised as boys or girls and yet opt for transgender surgeries and chemical treatments are unnecessarily beating themselves up if they think it was something about their parenting that "confused" their child. Gender identity obviously has an effect on young children, especially when one gender is favored over the other. Gender identity will be of major significance when the first feelings of sexual arousal appear. It is very unlikely that by the time that happens to Storm, he or she will feel genderless. Whether Storm will be gender-confused remains to be seen. Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, Storm's parents, know they are experimenting. They think they're doing a good thing. Many people think they're doing a very bad thing. I think they've fallen into the behaviorist trap set by Plato (Laws), some Jesuits (St. Francis Xavier?), B. F. Skinner (Walden Two), and others who believed they could create whatever kind of adult they designed by controlling the environment in which the child was reared.
The influences on gender-identity are many (genetics, peers, media, etc.) and they will far outweigh parenting in importance and lasting significance. Still, parents, grandparents, teachers, etc. can make the world a better place by treating all kids with respect. Treat children fairly. Don't give them any reason to believe that one gender is superior to the other. Pretending that gender differences don't exist, however, seems to belie a misunderstanding or ignorance of basic biological evolution.
* AmeriCares *