Gender Stereotyping and Parenthood Dilemmas

In an effort to avoid gender stereotyping, Beck Laxton and partner Kieran Cooper concealed the gender of their son from the world.  The gender neutrally named Sasha has now turned five and is starting school.  Prior to the commencement of formative school years, Sasha has been given the choice to dress in clothes that appealed to him, be they hand-me-downs from an older sister or an older brother.  When Sasha turned five, his parents were forced to reveal his gender, which means that Sasha will have to get used to being perceived as a boy by his peers.  Although the school requires different uniforms for boys and girls, Sasha’s mom is intervening by letting Sasha wear a girl’s blouse with his pants.

Last year, a different couple made a similar decision not to reveal their child’s gender.  Some psychiatric experts voiced their concerns:

“To have a sense of self and personal identity is a critical part of normal healthy development,” Dr. Eugene Beresin, director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, told ABC News. “This blocks that and sets the child up for bullying, scapegoating and marginalization.”

The article continues:

But as parents well know, bullying is hard for any child to avoid. It’s more important to raise someone who’s confident enough in himself to overcome peer pressure. It’s also important to have his parents have his back.

The question of personal identity is interesting as gender is certainly a big part of it.  However, that’s precisely the problem couples like Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper are attempting to avoid.  The question of bullying, scapegoating and marginalization is a bit trickier since such actions are certainly a product of dogmatically ingrained gender stereotyping, but they will not cease to exist just because Sasha’s parents have grown past them.  Although bullying may well be hard for any child to avoid, some children do get bullied more than others.  And although Laxton and Cooper are trying to inculcate a sense of self and others in Sasha, which they hope will be lacking gender stereotyping, are they also not sacrificing their child’s emotional and physical safety by setting him up for potential bullying?  It is quite important to raise someone who’s confident enough in him or herself to overcome peer pressure, but it could also be the case that exposing a child to more risk of bullying may have an adverse effect on his or her confidence.

That’s not to say that Sasha will be bullied, but it will depend on his environment.  If Laxton and Cooper chose an appropriate school, perhaps their goal of raising their son to be confident in himself and have a valuable dual perspective on gender will not be compromised by the very gender stereotypes they are attempting to undermine.  “Egalia,” a preschool in Stockholm, Sweden comes to mind (as an example of the kind of environment in which Sasha could flourish).  Staff do not use words like “him” or “her,” but rather a made-up neutral term and students are encouraged to do the same.  Moreover, traditional “boy” and “girl” toys are spatially integrated so as to obliterate any value systems associated with stereotypical gender preferences.  For those interested, here is the article.

Bullying has not ceased in spite of a laudable movement to curb it.  Although Laxton and Cooper’s hearts may be in the right place, they have influence only over Sasha’s worldview and not that of other children (who get theirs from their own parents or guardians).  Are they putting Sasha at risk, as Dr. Eugene Beresin claims?  And if the answer is yes, are they entitled to make such choices for Sasha if they lead to increased risk of bullying, which could potentially be developmentally as well as physically harmful?

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