Boys in Pigtails, Parents on Mars

Surprise! People have hang ups about boys in pink dresses.


Amy Chua is yesterday's news. Fortunately, the controversial-parent vacuum has been filled--by Canadians, no less! Toronto couple Kathy Witterick and David Stocker are making headlines by refusing to reveal the the sex of their new baby. 

Echoing the principles of the gender-neutral Free to Be You and Me media project of the early 70's, Witterick and Stocker are leaving it up to the child to discover/choose his or her own gender identity, and then share it with the world when, and only when, he or she is ready. This decision is, in their words, "a tribute to freedom of choice in place of limitation." The couple also has two older boys who often sport pigtails and painted nails. 

Not surprisingly, their little experiment is drawing criticism, and in some cases, outrage. The angriest critics charge that Witterick and Stocker are setting their kids up for a lifetime of gender confusion and social ostracism. This is probably going too far. Give Mother Nature a little more credit; she's usually pretty good at helping people sort these things out. She does give us some generous visual clues.

However, I do think that Witterick and Stocker are unfairly using their children to promote what is ultimately a short-sighted and incoherent social agenda. They're not bad people, but their brains do seem a little mushy--my guess is they listened to Alan Alda sing "William Wants a Doll" once too often. (Rumor has it Alda also cut a track called "Sally Wants a Bazooka," but it never saw the light of day. Too bad.)

Witterick and Stocker claim that society's fixation on gender gets in the way of self-discovery and the ability to make deep connections with other human beings, as human beings. "If you really want to get to know someone, you don't ask what's between their legs." 

Well, umm, you kinda do--at least subconsciously. It's nature's way of saving you from a potentially awkward moment over chocolate fondue and champagne. 

Our Canadian friends have to recognize this. But it doesn't stop them (or at least Witterick) from complaining about how people can't get past the gender question when they meet Storm or one of his/her older brothers. 

"We spend more time than we should providing explanations for why we do things this way. I regret that [five-year-old son Jazz] has to discuss his gender before people ask him meaningful questions about what he does and sees in this world, but I don't think I'm responsible for that [emphasis mine]--the culture that narrowly defines what he should do, wear and look like."

Many of Witterick's statements are naive. Some are obtuse. This one, however, is morally disingenuous. She can't be so blind as to not see that her deliberately provocative antics effectively guarantee that people won't get past the question of gender when interacting with her kids.

Witterick and Stocker have a choice. They can either foster an environment for their kids that minimizes the importance of gender stereotypes, or they can make a social statement about society's obsession with gender stereotypes by using their children to flout conventional expectations. They can't have it both ways. 

Sadly, their five-year-old son Jazz seems to be more aware of this than they are. The Toronto Star article reports that he likes wearing pink and reading books about boys playing dress up; but he doesn't like being called a girl. Once he even asked his mom to write a note on his application to a community group because "he likes his group leaders and wants them to know he's a boy." The child clearly intuits that his gender-ambiguous appearance is in fact an obstacle to connecting with people. I doubt I am the only one disturbed by the image of a little boy having to ask his mom for this kind of favor. 

It's silly to tell little kids they can't explore and experiment with gender roles. (This coming from a stay-at-home dad who loves the soft feel of a feather boa against his skin while he types.) But it's even more foolish not to recognize when it's time to gently suggest your son get a haircut--if doing so would allow him to get on with the business of being a five-year-old. 

Oh, and if I may, I have one more suggestion. 

Witterick and Stocker (who presciently named their baby Storm) obviously have a penchant for drama, and are no doubt eagerly awaiting the the day when the child is old enough to reveal his or her "big secret" to the world. 

Just be careful what you wish for. 

My kid recently revealed a "big secret." With a spring in his step, he walked up to friend on the playground, and, in front of a large crowd of parents, shouted with extreme glee, "Hey Simon! Guess what...I have LICE!"

Now that's something nobody can get past. 

Copyright 2013 Paul J. Rasmussen