Sunday 19 November 2017

Nature always beats nurture

Rearing a daughter and a son has convinced Suzanne Harrington that boys will be boys and girls will be girls

Suzanne Harrington

We may be coy about our baby's sex when it's still inside us, but once the newborn has popped out, so has the secret. What did you have, people ask? It's a girl! It's a boy!

And so begins the tsunami of pink or blue. The rush to stamp a gender straight on to your infant is intense, and if you resist, everyone else will do it for you. Colour-coded cards, toys and babygrows become a daily reminder of difference. Resistance is futile.

Unless, that is, you just don't tell anyone whether your newborn is a boy or a girl.

You've probably heard about the thirtysomething Toronto couple Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, who have a four-month old named Storm. By not divulging Storm's sex to anyone except their other two kids, a trusted friend and the midwives present at the birth, the couple have indeed caused a storm. A big one.

In an email to their families, they wrote: "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 life -- a more progressive place?" (Sex is what you are biologically born with; gender is what society imposes on you in relation to your sex).

They've been castigated as "reprehensible" and "immature". Some 89pc of people polled by US talk show 'Today' disapproved of what the media has termed a 'social experiment'. As a liberal Canadian friend of mine put it: "I really admire those parents for what they are trying to do, and yet it kind of sounds like child abuse."

Witterick and Stocker have two other children, sons aged five and two called Jazz and Keo, who have not been exposed to gendered ideas of what boys are supposed to look like, and so are frequently mistaken for girls as they choose colours outside the boy palette.

Stocker teaches at an alternative school and was influenced by a children's book by Lois Gould called 'X: A Fabulous Child's Story', written in 1978. It's about a non-gender-defined child who is popular among their peers and overcomes adult prejudices.

The book outlines what lies ahead for baby Storm. The problems that face the fictional Mr and Mrs Jones, who are conducting an 'Xperiment' in defining their child as an X, might well be those that Stocker and Witterick will have to tackle.

On his first shopping trip, Mr Jones tells the store clerk: "I need some clothes and toys for my new baby." The clerk smiles and says, "Well now, is it a boy or a girl?"

"It's an X," Mr Jones says, smiling back. But the clerk gets all red in the face and says huffily, "In that case, I'm afraid I can't help you, sir".

"The strong, lightning-fast vitriolic response was a shock," Witterick wrote to ABC news, insisting that Storm's sex was not "a secret" but "private". "The idea that the whole world must know our baby's sex strikes me as unhealthy and voyeuristic."

Stocker made it even plainer: "If you really want to get to know someone, you don't ask what's between their legs."

Hmmm. There are two issues here. First, gender is a crucial part of identity from very young childhood onwards, which makes refusing to acknowledge it detrimental to the development of a child's sense of self.

The second issue is how gender identity has been hijacked by market forces to such a degree that in the post-feminist West, the artificial pink-princessing of female children and the bam-bam-bam of boys' toys seem to have overtaken Janet and John-style traditionalism in its man-made gender delineation.

In a bid to keep my kids -- a girl and a boy -- away from the passive princess/aggressive computer-games menu served up from the moment they can be propped in front of a screen, I sent them to a Waldorf Steiner school. No telly and rationed DVDs allowed them to develop gender identities without being screamed at by big businesses eager to colonise their unformed brains.

At school, they did baking, woodwork, knitting and gardening. During playtime, the girls often sat around making daisy chains and the boys often ran around chasing each other with sticks. But not always, and not exclusively.

I have never consciously stereotyped. My kids do household chores in relation to ability, rather than gender. Both tidy their rooms, both feed the pets and both clear the table.

But I have learned that: groups of boys run around more than groups of girls; girls huddle together more than boys; and that while identity is far more about the individual character of the child than gender, gender is still paramount.

There is no such thing as an X, once a child recognises him- or herself as a separate being and no longer an extension of the mother.

I have witnessed my son tearing around brandishing improvised weapons while wearing a tutu on his head as a fearsome headdress; to him, it really was fearsome. Equally, my daughter had no idea that pink was "for" girls until she was four; her Barbie phase was brief and she has always hated shopping.

However, there are some preferences which I believe can be innate. When there are gangs of kids at my house, our two dogs are subsumed into their imaginative play in entirely different ways. The girls do up the dogs and enter them in imaginary shows, while the boys employ them as fierce beasts who act as props in their war games.

The imaginative play of girl groups -- and this is only in my experience -- is social situation based and quite contained, while the imaginative play of boys, which is equally complex in structure, requires more space.

"Of course gender identity matters," says psychologist Oliver James, author of 'How Not To F*** Them Up'. "But actually, it is more to do with the projections of the parents ... they need a son or a daughter. At a very deep unconscious level, which comes from your own history of siblings and parents, you have a script."

Even in rare cases of gender identity disorder (a girl stuck in a boy's body, or vice versa), the child will still be drawn to one gender or the other. X does not exist.

One of my daughter's female friends, who is 12, has worn boys' clothes -- including underwear -- since she was old enough to express a preference. She is a girl who identifies as a boy, not as a neutral being.

"Hardly anyone says they have no gender, or both genders," says James. "I'd lay money on it that even people who anatomically have both reproductive kits will think of themselves more strongly as one gender over another. Social identity has to come from somewhere."

James maintains that while the obvious disadvantage for a genderless child would be playground teasing, there is also the fundamental question of identity; crucially, what you are to your parents.

If you don't relate to your child as something -- whether it's a boy, a girl, a tomboy, a mummy's boy, a girly girl, a little man, a girly boy, whatever -- then how can the child construct their sense of self, if they have nothing mirrored back to them?

Imagine trying to think of your child as just a child, rather than a boy child or a girl child. Go on: scrunch your eyes tight and really try to imagine them as shop-dummy neutral. Impossible, isn't it?

"Of course I think of my baby as 'she'," says my sister, the mother of one-year-old Zara. "To me she is totally a girl." Yes, but how? "She just is," insists my sister.

This isn't about pink -- it's about my sister's unconscious script, the one James mentioned, which denotes 'boy' or 'girl' deep inside her head.

While James is very clear that many of the so-called brain differences between males and females is what he calls a "grotesque overstatement", he is equally clear that boys and girls are not identical.

"Anyone who has children will realise that the idea of a genderless child is a lot of politically correct nonsense," he says. "Little boys and little girls are different."

Just not as much as we have been told for thousands of years by the patriarchy, and now by marketing departments. My children are constructed of separate gender identities, despite my efforts not to pink or blue them. During their pre-school years, from the ages of zero to three, I dressed my baby girl mostly in dungarees and bought her a mixture of 'boys' and 'girls' toys, and stood well back as my baby boy played with the frillier stuff in the dress-up box.

Yet she would create complex social situations with her dollies, while he would bash his on the floor until their heads fell off. Now she is 10 and he is seven, and she is all about horses while he is all about football.

I have taken her to football matches and watched her, eyes rolling, texting her friends to tell them she wished she was dead. I have marched my son to the local stables, only for him to sulk and tell me over and over again how bored he was and how stupid horses are.

I suspect part of these preferences are peer related -- if all her friends were like the girls from 'Bend It Like Beckham', she might be more tempted on to the football pitch; if all his friends were horse mad, my son might not be so dismissive of the equine world.

"Gender-identity pressure is greater than it has ever been thanks to commercial forces," says Sue Palmer, author of 'Toxic Childhood and 21st Century Boys'. "This gender identity divide begins at birth via marketing directed at parents. Never has the divide between pink girly things and blue/black flashing gizmos for little boys been so relentless.

"Parents who work hard on the anti-pink thing are often amazed at thechange in their little girls once they go to nursery -- the peer pressure to conform ismassive, and stems entirely from market forces rather than anything inherent."

Websites such as Pink Stinks rail against the princessing of girls. The site was started by Abi and Emma Moore, twin sisters born in 1971, who have two children each -- two boys aged four and seven, and two girls, aged four and eight.

"What we noticed was all the stuff that was starting to fill up our houses, and how for the girls it was pink princess castles, prin-cess dressing-up clothes and glittery make-up," Abi says. "We're not criticising the choices of children or their parents but the non-stop marketing and advertising aimed directly at kids. Creating two separate markets -- one for boys, one for girls -- means double the profits."

Natasha Walter, in her book 'Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism', trashes the arguments written up as fact in the right-wing media -- experiments by developmental psychopathologists such as Simon Baron-Cohen about how male infants stare longer at objects while female infants stare longer at faces has been offered over and over again as definitive proof of this 'new determinism'.

Elizabeth Spelke, a world leader in child cognition at Harvard, is having none of it: "It is astonishing how much this one study has been cited, when the many studies which show no difference between the sexes, or a difference in the other direction, are ignored."

In other words, men -- and women -- are still protecting the status quo of the patriarchy, these days via spurious science. But why do we still hang on to traditionalism? The truth is, I have no idea why women would ever want to prop up the patriarchy. Except that, to some degree, we are all still a bit brainwashed.

Like many women of my generation, I have been careful not to shove either of my children down any traditional gender cul- de-sacs. If my son wanted to dye himself pink and run away with the fairies, or if my daughter became a rugby-playing truck driver, they'd have my support. So long as they are nice people, that's all I ask.

While my children swarm around in a mixed gang of mixed-age children, they still display separate gender traits which I respond to individually.

How different from 1970s Ireland, when men were men and women were disempowered. Your choices were nurse, teacher, secretary or hairdresser, all ultimately leading towards wife/mother.

These days, our children are freer to be what they want to be, because although the patriarchy is alive and well and earning far more than the frazzled, juggling matriarchy, children in the post-feminist era face less pressure to conform to gendered traditions than before.

Unlike our mothers' generation, women are not being hot-housed for automatic marriage and motherhood; some 25pc will never have children. Boys can be ballet dancers or nursery workers and still be boys.

The situation is still far from perfect. At home, children still see mummy as the toilet cleaner and daddy as the go-to guy, or mummy as the toilet cleaner/bread winner, and daddy as the long-gone guy.

This is despite an alleged crisis in masculinity, which everyone is dying to pin on mothers because a mother's place has always been in the wrong: "It may be that persecution of mothers is a permanent feature of patriarchal societies, but at the end of the millennium, contempt for the mother seems to have assumed a new dimension," noted Germaine Greer in 'The Whole Woman'.

But really, any masculinity crisis has its roots in skewed notions of masculinity itself, which is passed from generation to generation through inequality. When men soften out and take on half of all childcare, only then will this gender thing iron itself out. Meanwhile, we have well-meaning gender experiments being acted out on unsuspecting Canadian babies by parents whose primary motivation seems to be something as simple yet radical as challenging the gender status quo.

And until we desist from complying with market forces so forceful that little girls are being processed into passive princesses and little boys into pint-sized assassins, the brainwashing will continue, creating future generations of passive nurturers and active go-getters, delineated from birth according to what's between their legs.

It's enough to make you scream. Enough, even, to make you resort to daft Xperiments to remove your kids from the whole dreary process entirely.

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