Coming as we have from gender related issues in the perception of men in Paganism, I have changed tack a bit to comment on a story that broke yesterday and really asks some questions not just about gender, but about the limit of parent’s ability to control who their child will become. To get a close perspective on this, I consulted Ruh, a young man who has firsthand experience of this sort of thing, and a pagan here in NYC.
The story here is about a Canadian couple who have a unique view of raising their children; their two older boys, ages 5 and 2, are “allowed” (more on that below) to pick either boys or girls clothes, to either grow their hair or get it cut, they are “unschooled” (see the link to learn more on what that means), all in an effort to slow down what the parents call the “millions of messages” that society sends them to fit into a certain box. After the birth of their latest child, they have refused to tell anyone the child’s gender, waiting, as they put it, “so Storm can discover for him/herself what (s)he wants to be.” (As my wife pointed out, this arrangement makes for a lot of complicated pronouns!)
Clearly, these parents have their hearts in the right place, wanting to free their children from social restrictions, and no one would argue that society does bombard children with messages about what it means to be a boy or a girl, but the scientist in me balks at the supposition here, that gender is an entirely external construct; study after study proves that gender is partly biological, and children who are raised “gender neutral” often have a very difficult time adjusting. More to the point, isn’t saying you’re “allowing” your 2 year old to choose anything a self-deceiving fiction? Did that child really “decide” it wanted to grow his hair, or that he wanted to wear a pink dress? Isn’t that the parents putting their concept of neutrality on the child? In trying to free their child from social constraint, are they in fact putting more restraint than ever on them?
Ruh knows something about this, since his mom made a similar, but not quite as radical, decision when he was born; anxious to let him find his own way, his own identity, she waited to give him a truly significant name, giving him the “temporary” name Ruh, from the Gaelic for “red”, since he was a red faced little howler, and telling him when he was older he could pick his own name. Now, 17 years later, I asked him what he thought of this case. “I have to admit, my first reaction was, man, that is going to mess with the kids head. His folks may not like it, but I think you need some messages…some, I guess cues is a way of saying it, from people on what they expect. Part of life is knowing how to act in any group…you know, you’ll say things one way in front of your friends, another way with your mom. How is this kid going to act if he gets taught that only what he thinks matters? Does that mean he can say anything he wants to anybody? Can he call a guy in a wheelchair a cripple, even though society says that’s wrong, but he doesn’t follow society’s rules? Sounds like the making of a kid who’s a real selfish asshole.”
I also mentioned the privacy angle; in Storm’s case, everyone will know now, before she’s in any way aware of it, of her parents experiment, won’t she resent that? Ruh’s mom avoided that by only telling her fellow witches of her plan to let him pick his own name; anyone who asked was told it was a “family name”. “I guess that was her way of keeping it between us”, said Ruh. “I didn’t have to feel that all these strangers, everyone who ever met us, like all my teachers and all her friends, were kind of involved, all waiting for me to decide and tell them” That seems like a luxury that Storm won’t have, four months old and already half the world knows, and is now expecting something from him/her.
In the end, while it makes many people uncomfortable, devout Christians and Pagans alike, our biology, our cells and brain and DNA, are part of who we are and who we become, and telling a child to ignore the messages they get from themselves telling them who they think they want to be, in favor of some idealized notion of gender neutrality, seems more than a little cruel, and makes even more difficult the already treacherous path that children take to adulthood.