Swedish parents keep 2-year-old's gender secret
Published: 23 Jun 2009 16:24 GMT+02:00
Pop’s parents [see footnote], both 24, made a decision when their baby was born to keep Pop’s sex a secret. Aside from a select few – those who have changed the child’s diaper – nobody knows Pop’s gender; if anyone enquires, Pop’s parents simply say they don’t disclose this information.
In an interview with newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in March, the parents were quoted saying their decision was rooted in the feminist philosophy that gender is a social construction.
“We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother said. “It's cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”
The child's parents said so long as they keep Pop’s gender a secret, he or she will be able to avoid preconceived notions of how people should be treated if male or female.
Pop's wardrobe includes everything from dresses to trousers and Pop's hairstyle changes on a regular basis. And Pop usually decides how Pop is going to dress on a given morning.
Although Pop knows that there are physical differences between a boy and a girl, Pop's parents never use personal pronouns when referring to the child – they just say Pop.
"I believe that the self-confidence and personality that Pop has shaped will remain for a lifetime," said Pop's mother.
But while Pop’s parents say they have received supportive feedback from many of their peers, not everyone agrees that their chosen course of action will have a positive outcome.
“Ignoring children's natures simply doesn’t work,” says Susan Pinker, a psychologist and newspaper columnist from Toronto, Canada, who wrote the book The Sexual Paradox, which focuses on sex differences in the workplace.
“Child-rearing should not be about providing an opportunity to prove an ideological point, but about responding to each child’s needs as an individual,” Pinker tells The Local.
“It’s unlikely that they’ll be able to keep this a secret for long. Children are curious about their own identity, and are likely to gravitate towards others of the same sex during free play time in early childhood.”
Pinker says there are many ways that males and females differ from birth; even if gender is kept ‘secret,’ prenatal hormones developed in the second trimester of pregnancy already alter the way the child behaves and feels.
She says once children can speak, males tell aggressive stories 87 per cent of the time, while females only 17 per cent. In a study, children aged two to four were given a task to work together for a reward, and boys used physical tactics 50 times more than girls, she says.
But Swedish gender equality consultant Kristina Henkel says Pop’s parents' experiment might have positive results.
“If the parents are doing this because they want to create a discussion with other adults about why gender is important, then I think they can make a point of it,” Henkel says in a telephone interview with The Local.
“You can talk about there being a non-stereotypical gender; if you are a girl you can do the same as a boy, and if you’re a boy you can do the same as a girl.”
Henkel also says a child's sex can deeply affect how they are treated growing up, and distract them from simply being a human being.
“If the child is dressed up as a girl or boy, it affects them because people see and treat them in a more gender-typical way,” Henkel explains.
“Girls are told they are cute in their dresses, and boys are told they are cool with their car toys. But if you give them no gender they will be seen more as a human or not a stereotype as a boy or girl.”
She says that without these gender stereotypes, children can build character as individuals, not hindered by preconceived notions of what they should be as males or females.
“I think that can make these kids stronger,” Henkel says.
Anna Nordenström, a paediatric endocrinologist at Karolinska Institutet, says it’s hard to know what effects the parents' decision will have on Pop.
“It will affect the child, but it’s hard to say if it will hurt the child,” says Nordenström, who studies hormonal influences on gender development.
“I don’t know what they are trying to achieve. It’s going to make the child different, make them very special.”
She says if Pop is still ‘genderless’ by the time he or she starts school, Pop will certainly receive a lot of attention from classmates.
“We don’t know exactly what determines sexual identity, but it’s not only sexual upbringing,” says Nordenström. “Gender-typical behaviour, sexual preferences and sexual identity usually go together. There are hormonal and other influences that we don’t know that will determine the gender of the child.”
Both Nordenström and Pinker refer to a controversial case from 1967 when a circumcision left one of two twin brothers without a penis. Dr. John Money, who asserted that gender was learned rather than innate, convinced the parents to raise 'David' as 'Brenda' and the child had cosmetic genitalia reconstruction surgery.
She was raised as a female, with girls’ clothes, games and codes of behaviour. The parents never told Brenda the secret until she was a teenager and rebelled against femininity. She then started receiving testosterone injections and underwent another genetic reconstruction process to become David again. David Reimer denounced the experiment as a crushing failure before committing suicide at the age of 38.
“I don’t think that trying to keep a child’s sex a secret will fool anyone, nor do I think it’s wise or ethical,” says Pinker. “As with any family secret, when we try to keep an elemental truth from children, it usually blows up in the parent’s face, via psychosomatic illness or rebellious behaviour.”
But with a second child on the way, Pop's parents have no plans to change what they see as a winning formula. As for Pop, they say they will only reveal the child's sex when Pop thinks it's time.
Footnote: Pop is not the child's real name but is the name used in Svenska Dagbladet's interview with the child's parents from March 6th.