OPINION: We need to think about bringing up children without gender

by Lochlann Jain | Stanford University
Tuesday, 19 November 2019 12:12 GMT

Children play on an embankment during storm in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Crimea October 6, 2019. REUTERS/Alexey Pavlishak

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The idea of removing gender for child-rearing is unsettling, but instructive if we are to think about how to overcome harmful gender stereotypes

Lochlann Jain is an award-winning writer, artist and professor of anthropology at Stanford University and Kings College London

Sorting babies by sex, and “boying” and “girling” them through intensive instruction, is considered the most natural thing in the world

Such induction teaches us what to wear, how to spend time, our posture, and how to relate to others. Gender identities are stuck on with the same enthusiasm—and good intention—we use to tape that oversized pink paisley bow to a bald baby’s head.

While the vast majority believe in a gender binary, many good liberal westerners believe that females should also have access to the things that have been the exclusive rights of males: to inherit, become doctors and engineers, defend their country, be paid equally, play football in public parks, become prime ministers and presidents.

And similarly, that males should get to unapologetically cry, parent, cook, and make close friends.

In other words, that humans should have opportunities to physically and emotionally flourish.

Various strategies have certainly levelled the playing field. But why, then, is it recent news that an all-female crew of astronauts conducted a space walk? How could that have taken 50 years?

In part, this is because unequally-gendered access is not just about the present.

Male accomplishments have been materially and intellectually cemented into everyday life. From street names to war memorials, from emperors to CEOs, from super heroes to sports heroes, when we learn about how the world came to be, it is through the stories of men.

Making children boys encourages them to identify with such representations of maleness. These youngsters may not become King Arthur or Maradona but they can code their behaviors and entitlements in line with them.  

Feminised children, on the other hand, can’t simply be Batman or Einstein with the same ease. It takes some mental gymnastics to find kinship with the male characters that dominate the social world.

When girls want to be engineers, kings, street names, or genius entrepreneurs, they have to first take one great leap across the invisible barrier of the possible, and then navigate the judgement reserved for the suspected ambitious girl, the tom-boy, the lesbian, or the trans-boy.

It’s said that JK Rowling dreamed up Harry rather than Harriet Potter because, while girls will read anything, boys will only read about boys. It is possibly apocryphal, but the story resonates.

A culture geared to selling, whether movies or overpriced plastic wands, is unlikely to challenge this. We need another strategy.

What if we resisted gendering our children for a while by not showing or telling them which gender they ought to identify with?

Thinking around, rather than through, gender would take some ongoing work. It would be difficult to talk about a baby without using gendered pronouns.

But it’s not impossible—we take care over babies’ names. Would we move toward greens and yellows? Alternate between pink and blue? And toys?

This may feel unsettling. How would the baby slot themselves into the world? The bow and the bow-tie are the paths of least resistance for exhausted parents.

Then again, arguably, this model of gender-deferral offers a less violent approach to the current practice of telling our girl-children that they can do anything boys can, while requiring inhuman psychic contortions for them to merely conceive of the conditions for their success.

What if it turned out that once the stigma were truly removed, a good portion of little people welcomed the role of caretaking? Some of those would advocate to ensure that the history of care-taking would no longer be “women’s history”, added as an afterthought among the halls of swords, chest-plates, and medals, but would take its rightful place as a fully-fledged component of human history.

It’s not a solution, but a thought experiment - with the goal of unburdening future children from the trap of history.

Assuaging our own fears may not warrant the stunning losses in human flourishing that current gender hierarchies reproduce.