Baby with the Bathwater

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Some time ago, I encountered one of those news items that manages to be both repulsive and fascinating at the same time: an egalitarian couple from Canada have made news because they have decided to keep the sex of one of their children a secret. They are doing this so he can grow up, as they put it, "unconstrained by social norms about males and females." Part of their plan involves getting their other two children, one five years old and the other two, in on the secret.

Now, to be fair, it is true that some social norms -- and not just about sex -- are bad. But this couple's "cure" is far worse than the disease, as an editorial by Mitch Albom of the Boston Herald makes somewhat clear:

The Toronto couple believe they are giving their child a "choice" -- even though that choice was made by nature and was evident in the first pee-pee. Meanwhile, it seems pretty unfair to tell a 5- and a 2-year-old to keep a secret. Isn't that imposing something on them?

Personally, I am all in favor of a little imposition. It's time to eat. Time to sleep. Time to stop crying. Time to go to school. Don't treat others that way. Don't say rude things. [minor format edits]
Several related things interest me further here, although perhaps the first two are beyond the scope of Albom's editorial. (I'll throw them out there, anyway.)

First, if there is a major weakness in Albom's piece, it lies in a distinction he's relying on the reader to make between the "imposition" the couple is making and the "imposition" he favors. It's a normative distinction, namely, that some forms of parental imposition are good, and others bad.

Second, I would not be surprised to learn, upon further pressing Albom (or many other implicitly rational people), for him to object that the above couple are "taking things too far," rather than that the beliefs (explicit or implicit) they are acting on are not objective (i.e., based on perceptual evidence and logic), or that their method of approaching this issue isn't objective. This is because practically all philosophies (and stand-ins, like religions) do not have such a basis. This fact makes most philosophies inapplicable to real-world problems, and look (rightly) absurd when carried out to their logical conclusions. Albom does implicitly raise the issue of the couple's method of thinking about the problem they're trying to address being wrong, but he can only do so in metaphysical terms, when the couple's actions conflict with the facts of reality. He doesn't (and, I think, couldn't) argue that what they are doing is morally wrong. (And I bet he might have trouble helping a child understand why he shouldn't be rude, or what makes something rude.) So Albom correctly pegs the couple as ignoring a fact of reality, but then both objects to imposition and, later, stands up for imposition.

Third, it is interesting to see how many ways the couple's egalitarianism affects how they evaluate and think about sexual mores. They seem to regard them indiscriminately as impositions and, conversely, anything that could be related to their child's sex as up to his whims (and nothing else). This causes them to discard, as far as I can tell, such considerations as whether there are aspects of one's sex that have a bearing on behavior for good (e.g., biological or psychological) reasons, or whether it might be beneficial for their child to at least know what the relevant social mores are so he can more effectively interact with other people who adhere to those mores (e.g., If a boy likes pink, fine -- but he should at least be able to expect that he may have to stand up for his choice if he wears a pink shirt.). Fascinatingly, it is interesting to see what else goes by the wayside, like the importance of teaching children to be honest, as their quest to deemphasize the sex of their child curiously ends up warping every aspect of how they raise their children. It is as if it has never occurred to this couple that they could simply teach their child to question things as he encounters the mores they disagree with or his mind and personality have developed enough to think about them.

This is a disturbing, but thought-provoking story.

-- CAV


Clarissa said...

I am convinced that these people are just shameless media attention seekers who are hoping to cash in on this miserable kid who had the misfortune of being born to them. Something tells me that soon we will see a book come out on how to raise a "genderless baby."

Even the term "genderless baby" is silly because all babies are genderless. Gender identifications are only formed by the age of 3. I wish that people who conducted such social experiments on actual human beings at least learned the very basic difference between "sex" and "gender."

Gus Van Horn said...

Hah! I generally avoid the modern use of the term "gender" since it is usually package-dealt with egalitarianism and I hadn't actually thought of that point, but, yes, I have to agree.

Anonymous said...

The summer before my senior year, I worked with my brother contracting for the forest service and our contracting officer representative's wife was a doctrinaire feminist who was convinced that all gender was socially constructed. She insisted on raising their daughter without any "feminine" cultural influences like TV and magazines. The daughter was only about 5 yrs old at the time but drove her mom crazy because she still preferred lacy dresses and dolls and tea party dish sets. It was rather funny to watch her frustration as the metaphysical trumped the manmade, er, that is the huperpeople-of-nospecific-gender-made.

c. andrew

Dismuke said...

Wow. This just makes my blood boil.

In my view, this is nothing short of child abuse. I don't know enough about such matters to say whether or not it should be legally actionable. But I think this definitely steps beyond a parent merely raising a child to conform to some twisted ideology - which parents certainly have a legal right to do.

A quick google search turned up the original article on this that ran in the Toronto Star:

And not surprisingly, the parents are big time Leftists - for example, visiting Cuba to learn about the Revolution and spending time with a band of revolutionary guerrillas in Mexico.

My main reason for seeking out the article was to get an answer that I did not find: how on earth do they even propose to pull the nonsense off? Are they going to keep him in complete isolation from the outside world? Even if other people do not know the child's gender, at some point the child will have to interact with other people - and at that point, he will observe first hand without having to look underneath people's clothing that there is a difference between males and females in terms of how they dress, act and interact. And the minute he interacts with males and females who look and act like males and females, he is going to be exposed to the same stereotypes and social conventions that his parents claim to be sheltering him from - and those observations ARE going to have an impact on his impression of what it means to be male and female.

The only thing is he will wonder where the heck S/HE fits in to all this - and will probably get the worst possible sort of answers on both extremes both from his parents and from unkind strangers.

The child's five year old brother (who wears dresses, has braided hair and painted finger nails) is already is having problems. From the article:

"But he doesn’t like being called a girl. Recently, he asked his mom to write a note on his application to the High Park Nature Centre because he likes the group leaders and wants them to know he’s a boy."

God help baby "Storm" when he gets that age. Like I said - this is nothing short of child abuse. Teach your kids that the outside world is evil and rotten as much as you like. But at least give them the ability to survive and navigate through it on at least a very basic level.

The parents claim it is about giving the child a choice. But, in fact, the child is NOT given a choice. The fundamental choice with regard to interacting with other people and cultural norms is whether to remain loyal to one's own values or mindlessly conform to norms that are contrary to those values. And a person's most passionate values are mostly formed much later in childhood and early adulthood.

A child who has to go through life constantly trying to survive and fend off the grief of being universally perceived as a total FREAK is not going to have the emotional stability needed to form his own values. The parents are not protecting the child from the cultural norms and stereotypes they despise - they are, in fact, opening the kid up to the very worst such stereotypes in the cruelest way possible. They are setting the kid up to have to fight a psychological and emotional battle that THEY have chosen for THEMSELVES. The kid gets NO choice and NO say in whether he wants to have to deal with such a struggle - one that might very well linger many years into adulthood.

To me, that is downright EVIL - and I just hope that some sort of victimless crime law such as drug prohibition (which I do not support) lands the hippie parents in jail long enough for the kids to be sent to a relative who will actually love the kids enough to provide for the KIDS' best, long term interests rather than use them as guinea pigs for their blighted social engineering experiments.

Gus Van Horn said...


"Huperpeople" reminds me of "woperchild," one of my own internal farcical neologisms for for "gender"-neutral people. That said, it sounds like your doctrinaire feminist got the child she richly deserved!


Two things: Regarding how these people imagine getting away with their scheme, social isolation probably figures into it. I seem to recall that they home-"school" their children, the scare quotes referring to the "progressive" dogmas informing their ideas about education.

Second, your comments about how these parents are setting their kids up for conformity later on, this is similar in kind to the various stories of unguided hippies growing up to become fundamentalists.


Andrew Dalton said...

My favorite gender-neutral personal pronoun that I've seen elsewhere is a contraction of "he or she or it": h'orsh'it.

Gus Van Horn said...

My Dad didn't see the full flowering of gender-neutral pronouns, but if he had, he'd have been ready. When conjugating verbs in school as an adolescent, when he got to the third person singular, he'd slur he-she-it together with a similar result.

We were occasionally subjected to a nun in church who would edit any generic "he" in passages she read to "he or she." This eventually prompted Dad's recollection of he-she-it, and my parents started referring to the nun as "Sister It."

Dismuke said...

"Second, your comments about how these parents are setting their kids up for conformity later on, this is similar in kind to the various stories of unguided hippies growing up to become fundamentalists."

Sadly, those kids merely ending up as fundamentalists, I think, would actually be far better than what I fear the probable outcome might be.

Clearly becoming a fundamentalist would be profoundly self-limiting and restrictive. But within such narrow confines, it is possible for people to find and focus on non-prohibited values that will bring them at least SOME measure of contentment and SOME measure of self-worth out of life.

My fear for those kids is a fate much worse: painful psychological and emotional confusion and scars that will last for decades and a high risk of a life of substance abuse and perhaps even ending with suicide.

Even if things eventually do work out for them, those kids are still going to have to endure all sorts of grief, pain and confusion that is TOTALLY needless and preventable. For any parent to DELIBERATELY subject a child to something like that in the name of some deranged social engineering experiment - well, all I can say is may they rot in HELL.

Gus Van Horn said...

Agreed: Psychologically, this is likely to be far worse than the (relative) benign neglect of a more run-of-the-mill "progressive" upbringing.

Roger said...

Sadly, I think the child is handicapped from the outset, even without this hideous experiment, simply by being born to these "parents", and would probably end up with some serious psychological problems anyway. I wonder if the "parents" grasped the fact that there was no egalitarianism and no choice when conceiving the child, and none when the mother gave birth to it. It would seem that their metaphysical temper tantrum doesn't extend to themselves.

Gus Van Horn said...

The comments have been replete with gems lately: "metaphysical temper tantrum" is choice.