Thursday, June 2, 2011

Is It A Boy or a Girl?

Today's guest blogger, Prabhakar Ragde, is a professor of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. In the 1990s, he and his wife, quietly and without fanfare, made the decision not to reveal the sexes of their two children. In this post, he reflects upon that decision and its repercussions in light of the unprecedented media frenzy surrounding the so-called "genderless baby."

Is It A Boy or a Girl?

by Prabhakar Ragde

Twitter is my link to the zeitgeist. It's where I learned of the Japanese earthquake and the death of Osama bin Laden. But I also learn about many less momentous events and situations, such as the one described in an article in the Toronto Star about a Toronto couple who weren't announcing the sex of their third child.

The article went "viral", exploding on both the Web and in traditional media, eliciting much ignorant reaction from anonymous readers and only slightly more nuanced expressions of concern from so-called experts. Back in my Twitterverse, some of my tweeps offered their own 140 characters of acerbic comment. I argued back, more confidently than usual, because I had something they didn't: empirical evidence. My wife and I had done the same thing, with the birth of our first child Arju in 1992, and again in 1995 with Zazuki (Zuki), and anyone who knows our teenagers knows how well they have turned out.

Why would we want a "genderless baby"? Well, we didn't, and neither did the Toronto couple. There are three related notions of gender here. The first is biological sex, for which people often use the word "gender" as a euphemism. The second is psychological gender, or gender identity — the sex with which a person self-identifies. The third is the social role assigned to a man or woman, leading to the quote, "Gender is a social construct". The correct answer to the question "What is the baby's gender?" is probably "No one knows yet," for all babies. But what the question really is asking is "What is the baby's biological sex?"

The asker probably wants to know in order to fit the baby into a social role, and in doing so, change the nature of interaction. Although the asker will probably steadfastly deny that they would treat a boy baby and a girl baby differently, it's not hard to turn up peer-reviewed studies demonstrating otherwise. We cited a few of these in our birth announcement (we couldn't resist the conceit of including a bibliography).

But the largest influence on our children in the early years was, of course, their parents. We knew their biological sex. We'd grown up in an era when it was unusual for married women to work outside the home, or to keep their last names on being married. We're not self-aware or iron-willed enough to avoid our own gender biases, even if we wanted to completely eliminate them (which it's not clear we should, considering that our children have to live in a gender-biased world). So this was never about affecting the children, except indirectly in the examples we set as parents as they grew up. It was a minor bit of consciousness-raising among our immediate circle of family, friends, and acquaintances. Minor in the grand scheme of things, that is; it loomed fairly large for us at the time, despite the lack of media attention.

Fortunately, we have no traditions in this culture of routinely displaying the genitals of newborns, so the only things we needed to do were to avoid dressing our children in all pink or all blue, and avoid using words such as "he" or "she". It's not hard to do this in writing, especially if one is willing to adopt the singular "they" (for which there is historical precedent). Extemporaneous speech is another matter. I managed it by dint of furious concentration and much stammering, and it got easier with practice. If someone asked directly, we would briefly explain our stance, but otherwise we simply never corrected anyone's assumptions, except to spare them embarrassment. And people would make assumptions based on the flimsiest of evidence (even on whether they thought the children's names, which we made up, sounded like they referred to one sex or the other). I can remember four occasions when I slipped up and used a sex-specific pronoun to refer to Arju, but it was because the person I was talking to was using them. Twice I used "he", and twice I used "she".

My wife's parents, thousands of miles away, accepted our decision; mine, closer by, did not. Siblings and other family members we were close to were supportive. Among our friends, some were enthusiastic about the idea, and some were dubious, and it was sometimes surprising to us who took which stance. My wife and I are both professors in the same department, and our secretary reported mostly puzzlement among the academic staff. One woman was concerned that Arju would turn out gay (hard to see the logic in that one), and a few said that because they didn't know Arju's sex, they couldn't buy gifts (which we'd asked them not to do in the birth announcement, anyway). When we were out in public, we didn't make a point of bringing the topic up, but sometimes people would ask, and we'd gently explain. We never encountered any hostility; at worst, the subject would be abruptly dropped. More often, we got some clarifying questions, and maybe a nice expression of support.

We tried to choose sensible, attractive clothing in a range of colours, which meant choosing from both racks in the store, as pinks and pastels were on the girls' side, and other bright colours were on the boys' side. We gravitated towards toys that were not only fun but stimulated creativity and imagination; that meant a wide array, including both dolls and trucks, building blocks, and miniatures for role play both domestic and "on the job". (It probably helped that I did the cooking, while my wife mowed the lawn.)

Our university, at the time, topped up salary during maternity leave, but only for thirteen weeks. We had a particular daycare in mind, but we hadn't put in an application before Arju was conceived, as we would have had to do to get a spot at three months. It was nearly a year later when a slot opened up. We'd visited several times in between, to keep up our visibility, and the director of the daycare had been one of those making an incorrect assumption about Arju's sex. So when we handed in the completed registration forms and the first cheque, we had to gently explain why we hadn't corrected her.

We didn't ask for special treatment, but the director clearly took the lesson to heart, and discussed it with the staff. Years later, my friend L attended a party where she overheard a conversation in which my children came up. One of the participants had been a worker at our daycare; she didn't know that L knew us and would report back. She said that attitudes had changed among the staff as a result of the situation; they thought about possible biases in their actions, and went about their jobs in a more thoughtful, introspective fashion. How long-lasting that effect was, it's impossible to say. But this is one way that progress occurs, through small, local changes.

When Zazuki was born in 1995, no one blinked an eye when we said we were doing it again (and this time, we had put in a daycare application before conception!). Arju was by then a delightful, talkative creature, and any fears they might have had, had long since been put to rest. I kept the birth announcements up on my Web page for a while, though as the kids grew up, they seemed like old news, and I took them off. But history has a way of resurfacing.

Back in 2011, my "been there, done that" tweets must have been noticed, because a reporter from Postmedia (which owns the National Post) e-mailed me requesting an interview. I refused phone contact but gave a short statement by e-mail. He wanted more detail, and I agreed to answer by e-mail the questions he would have asked over the phone. As a consequence of my being able to compose my responses, the article had fewer distortions than usual. What I hadn't expected were the phone calls from TV networks. I let them e-mail me, and turned them down. Apparently, the Toronto couple who started the latest furor did the same, as the woman explained in a rational and intelligent article written entirely in her own words. And with that, the attention of the world turned elsewhere.

I wrote my answers to the reporter using gender-neutral language to refer to my children (as I have done here) to make a point, even though he had done his research on the Web (looking, perhaps, at their Facebook profile photos, in which it's fairly obvious) and figured out which pronouns he needed to use. His article highlights their sexes in the lede, so you can click through, if you wish, and find out for yourself. But before you do, ask yourself why that particular bit of information is so important. Really, it isn't. The desire to know, on the other hand, that is worth thinking about.


  1. Thank you so much for this post. I really enjoyed reading it.

    I do have one question. I'm curious at which point the gender of your children was revealed? Was it when they started identifying with a specific gender and referring to themselves that way? Or did it happen some other way?

  2. A very thought provoking post. Thank you. It would be helpful if more people were aware of the difference between "sex" and "gender".

    I have twins, one of whom has longer, curly hair. They both wear amber teething necklaces. I've found that many people assume the necklace and the curls mean that that baby is a girl. I usually gently correct them, but it doesn't bother me in the least, despite the asker's embarrassment. Babies are androgynous.

    I can only assume, though, that one of the biggest differences between your family and the family in Toronto is the prevalence of social media and the ubiquity of the internet in our culture. People will hide behind the anonymity of a screen name as an excuse to spew vitriol that they wouldn't speak directly to a person.

    I hope that baby Storm's parents see this post. It's refreshing to see the "issue" laid out so clearly and simply.

  3. Annie: there was never any moment of "revealing". We didn't muzzle the kids or instruct them not to say anything, but I don't think anyone ever asked them directly. I tried to avoid overlap with the NatPost article, but there I comment briefly how in daycare they were exposed to more typical gendered behaviours, tried some (not all) out, kept some, discarded others. At that point, it would have been evident to all but the most casual observer. We tried to give them the freedom to be who they wanted to be without the pressure to not-conform, which is a lesser evil than pressure to conform, but still inadvisable.

    Mama Mo: when Arju was born, there was no World-Wide Web, and when Zuki was born, it was also in its infancy. One relative of a friend who was a TV producer inquired of us, and we demurred. We were fortunate to be able to avoid the glare of publicity. The only reason I agreed to talk to the Postmedia reporter was because the Toronto family was taking such flak. But they seem to have the strength and resources to weather it. Hopefully, when Storm is a teenager, we won't have to go through another round of this.

  4. Prabhakar:

    Thank you for the reply. I hear you on the "pressure to not conform" side of things. I struggle with that a great deal with my kids as I see the effects of socialization on them.

  5. Very interesting. Thanks for this! Count me in as one of the parents who thought the article about Storm was ridiculous. Not because I feel an overwhelming need to place my child in one gender box or another, but because I thought it didn't seem necessary for them. Reading the article, you get the sense that they are conscious, respectful parents who are letting their kids make their own decisions. Clearly they are not bound by those gender boxes and I think it's great! So now why make something an issue that is not? (My theory is that Storm is a girl...) Although I didn't agree with their decision, I have thought about it A LOT since reading it. I wanted to raise a fairly gender-neutral child, but nature has a lot to say about that! By 6 months the clothes were clearly a sea of boyish blues, greens and grey, which was probably my way of pleasing society. But by the time we hit the 2's, everything in his hand became a "blaster" and the beautiful wooden kitchen began collecting dust. I feel powerless to stop it....and spend much time worrying if I should or could or whatever. Ah the doubt!

  6. Thank you. A really great post.

  7. Fascinating.
    Not something I ever considered until the conflagration over Storm. :)

    I mostly just don't understand why parenting choices are evaluated by so many people who have no stake in raising anyone else's children.

    Parenting choices don't have to look like mine to be the right decision, after all. My choices were made for my family.

    It will be interesting to see how this story continues. Even if it's not a choice I'd make, I find the commentary on both sides really interesting.

  8. Nicole -- Thanks for your comment. I understand what you're saying about your son, but I wonder if it's ever entirely possible to untangle nature from nurture. I've known boys who gravitate towards traditional "boy" toys, and others who do not. I do think our culture has become more--not less--polarized when it comes to gender expectations in the last couple of decades. I don't remember so much pink for girls when I was a kid, for instance, or so much emphasis on princesses (e.g., in Disney movies). So even when parents attempt to provide a gender-neutral environment, the surrounding culture has an effect. An interesting book about how tiny (brain) differences between boy and girl babies are exaggerated and amplified by cultural practices is Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot. Also interesting and relevant to the discussion is this clip in which Eliot talks about "toy choice."

    Ami -- I too don't understand why so many people get exercised about other people's parenting choices. But the reaction to Storm's parents' decision not to reveal their baby's sex leads me to believe that there is something particularly threatening to a lot of people about the prospect of not being able to fit children into tidy gender boxes from day one. I know it bothered people when I refused to dress my twin daughters in pink when they were babies, or put headbands on their nearly bald heads to "mark" them as girls. (I had parents and nannies actually reprimand me in the the park for not making it clear they were girls!) So I suppose (sadly) the reaction to the Storm story is not so surprising, after all.

  9. I'm curious about your children's experience of this. Did they feel a need to announce a gender identity to their peer group, and if so when did that start? Did they ever ask you to alter your position? I remember my 3-year-old daughter lecturing me on proper gender roles (including such gems as "girls drink coffee and boys drink tea" because of what her mother and father did) -- I wonder whether your kids were more immune to that sort of thing? Do you think it has had a lasting positive effect on *them* as opposed to the positive conscious raising among your peers?

  10. I think there is a value in presenting many gender neutral choices to our children. However I think that in doing so, many parents are imposing their own views about what is good or bad about a given gender on to their kids.

    One example might be a family that steers a girl to soccer instead of dance classes.

    Football and wrestling are popular sports where I live. Both sports(in my view) can have a negative culture associated with them....let me just say those sports wouldn't be my top choices of activities that my son would participate in. Now that my son has shown considerable interest in these sports, I've had some thinking to do.

    To the author of the blog piece, in the one article, you state that stereotypical gender toys don't encourage creativity...I think that depends on the kid. A kid can scavenge about the house for some rubber bands, and old cardboard box, and some fabric thing you know they have new outfits and a house for their Barbie doll.

  11. Pachamama: the lasting effect on our kids was more from the positive role models we provided and the explanations we gave of our values and choices as the kids were growing up, as opposed to what we told or didn't tell other people when they were very small. Our kids did their share of observing and generalizing, sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly. This particular choice we made was not the only way in which their environment differed from their peers, and we frequently discussed the reasons for those differences, as well as the reasons for the choices that other parents made.

    KD: There is simply more context surrounding Barbie dolls, in the packaging, the advertising, and common modes of use, that tends to restrict how they might be used (as opposed to, say, a tub of "basic building blocks"). Aren't the feet of Barbie dolls still permanently poised for high-heeled shoes?

  12. Prabhakar Ragde: I think discussing how any toy is marketed or packaged, including Barbies, is worthwile. That being said, I think you'll still have kids who find playing with dolls appealing...and do so in a creative way. I'd say that there might be some children who simply enjoy playing with dolls for whatever reason more than they enjoy playing with blocks. I could list many ways in which a doll could be played with in a creative way, that might be appealing to a child.

    I'm not saying that every child needs a doll to play with...I just disagree that a doll can't be used in a creative way.

  13. Perhaps a better comparison would be between a Barbie doll and one that has more neutral features, perhaps androgynous, so it can more easily be switched to a different role... or between that tub of basic blocks and the pre-fab kits with a picture of a spacecraft on the front. Any of these can be used creatively, but you have to consider likelihoods.