N = 1

Posted in Rants on February 16th, 2012 by Ed

Parents have tremendous leeway in determining how to raise their children. This prospect is terrifying to new parents, I imagine, because there is no manual on how to do it correctly and you only get one shot at it. There's no do-over if you happen to do a particularly poor job. Just therapy and lots of booze.

That's quite daunting. Even more daunting is that the child must end up being reasonably well adjusted to the society into which he or she will be thrown. So you have to account for everyone else's shitty parenting when doing your own. I've seen many staunchly anti-TV parents, for example, relax on that issue and let their kids watch a little once they realize that sending a kid to school at age five with no popular culture reference points is going to make it difficult to relate to the other children. Sure, you can raise your kid on ancient Navajo oral traditions and Rainer Werner Fassbinder films instead of Bob the Builder and Pixar if you want, but only if you're comfortable with raising a bizarre kid who's probably going to be mocked a lot. Ultimately it's your call.

At some point, though, parental choices cross a line between discretion and human experimentation. And these stories we see every few months now about parents deciding to raise "genderless" children amounts to exactly that. Nothing like a pair of knucklehead parents deciding to perform a psychological experiment – on their own child – that no IRB or human subjects committee would approve for all the tea in China. Perhaps this is an overly-academic view of the world, but if you're not legally or ethically allowed to do something to a child in a controlled research setting it probably doesn't belong in the Good Parenting Toolkit.

Look, everyone to the left of Pat Robertson recognizes that socializing children into "traditional" gender roles – toy guns for the boys, dolls for the girls – is stupid. What some people claim is the "natural" tendency for boys to be aggressive and girls to be Pink Princesses is actually a reflection of how good children are at identifying and meeting our expectations of how they will behave. I get it. It's not cool. It has the potential to be damaging to children.

What I fail to see is the logic – because there is none – in responding to that threat by performing an experiment wherein you intentionally deprive a child of something that is inevitably going to be a very basic, fundamental component of understanding and interacting with the rest of society. Would it not make more sense perhaps to wait until the child is old enough to actually understand such things and explain what's wrong with gender-based social roles? Or simply to tell little Billy that he should knock himself out playing with Barbies if he prefers?

Nah. Let's just go ahead and raise a little genderless weirdo. He'll do really well when he starts school.

No one receives perfect parenting and to some extent we all walk through life dragging behind us the questionable decisions our parents made when raising us. I think parenting requires making peace with the fact that you're going to do some things that your child will grow up and resent. It happens. It's normal. You can't lose it over every choice you make, like "Oh god, what if he grows up and hates us and ends up doing drugs because we bought Jif instead of the natural peanut butter?" All that said, I fail to see the value in or benefits of going out of the way to try some weird, trendy theory on child rearing based on some aspect of society you dislike. Maybe I'm in the wrong here and these parents actually are visionaries. And maybe the results of this little experiment will prove to be instructive and useful – after all, it's a hypothesis for which there have been no previous tests. We can assume that parents would not consent to having their child injected with some totally untested AIDS vaccine with a shrug and "Well let's see what happens!", so why is this sort of psychological scheming considered an acceptable risk? I am not sure what goes through the head of someone who decides to turn their child into a data point with the distinct possibility that he or she will emerge completely maladjusted. To say that the risks outweigh the benefits is a substantial understatement.