N = 1

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.

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68 Responses to “N = 1”

  1. Sharkbabe Says:

    All this crap here, not to mention the impending self-inflicted demise of our entire conceited and endlessly opinionated babbling species project, makes me return and return again to the thought: what peace, if my parents hadn't had me. Entire problem of everything solved.

  2. Ben Says:

    Told you bb was awesome. Elle, too. Everybody. I haven't really seen an internet discussion on this topic go as well as this.

    Except, Sharkbabe. What would you call that, me-santhropy?

  3. BigHank53 Says:

    I have some fair amount of sympathy for those parents. One of the worst head-fucks I ever saw in my entire life was performed by this little girl's own mother…I was working in a bicycle shop, and this family came in to look at a new bike for the girl, who was about 5. She spots the one bike in the shop that's her size (it's blue) and runs over to it. "I want this one!" to which her mom says, "You don't want that bike. You want a pink bike." And the poor kid is standing there, puzzled as hell, trying to wrap her head around the idea that she doesn't know what she wants and that she should just settle for whatever others select for her.

    Is that gender-neutral youngster going to be fucked up? Of course he is. We all are. But I don't think he's going to be fucked up any worse than average, and there's a good chance he'll miss out on some really toxic crap.

  4. Celynne Says:

    @brent – it's representative in that it demonstrates that each and every child is a unique individual, and that will ultimately be expressed regardless of a parent's interference, or lack of it.

    As a mom of 6 (ces't fini), and a grandma of 4 (so far), I can honestly say that although I tried my damndest to instill each one of them with the same traits that I hoped would serve them well on their journey through life, each of them took away a different lesson.

    Although I applaud anyone who allows a child to develop his or her (or its) personality, preferences and identity on their own with as little interference as possible, I totally agree with Ed that this is not what the parents in this article have done. And such is the legacy we all pass on. Inasmuch as we all see life through our own filter, there is virtually no way we can avoid teaching our children our own opinions, which are inherently prejudices.

    The only question, as I see it, is when, or if, that opinion becomes a detriment to the child, and what options are available to the society the child inhabits to protect him/her/it. At the moment, in our society, parental rights are only superseded when the opinions of the parents become actions that cause the child physical harm. Is that a line we are prepared to cross? Because, of course, then we would have to decide where the line would be drawn, and by whom.

    and @Xynzee – although I say zed, I totally agree with you about "reasoning" with overindulged brats, and the five levels. In spite of administering probably thousands of physical removal from situation disicplines, the only full out "whale the daylights out of the little bugger" was gifted to a three year old who stepped off a curb onto a busy street without waiting for my say-so. She's nearly thirty now, and I can assure you, always looks both ways.

  5. Elle Says:

    This is a far cry from a parent taking their frustrations with life out on a child.

    I can see why people have this distinction in their mind, but the research the American Pediatric Association (among countless others, but theirs is easy to find on their website and they aren't an activist organisation, per se) have collated and analysed, finds that the demarcations are not that readily made.

    What you have said about corporal punishment feels truth-y, but doesn't have any evidential basis. What the research tells us, is that smacking is bad for children's wellbeing, and also that it doesn't work better than other available methods.

    We only have to look to countries that have banned smacking to observe that their societies have not collapsed as a result of a breakdown in discipline. There are 29 countries in the world that outlaw corporal punishment in the home. Even if we look only to those who enacted such a law in the 70s and 80s, we can see that children in Austria, Finland, and Norway still seem to be able to cross the road.

  6. Celynne Says:

    I'm sure I meant *wale* and yes I'm sure plenty of children learn not to play with fire without being *smacked* either, but sometimes it is in the best interest of the child to act on the immediate danger and worry about the shrink bills later. I've had enough long serious talks with small children that ended with such insights as "Mommy, your eyebrows are crooked" to know that all the evidence based studies in the world can't predict what a kid's gonna do.

  7. Xynzee Says:

    Anecdotal evidence shows that a fast moving Holden is far, far worse for a child's wellbeing than any loving smack to a child's bum. I don't have numbers but a quick visit to an emergency room will show the results of what happens when 1 tonne of metal at 60km meets up with a 40kg child.

    Something I've found curious about the majority of comments are aimed at girls not getting frilly things. It appears that frilly pink faerie princess stuff = bad. That girls should wear blue dinosaur pjs *not* pink nighties. I haven't seen any comments about parents letting their boy go out in a My Little Pony sundress if that's what he chose to wear. The inference is that female/feminine = bad. That someone cannot be "self actualised" if they want to stay home and raise kids.

  8. Elle Says:

    Anecdotal evidence shows that a fast moving Holden is far, far worse for a child's wellbeing than any loving smack to a child's bum.

    And a shotgun to the face is more unpleasant than someone leaving the pickled onion out of one's Gibson. None of which has anything to do with the discussion on smacking because research tells us:

    1) Smacking is bad for children.
    2) Smacking doesn't work.

    Observation tells us, by virtue of much of Europe being a test-bed for the proposition, that:

    3) People can easily, and straightforwardly, learn how to cross roads without being hit by i) other people, or ii) cars.

  9. ladiesbane Says:

    On smacking children: if you have a child who is too young to reason with, a smack will stop the action and get his or her attention. It is not pain that makes this work, however, it's the smacking noise. Clapping hands sharply or smacking the wall with a plastic flyswatter does the trick nicely. If you have a child too overwrought / tantruming to notice the smack, you'd have to beat the child to get through and it would do far more harm than good.

    Once the child has reached the age of reason, you must reason with it, or you teach it that reason takes second place to violence. Bad behavior is corrected, and repeat bad behavior is punished as promised. Consistency is a must. But once a child reaches the age of reason, if you hit the child, you teach him or her that "It's okay for me to hit you and you can't hit back."

    Some children are cowed, and people who don't understand why some domestic abuse victims stay with their abusers need to read a fucking book. Some children are defiant, and defiance causes physical escalation, running away, and self-destructive acting out. Hopefully that's not your goal as a parent.

    For parents whose kids were mostly well-behaved and only got spanked a few times, with no lasting damage of any kind, don't pat yourself on the back for your genius parenting. Things might have gone a lot differently.

    As for pink frills: let's be clear that this has nothing to do with "just another color." It is a shorthand way to describe girls who are taught to say "eek!" at the sight of a mouse, refer to themselves as princesses, and care more for looks than grades — exactly as they were taught by parents who constantly complimented them on their looks rather than their grades or their virtues.

    I know more than one father who showered his adored daughter with, "You're Daddy's little princess, aren't you? There's not a man in the world good enough for my little girl!" etc., — and they wondered why their darling daughters had unhappy marriages despite the $50,000 wedding.

    This has nothing to do with being a stay-at-home mom. Though sometimes it does have to do with marrying men based on their ability to indulge expensive preening, which is a full-time job.

    Boys are different, and have to deal with parental fears of emasculation as well as male peers who still play Smear the Queer. But I've seen more little boys with glitter nail polish at the grocery store, which is cool. It might be a phase, or they might grow up to be Iggy Pop. I'm still looking for little girls wearing homemade capes to go with their Superman t-shirts. But girls with tiaras and fairy wings I see all the time. I wish their future husbands all the luck in the world.

  10. Mike Says:


    That girls should wear blue dinosaur pjs *not* pink nighties. I haven't seen any comments about parents letting their boy go out in a My Little Pony sundress if that's what he chose to wear. The inference is that female/feminine = bad.

    I don't have a boy, so I can only speak to the girl side of the equation.

    One problem is how narrow the options are. It's not that pink flowers are bad. But why is it so weird if a girl wears a dinosaur outfit? Why is that even considered a "boy" outfit?

    And then the whole Disney princess thing, I really do think is evil and insidious. At least Barbie had aspirations to become a doctor or an astronaut (in heels, naturally). If female/feminine means being helpless and useless until some handsome guy sweeps you off your feet, than yes, I'm opposed to it.

    Pop-culture-wise, the girls in Miyazaki films are much better role models, IMO.

    In some ways, boys have it much worse, because a boy who likes "girl" stuff will take a lot more abuse than a girl who likes "boy" stuff.

  11. bb in GA Says:


    "For parents whose kids were mostly well-behaved and only got spanked a few times, with no lasting damage of any kind, don't pat yourself on the back for your genius parenting. Things might have gone a lot differently"

    I think you are 100% correct (for sure about the 'ain't no genius' part.) I am old enough to have seen just about everything in child rearing.

    Parents who did it your way and my way with equally good and bad outcomes.

    We gave 'em a whole bunch of hands on, time in love. They turned out great. I've seen parents do it in a manner I consider superior to our efforts. It was a nightmare.

    To use a sports analogy – the quarterback and the coach get too much credit when the team wins and too much blame when the team loses.

    The child has a part to play in this drama.

    "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." – Prov 22:6

    That's what we held on to.


  12. don Says:

    Late to this party, but here's my five cents: nobody gets to be "gender-neutral" and still have any sort of normal, healthy socializations into any part of human culture. It's fine, albeit laughably hopeless, that parents might try to raise a "gender-neutral" kid, but that pink ruched-sleeve blouse is Girl with a capital G. Boys wearing such emphatically girl-identified clothing isn't gender-neutral, it's genderfuck. Which I'm all for if that's what a kid wants and his/her parents and loved ones are prepared to help them through the early consequences. But these parents, who have banned "combat pants", aren't in any way making gender-neutral choices, they are assigning greater moral value to Girl clothing choice rather than Boy clothing choice. I very much suspect that this is quite obvious to their son. If that kid's got half a brain, he should be able to extort a new car out of them when he's 16 just by putting on a chiffon blouse to mow the lawn.

    In the long list of things you can do to fuck up your child, I really don't think this is in top ten; this is just two wacky parents with minimal societal weight behind them to get over, rather than, say, being raised inside the Mormon Church.

  13. ladiesbane Says:

    @bb — I agree completely. So many (most?) discipline challenges are avoidable with a relationship of respect, communication, and love. A lot of the kids I grew up with had parents who didn't establish that bedrock of trustworthy parental authority, and the endless childhood spankings never helped. But even those of us who were tight with our folks didn't have parents who really thought about the most effective form of discipline — they mostly just hoped they wouldn't have to do it too much. And we didn't push them to the point of desperate measures. Lucky for both sides.

    and @don: if you don't let the kid develop a sense of gender, there is no genderfuck in wearing anything at all; it's like putting an oyster in a wig. The plumbing doesn't matter if there is no gender identity attached to it. It's neither a boy in a dress nor a girl in a dress.

    As for assigning greater moral value to girl-clothes rather than boy-clothes, I find it to be exactly the opposite. Girls can wear boy clothes because boy-clothes are Normal clothes worn by Normal people (i.e., boys), while girl-clothes are only worn by girls — a diminished boundary that defines the set as non-normal.

    It's the same function that requires that girls identify with male main characters in fiction, but prevents boys from identifying with female main characters. Girls are less-than. It wasn't "Hermione Granger and the Sorcerer's Stone" for a reason.

    What these parents are doing to the kid is massively fucked up, not (only) because they are saying, "No, you mustn't choose toys or clothes that we think are predictable for your sex and therefore uncool," it's because they are preventing the child from making a natural choice AT ALL. It's a disruption of the foundation of identity, akin to the freaks who brought up a child to believe it was a dog. Bringing up a kid with a bizarre set of assumptions about God and society is wacky, but that sort of thing can usually be undone if desired, or lived with enjoyably if not. But it's not the same as bringing up the kid with a stunted set of assumptions about himself or herself. Preventing identity development is cruel and will follow the kid forever.

  14. Celynne Says:

    Perhaps the only parents foolish enough to think they're geniuses are those who engage in parenting styles like the one in the article in question.
    For those of us in the real world, it's a daily struggle to do the best we can for our kids, and we often suffer from self-doubt and self-recrimination. There's no formula for success, and frankly, no benchmark for it either. A progeny who's relatively happy with themself and can cope reasonably well with the crap life throws at them is possibly the most that any parent can aim for.
    While the "so the twig is bent, so the tree will grow" analogy generally holds true, every day loving, well-intention parenting goes horribly wrong and conversely, victims of truly deplorable parenting turn out to be terrific adults.
    In the end people are unique individuals who will be what they will be. Certainly parenting affects us all, fortunately as adults we get to choose the effect.

  15. don Says:

    ladiesbane – what I was trying to express through my typos was that I think this specific child's parents are assigning greater moral value to girl-identified clothing, not that this is reflective of how the culture assigns value. You're right that girls get to wear almiost anything in the way of 'boy" clothes without violating the code, and in part that might be why these specific parents, in their quest for "gender-neutrality" had to eagerly present pink blouses and flowery tops to their kid. If you're dictating your kids clothes, it's actaully pretty easy to go gender-neutral; any old white t-shirt and yellow pants will do. They'll be hell to get dressed though.

    And actually, as a homosexual raised in a conservative Xtian environment in the 1950's and '60's, "bringing up a kid with a bizarre set of assumptions about God and society…" and "bringing up the kid with a stunted set of assumptions about himself or herself" sound like exactly the same thing to me. If the bizarre set of assumptions are that my desires are disgusting and contemptible, wouldn't that contiribute to the formation of a stunted set of assumptions about myself?

  16. ladiesbane Says:

    don — I hear ya. It's all I can do not to pour out my own rural/religious testimony to the stone butch blues — not to mention speaking for the utterly straight girls I knew who were condemned to a life of vapor-lock frigidity because (a) only sluts wanted sex and (b) they knew they weren't sluts, so (c) they don't get to want it, ever. Does the weirdly narrow, ironically perverse pigeonhole we were all crammed into fit anyone? Some better than others, but not me. I packed up my t-shirts and jeans and I fled. It was a long time before I unpacked my marabou-trimmed combat boots.

    But I so see what you mean about the warped mental view forced on kids not close to that mold. But as strongly as I feel protective of gay kids and trans kids not being allowed to bloom, so do I feel protective of any kid who is inhibited by a position that seems not gender-neutral, but gender-negative. It seems to go many layers deeper in terms of identity. We may speculate on what comes first, gender or sexuality, but it's enormously better to observe kids and discuss those observations than is is to experiment on kids and see how their lives turn out. To echo Celynne's sentiment, my fervent best wishes go to any kid who breaks free and decides what to be to stay true to self.

  17. Kaleberg Says:

    When I was a kid, I had a male friend-through-family who had four sets of pink toy washers and driers. When I first saw them, I thought that was weird. I hadn't even realized that they made so many different toy washers and driers. Then we played with them, and they were pretty neat. If I remember correctly, he went into medicine, and doesn't run a laundromat.