05/31/2011 07:56 EDT | Updated 07/31/2011 05:12 EDT

Lessons in the Storm Over One Toronto Baby

There was once a young couple committed to raising their daughter in gender-neutral ways. But in an instant, her "GIRL!" gene grew frustrated and declared that no careful control over her wardrobe, TV, or anything was going to change that.

The decision by a Toronto couple to keep the gender of their new baby Storm a secret, to protect the child from the constraints of social gender norms, is honorable. Naïve, but honorable.

What's puzzling is that the couple already has two sons. This means they ought to know how hopeless it is to assume, like B.F Skinner and the behaviorists, that nurture is everything, and that controlling the environment in which a child grows up is what mostly determines gender roles in the first place.

A story: There was once a young couple, children of the 50s and 60s, committed to raising their children in gender neutral ways. While the couple didn't go as far as Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, the parents in Toronto, they believed their kids would be better off if raised free of gender stereotypes, particularly stereotypes about girls and women that they feared could limit a daughter. They both believed that children were born 'neutral,' behavioral blank slates on which, like Kathy and David, this couple was determined society would not write its limiting, constraining gender rules.

Their first child was a daughter. They named her Rachel. (No gender-neutral 'Dakota' or 'Jessie' or 'Pat.' They were serious about the gender thing, but not fanatic.) From the beginning, clothes were gender neutral; jeans and overalls and lots of stuff from Osh Kosh B'Gosh, in gender neutral colors, no frills, no skirts, no dresses (until one snuck in, a gift from Grandma when the child was nine-months-old).

Toys were gender neutral; things that would spin and make noise and engage her when she was an infant, then arts and crafts stuff and blocks and construction kits and shovels and buckets and wind-up swim toys for the tub.

The couple read their young daughter a whole range of books; Goodnight Moon and Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel and Babar and Dr. Seuss, along with Disney fairy tale classics.

They were careful about the TV shows and videos they watched, Mighty Mouse and Rocky and Bullwinkle and Tom and Jerry and Sesame Street (and yes, Disney classic fairy tales, which are certainly heavy on the princess theme). They didn't watch any regular TV, with all its inescapable gender messages, when Rachel was in the room.

But they couldn't keep Rachel in a box, of course. She had friends -- boys and girls -- and visited their homes, saw what they wore, shared their toys. And the couple both had jobs, so Rachel went to day care, a wonderful center the parents screened in advance to make sure it was also careful about avoiding gender stereotypes. And slowly, before the parents even realized it was happening, Rachel started developing... well... shall we say, tendencies.

She liked the games with dolls. (Her favorite object at home was Mommy Doll.) She loved to draw princesses and mommies and rainbows and, well, mostly princesses.

And oh did she love to play dress up. Dress up AND modeling Show, in which she would decorate herself with all sorts of things -- old slips from Mom's wardrobe or old t-shirts from Dad's -- and prance and dance around to some piece of waltz music, basking in the attention of her parents as their tears of joy flowed and the video camera blazed.

Then it happened. Her collection of dress-up clothes had grown as the parents had added loose bits of fabric from sewing projects or fabric stores, or hats and shirts and dresses and jackets from parental hand-me-downs or second-hand shops.

One day Rachel came down to breakfast dressed in several layers of everything pink and feminine she owned, including a pair of Mom's high heels. She scuffled in in those adorably too-big shoes, and put her hands on her hips, snooted her nose up in the air, and declared with the absolute certainty of a two-year-old discovering her power to control the world, "I'm NEVER going to wear anything but pink, EVER AGAIN."

The lesson was hysterical and wonderful and obvious, and Mom and Dad totally cracked up, and told Rachel that if that's how she chose to dress that was fine. And in an instant the whole pretense of thinking their daughter was a blank slate and that they could give her a gender-free upbringing was thoroughly exposed as a sweet and innocent fraud.

Their two-year-old was making quite clear that she was not gender-free. She was a girl, and lots of the limiting social behavioral patterns her parents wanted to protect her from weren't the products of external nurture after all.

They were rooted in the truth of Rachel's nature. It was like her "GIRL!" gene had finally grown frustrated and decided it was time to overtly declare that no careful control over her wardrobe, stories, TV, or anything was going to change that.

So it surprised Mom and Dad less when their son was born and, exposed to all the gender neutral books and toys and clothes and messages, Matt chose the trucks, turned sticks into guns and wanted to wrestle and play mock sword battles more than dance and color. He and Rachel did play with dolls together. They called the game 'Dismember Barbie.'

The Mom and Dad didn't stop teaching their kids that they could be anything they wanted to be, and do anything they wanted to do, and correcting them when they said girls couldn't do this or boys couldn't do that. But they let their kids be who they were, a GIRL and a BOY, and supported their interests and tastes, even if that meant Rachel wanted to take ballet classes and Matt wanted to play baseball and soccer and learn Kung Fu. The lesson the parents learned, from their kids, was that it wasn't their job as parents to protect their kids from the world, as much as to just give them open minds about it.

(By the way, my wife and I checked with Rachel to make sure our daughter was okay with recounting this wonderful tale. She says she's proud of what she taught us, but couldn't talk long. She had to go shopping. For shoes.)