Baby Storm Raised Genderless Is Bad Experiment, Say Experts

Experts say Toronto parents are conducting a "disastrous" experiment.

May 26, 2011, 11:16 AM

May 26, 2011— -- No one knows the sex of Storm Stocker, a 4-month-old baby from Toronto. Only the parents, midwives and two older brothers have ever peeked beneath the diaper.

That's because his -- or is it her -- parents, Kathy Witterick, 38, and David Stocker, 39, want to raise their child genderless.

When Storm came into the world in a birthing pool on New Year's Day, they sent out this email: "We decided not to share Storm's sex for now -- a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a standup to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime."

Even Storm's brothers, 2-year-old Kio and 5-year-old Jazz, have been sworn to secrecy, as well as one close family friend.

"What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children," Stocker said in a story in the Toronto Star. "It's obnoxious."

The newspaper was barraged with critical responses and even Storm's grandparents, although supportive, said they resented explaining their gender-free baby to friends and co-workers.

While child development experts applaud the family's efforts to raise their child free of the constraints of gender stereotypes, they say the parents have embarked on a psychological experiment that could be "potentially disastrous.

"To raise a child not as a boy or a girl is creating, in some sense, a freak," said Dr. Eugene Beresin, director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. "It sets them up for not knowing who they are.

"To have a sense of self and personal identity is a critical part of normal healthy development," he said. "This blocks that and sets the child up for bullying, scapegoating and marginalization."

Most parents are eager to learn the sex of their child. Sixty-six percent of 18- to 34-year-olds said they would rather know the sex of the child before it's born, according to a 2007 Gallup poll.

"We all have sexual identity," said Beresin. "The mission to have masculine and feminine traits more equalized and more flexible and not judgmental is awesome in a utopian community. But we take pride in our sexual identity."

The family gleaned the idea for this form of child-rearing from the 1978 children's book "X: A Fabulous Child's Story," by Lois Gould. The author uses symbolism and allegory to explore gender "creativity."

Stocker teaches at an alternative junior high school and said he plans his lessons around social justice issues. Witterick practices unschooling, which is similar to homeschooling, with no report cards, no textbooks and no tests.

But Beresin said the Canadian couple's approach is a "terrible idea."

"Identity formation is really critical for every human being and part of that is gender," he said. "There are many cultural and social forces at play."

Since the sexual revolution of the 1970s, child development experts have embraced a more flexible view of gender.

"The stereotypes of boys were that they were self-sufficient, nonempathic, tough and good at war," said Beresin. "Girls were trained to be empathic and caring and more nurturing."

But since then, women have become more competitive, aggressive and independent, according to Beresin. "By the same token, men are allowed to cry. We see hulking football players who are bawling."

Witterick and Stocker have been besieged with phone calls since the media grabbed on to their personal story.

"Thanks for your interest," said Storm's mother on a recorded message when called for comment. "We are really swamped with calls right now and our first priority is the needs of our family."

Parents Make Social Statement

"I think [the parents] are making a social gender statement," said Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and co-author of "Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for your Baby's First Year."

Keeping the child's gender a surprise is "not a good parenting choice because it's their identity," she said. "Whether you later choose to reject your identity -- which sex you are -- or not. You are born with a set of parts, and that's who you are."

Brown said she would worry about Storm as the child gets older.

"They do start to look at their parts and ask questions, and they tend to form a gender identity," she said. "Not all boys have to play with action heroes or girls with Barbies. You can certainly raise a child in a fairly gender-neutral home, and if you choose to do that, fine."

"Just because you have testes doesn't mean you have to only play with male-oriented toys," said Brown.

As for the younger siblings, Brown said she thought they might be able to keep mum about their baby's sex in the way that a family might encourage its children not to discuss a personal health matter.

"People keep their own family secrets," said Brown. "But when it comes to this, it just seems silly."

But Storm's family has held firm, at least for now. On a vacation in Cuba this winter with Witterick's parents, the family flipped a coin at the airport to assign the baby a gender temporarily, and for a week they called him a boy.

The social response changed instantly, and people said, "What a big, strong boy," according to an email Witterick sent to the Star. "In fact, in not telling the gender of my precious baby, I am saying to the world, 'Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what she (he) wants to be?!."

"Everyone keeps asking us, 'When will this end?'" said Witterick. "And we always turn the question back. Yeah, when will this end? When will we live in a world where people can make choices to be whoever they are?"

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