Beyond the online condemnation for two Toronto parents who reportedly refuse to make public the gender of their youngest child, there's a deeper question on how gender forms, scientists say.
Though there are no solid answers, experts on gender say whether a child identifies as a male or female comes from a mix of biology, environment and something deep inside themselves. And at the end of the day, the "genderless" baby, a 4-month old named Storm, will more than likely figure out which gender he or she identifies with.
Raising a child without a public gender is indeed unusual (In 2009, a Swedish newspaper reported a couple doing the same thing with their 2-year-old, nicknamed Pop), and experts say the jury is out on how or if the doing so will influence Storm's development. But the response to the case has revealed how deeply gender issues resonate, said Diane Ehrensaft, a California psychologist and author of "Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children" (The Experiment, 2011).
"It makes people mad, like you've tricked them," Ehrensaft told LiveScience, adding, "There's a real division between those who want to hold onto our traditional gender norms and those who say, 'What for? They've only limited people's lives."
Case in point: Hundreds of outraged comments all around the Web reacting to Storm's parents' choice.
"How absolutely selfish to play games with their own child's mind," read one representative comment on the Toronto Star's Parent Central website, which first reported the story about Storm's family. "Cruel and unusual punishment."
Bringing up baby
Storm's parents know their child's sex, as do Storm's older brothers. The goal of keeping the information inside the family, Storm's parents told the Toronto Star, is to limit messages that tell young children how to act based on their sex.
"We thought if we delayed sharing that information, in this case, hopefully, we might knock off a couple million of those messages by the time Storm decides Storm would like to share [his or her gender]," Storm's mom Kathy Witterick told the Toronto Star. [Read: America's Most Hated Baby Names]
It's unclear whether the experiment will work out, said Katrina Karkazis, an anthropologist at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University and author of "Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority and Lived Experience" (Duke University Press, 2008). That's because gender messages are inescapable in our society, Karkazis told LiveScience. However, Karkazis said, Storm's parents are correct in thinking that people treat children differently based on gender, sometimes in very subtle ways.
One 1975 study, published in the journal Sex Roles, put 42 non-parents in a room with a 3-month-old baby and three toys: a football, a doll and a gender-neutral teething ring. A third of the volunteers were told the baby was a girl, a third thought the baby was a boy, and a third were told that the experimenter couldn't recall if the baby was a boy or a girl.
Unsurprisingly, when the volunteers thought the baby was a girl rather than a boy, they were much more likely to offer "her" a doll to play with. If they didn't know the baby's gender, the male volunteers tended to go for the teething ring, while women offered the baby the doll. That could mean that women see dolls as less gendered, or it could mean that the men in the study hewed more strictly to gender roles.
Overall, people held and touched the baby less if they thought "she" was a girl. When they didn't know the sex, a gender difference emerged again: Men held the unknown baby less, while women held the baby more.
Likewise, parents view their own children through the lens of gender. A 1991 analysis of 172 previous studies on gender bias found that parents, especially fathers, encourage activities for their children based on sex stereotypes. A study published in 2000 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that moms of girls underestimate their 11-month-old's crawling abilities, while moms of boys overestimate crawling skills, highlighting a trend in which male infants are seen as more hardy. A 1995 study published in the journal Sex Roles found that these gender-based perceptions emerge quickly, with moms and dads rating their newborn girls as less strong, finer featured, more delicate and more feminine than newborn boys.
Gender and biology
None of this is to say that gender identity, separate from gender behavior, is a social construct. Gender is "nature, nurture and culture" woven together, Ehrensaft said. And regardless of what they're told and how they're treated, kids usually identify their own gender early.
"There are children who are assigned male on the birth certificate who say, 'Hey, I'm not. I'm a girl,'" Ehrensaft said. "That's not because anyone told them who they are. It comes from inside."
For that reason, it's unlikely that Storm's genderless status will go on for long, Karkazis said.
"You'd have to give an extraordinary amount of power, all power really, to nurture [rather than nature] to say that this will without a doubt shape all sense of if this child is male or female and his or her behavior," she said. "We'd have to give no space for biology."
Storm is growing up in a household and a culture in which almost everyone identifies as male or female, Karkazis said. And because babies pick up on gender cues early — by age 1 or so, studies suggest — by the time Storm starts talking, he or she will likely have something to say about his or her own gender.
"This child is only going to have two models, even within the house," Karkazis said. "I would be shocked if this child didn't self-identify."
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.