Update of an earlier blog:
Two British parents who have received international criticism – and even accusations of abuse – for not revealing the gender of their child are now clarifying their side of the story.
"It's all been rather misreported, I'm afraid," Beck Laxton, the mother of now five-year-old Sasha Laxton, said in an e-mail.
In an entry on her blog, beckblog, posted Wednesday, Ms. Laxton said she and partner, Kieran Cooper, weren't aiming to raise Sasha as "gender-neutral," noting that everyone in their village of Sawston, England, knows what sex Sasha is.
"We can't think of any way we could have 'brought up little Sasha as gender-neutral' – what would that mean?" she wrote. "What we have done is try to give our child a gender-rich environment, with toys some people might say are girls' toys alongside those they might call boy's toys."
The family has been making headlines around the world, since Ms. Laxton told local newspaper Cambridge News last week that she had tried not to tell people that Sasha is a boy to prevent him from being affected by gender stereotypes. Besides being encouraged to play with gender-neutral toys, Sasha's parents sometimes dress him in pink and do not put him in overtly masculine clothes, the newspaper reported.
The reaction has been harsh, with U.S. psychiatrist Keith Ablow even accusing the parents of "psychological abuse" during an interview with Fox News.
Toronto parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker spurred a similarly heated international debate this past May, when The Toronto Star reported they were keeping the sex of their baby, Storm, a secret to protect the child from gender stereotyping. The parents told the newspaper only a handful of individuals – Storm's brothers, a close family friend and the midwives who helped deliver the baby – knew the child's sex.
Ms. Laxton said the reality of her own family's story is "not quite as sensational as it was made out to be." But it nevertheless reignites questions about the impact of adults' efforts to protect children from gender expectations.
In their announcements of his birth, they simply e-mailed friends and family, saying "It's a baby!" And when Ms. Laxton went to post-natal classes, she tried not to reveal Sasha's sex. She noted, however, she that quickly realized that people were asking merely "to be nice and because there's nothing else you can ask about a baby except its weight."
And within Sasha's first year, there was no keeping his sex a secret: "[A] soon as the weather got warm enough [Sasha]was frolicking around the garden with no clothes on anyway."
On her blog, however, she continues to write about Sasha without using sex-specific terms.
Beverley Cathcart-Ross, a certified parent educator and founder of the Parenting Network in Toronto, says not telling others about a child's gender in his or her early years may not be damaging. However, she says, "I think often a lot of attention on these things does make it more uncomfortable for the child."
On the other hand, she says that emphasizing children's gender can restrict how they approach their life and how they view themselves. Most parents she encounters these days are conscious about ensuring their children don't feel constrained to gender expectations.
Ms. Cathcart-Ross notes that parents' roles in influencing children's preferences can be limited, however. She recalls when her own now-adult son was an infant, she was determined that his "feminine side be well-polished."
"I was fighting nature the entire childhood in those first few years. All he was interested in were wheels and trucks," she says. "We do have to recognize that we can expose them as much as we want, but sometimes gender does have a lot more of a role in their forming of self than we can imagine."
As for Sasha, Ms. Laxton said her and Mr. Cooper's goal is to avoid "setting expectations that he might not be able to fulfil. All we're doing is what most parents do – trying to do our very best for our child."
Does avoiding the issue of a child's gender hurt or help them?