“Welcome to Camazotz,” hen said

Hoo, boy.  Leave it to Sweden to bring out my inner conservative:

[F]or many Swedes, gender equality is not enough. Many are pushing for the Nordic nation to be not simply gender-equal but gender-neutral. The idea is that the government and society should tolerate no distinctions at all between the sexes. This means on the narrow level that society should show sensitivity to people who don’t identify themselves as either male or female, including allowing any type of couple to marry. But that’s the least radical part of the project. What many gender-neutral activists are after is a society that entirely erases traditional gender roles and stereotypes at even the most mundane levels.

Activists are lobbying for parents to be able to choose any name for their children (there are currently just 170 legally recognized unisex names in Sweden). The idea is that names should not be at all tied to gender, so it would be acceptable for parents to, say, name a girl Jack or a boy Lisa. A Swedish children’s clothes company has removed the “boys” and “girls” sections in its stores, and the idea of dressing children in a gender-neutral manner has been widely discussed on parenting blogs. This Swedish toy catalog recently decided to switch things around, showing a boy in a Spiderman costume pushing a pink pram, while a girl in denim rides a yellow tractor.

Let’s start by sifting out the things I don’t actually mind here.  I don’t mind a toy catalog showing kids playing with toys that are not typically associated with their gender.  (Marlo Thomas sang about it ages ago.)  I certainly don’t mind increased sensitivity to transgendered people.  I mind parents giving their kids crazy names (you should see some of the humdingers I’ve come across in my relatively short career), but think they should have the freedom to do so, and find the idea of legally-recognized names noxious in any context.  And I don’t mind the creation of a gender-neutral pronoun that allows us to abandon the clunky “he/she” construct when discussing matters that are genuinely gender-neutral.  (I favor repurposing “they.”)

But you know what’s not genuinely gender-neutral?  Life.

To those who feel gender equality or gender neutrality ought to be intrinsic to a modern society, it probably makes sense to argue for instilling such values at an early age. The Green Party has even suggested placing “gender pedagogues” in every preschool in Stockholm, the Swedish capital, who can act as watchdogs. But of course toddlers cannot weigh arguments for and against linguistic interventions and they do not conceive of or analyze gender roles in the way that adults do.

Ironically, in the effort to free Swedish children from so-called normative behavior, gender-neutral proponents are also subjecting them to a whole set of new rules and new norms as certain forms of play become taboo, language becomes regulated, and children’s interactions and attitudes are closely observed by teachers. One Swedish school got rid of its toy cars because boys “gender-coded” them and ascribed the cars higher status than other toys. Another preschool removed “free playtime” from its schedule because, as a pedagogue at the school put it, when children play freely “stereotypical gender patterns are born and cemented. In free play there is hierarchy, exclusion, and the seed to bullying.” And so every detail of children’s interactions gets micromanaged by concerned adults, who end up problematizing minute aspects of children’s lives, from how they form friendships to what games they play and what songs they sing.

I apologize for resorting to medical jargon, but sometimes only specialized terminology will do.  In the world of pediatrics, we would refer to a plan that does away with free playtime for preschoolers as “cracked out.”  To translate, that means any kind of behavior or choice that is so outlandish and obviously addle-brained as to warrant a urine drug screen.  Like, say, telling toddlers that they are not allowed to play because you think they’re doing it “wrong.”  The next thing you know they’ll be electrocuting them into all bouncing their balls at the same time.

Before I commence free-form ranting, I should offer the caveat that all of this is coming from Slate, and I’ve had my own issues with how that particular publication sometimes presents information.  I don’t really know how prominent this movement is in Sweden, and I don’t mean to unfairly imply that all Swedes support this agenda.  (I would be delighted to learn that the majority find it as preposterous as I do.)  This may be much ado about nothing.

But insofar as there is really a movement to abolish all distinction between the genders, I find it ridiculous.  Installing educational martinets in every school to prevent children from behaving according to their own innate playful desires is horrifying.  As the parent of a small boy whose heart’s desire whenever we leave the house is to pass a dump truck or bulldozer and who thinks the coolest person in the world is the man at Lowe’s who drives the forklift, let me assure you that I did nothing to inculcate him with traditional gender norms.  (I have joked while perhaps not 100% kidding that I strongly suspect God has a sense of humor, and that my son is destined to become a massive sports fan who will rapidly tire of having to explain to me over and over again what a “safety” is.)  I have known many mothers who despaired because their daughters played with Barbies despite the mothers’ best intentions to prevent it.  While I’ve said before that it’s hard to generalize from a sample size of 1, and that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” I’ve seen enough little boys and girls to know that generally they like to play with different things.

Furthermore, depriving children of unstructured playtime flies in the face of just about all the emerging studies about early childhood development.  Children need to play.  It’s how they learn.  I pity the poor children in whichever Swedish preschool abolished their playtime.  They are doing them no favors.

There seems to be some confusion between “equality of opportunity,” which is a goal I think is worth trying to achieve (with some skepticism about how successful we can ever hope our best efforts can be), and “sameness,” which is not.  I do not think that it is valid to conflate “different” with “problematic.”  Teaching children that men are superior to women is a problem.  Teaching them that they are different will confirm what their own eyes are telling them, and will spare them the confusion that is guaranteed to result from well-intentioned but wrong-headed attempts to subvert biology.

Is unstructured playtime a ripe opportunity for exclusion and bullying?  You bet.  Which is why teachers should be vigilant, and should teach children how to play nicely together.  Not all childhood play is salubrious.  But doing away with playtime entirely or forcing children to play in a manner that we think they ought because of our adult conceptions is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  I cannot believe that something so obvious needs saying.

Boys and girls should be allowed to play how they wish, whether it conforms to traditional norms or not.  Boys who detest sports (like certain blog authors, back in the day) should not be forced to play them, and insofar as such play is part of their physical education the ill effects of their lack of skill or interest should be mitigated to the greatest extent possible.  (I have nothing nice to say about the practice of allowing children to pick teams.)  Boys who like to play with cars should be allowed to do so without being hectored about the oppressive gender stereotypes they’re enforcing.  Ditto girls with dolls.  If they want to play with them, let them.   (Boys, too.)  If they want to get bruised playing soccer with the boys, let them.  And help them see through their playtime that people are different, and that different is just fine.

UPDATE:  Per at least one Swede in the comments, this is all much ado about nothing, and is not really reflective of Swedish attitudes as a whole.  Which is a relief, and adds to my growing disenchantment with Slate as a news source.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Jesus. People. Again and again, studies have shown unstructured free play is really f’ing important. And learning to deal with exclusion and inclusion is a crucial part of social knowledge. Of course, one should stop overt bullying, but…leave those kids alone. There’s a reason they play the way they do.

    And of course, my oldest just is in love with every vehicle known to mankind, while the dollhouse I got him in case he wanted that is gathering dust. (But he did ask me recently to paint his toenails.)

  2. I suppose it should be useful to be reminded that there are people on the left who are not just fools but damned fools.

  3. Not all cultures have the same notions of gender. In many cultures, notably among the Native Americas, there’s a third role, the badé or berdache, often called Two Spirit. The Lakota Sioux would often pair up a widower with a Two Spirit to help the widower care for the dead wife’s children, since no children would come of the relationship. Two Spirit people often occupied special roles in these societies. They were especially well known for making ceremonial artifacts.

    • Great! But the Swedish clearly do have notions of gender similar to our own, and some reportedly not only plan to jettison them but to do so in an especially idiotic way.

    • In Sweden, the berdache would presumably be disallowed, as it distinguishes among people.

      Perhaps the Swedes should require identical names, since some names will be seen as cooler than others. They might also want to ensure that boys aren’t taller than girls, and that no boys are taller than other boys, since tall people tend to be favored over short people in dating and job interviews.

      While they’re at it they might want to require that teenagers don’t distinguish between boys and girls when dating–maybe they can make all dates randomly assigned.

        • Heh, that’s good. But hopefully we’re moving toward a time when future gay adults won’t find that a meaningful thought.

  4. This is sort of like a government seeing that religion might cause some social tensions, then deciding that the only proper solution is… religious conformity.

  5. “(there are currently just 170 legally recognized unisex names in Sweden).”

    Names have to come from an approved list? Now *that’s* some fascism.

    • It’s nothing that’s at all new, and I strongly suspect that if it came to America, folks on the left would say, more or less: “It’s for the children, and never mind about those silly liberties that you didn’t want anyway.”

      • Oh, I think both Left and Right are willing to overlook liberties in service of the Greater Good. Their interpretation of what comprises the Greater Good may vary, as does which liberties they’re willing to let go of, but the tendency is not limited to either side.

        And as a more left-of-center type, I’d certainly never countenance a national “accepted names” list (which I believe are relatively common in Europe), nor do I see such an idea catching fire here. After all, what would Beyoncé do in that event?

        • After all, what would Beyoncé do in that event?

          A European might answer: She would have been named something conventional. That’s a big help to the typical person; not every “Beyoncé” grows up to be Beyoncé. And you can’t say that it would really have hurt anyone’s liberties, can you? Such dreadful concern over such tiny little things!

          A Libertarian says: Slippery slopes. Fear state-ordered conformity, because it never knows where to quit. And if you want to name your kid Beyoncé, go for it. There are plenty of Elvises running around out there, even if there really is only one Elvis.

          I wonder how we choose which role to play, and on what, and when.

          • I was rather glibly referring to the erstwhile Ms. Knowles’ decision to name her child Blue Ivy, the first part of which probably wouldn’t make the cut. Can you imagine her horror if she were forced to name her kid something pedestrian like… like Emily?!??!


            Seriously, my hope in democracy is that we all play competing roles over time, varying from issue to issue. I’ll shriek like hell over one erosion of rights and you shriek like hell at another. The important thing is to keep shrieking.

      • Is anyone here saying that? I don’t hear them. Methinks you are concern trolling.

        “Someone somewhere of some political flavor will say X” is true for most any value of X. Shall we point it out for every value of X?

        • Oh, and this was in reply to Jason, in case that isn’t obvious from the threading.

          • Understood. You’re right, nobody is saying it.

            I’m not asserting that they are. On the contrary, I’m finding it remarkable that they are not, because to my way of thinking it dovetails so well with other things that people on the American left say all the time.

          • FWIW, much of the clucking I’ve heard about what awful, awful names people are choosing for their children these days has come from people of the conservative persuasion, and often because they consider unisex names problematic.

          • I don’t think it does have intuitive appeal for the left. It means someone from another culture would not be able to name his kid in a culturally appropriate way.

      • Libertarians would create a market for names. The wealthy could afford to call their kids Bill or Susie, while the poor would have to settle for “Moon Unit” and “Jermajesty”.

        • Come now, Mike. That completely ridiculous….nobody can predict the future value of names. 😉

        • We really need a “+1” button so I can say +1 without having to use a whole post. (How much are posts going for these days?)

  6. ” Teaching them that they are different will confirm what their own eyes are telling them, and will spare them the confusion that is guaranteed to result from well-intentioned but wrong-headed attempts to subvert biology.”

    Except what if they aren’t different? What if everything that we see as Gender Differentiation is in fact just a legacy social construct? What if the only measurable, statistically-significant differences are traceable back to hormone combinations and proportions?

    Over in the various Trayvon Martin threads, we have people suggesting that the only way to deal with racism is forced busing of children; radical indoctrination into the idea that We’re All The Same. The assumption being that it’s impossible for racist parents to avoid raising racist children, even if they conciously suppress the racism. Who’s to say that the response to gender bias isn’t going to be the same thing, and look something like what Sweden is (reportedly) doing?

    • What if everything that we see as Gender Differentiation is in fact just a legacy social construct?

      Could we at least agree that it’s a sexy social construct, and worth keeping around for just that reason?

    • Having co-ed schools (good!) is quite different from insisting that there can be no acknowledged differences (bad!).

      I didn’t read the other threads. But as the book referenced in the post’s title points out, there is also a difference between acknowledging the equal moral worth and dignity of every person (which I do indeed wish to teach my kids) and saying everyone is exactly alike. Equal and like are not the same thing.

    • Then we let kids play with whatever they want, and allow gender roles to die out through lack of enforcement. We don’t force them to play the way we think they ought and stop them from playing because they fail to comply.

      • But what people will do is observe that when kids play with whatever they want, boys mostly play with trucks and girls mostly play with dolls, and we will be told that obviously stereotypical gender roles are being introduced somewhere because otherwise there’d be a perfectly even distribution of trucks and dolls.

        • I live in bluest blue place, and work with people who hate Obama from the left. None of them say that, The opposite, actually.

          • Some days I think college is truly the bane of the left. It provides the right with a lifetime of stereotypes. A lot of the most ridiculous stereotypes that I hear people say that nobody on the left is saying, I remember hearing in college.

          • And I work at a college! Although I’m sure there’s someone in the cultural studies or English department who says that.

            But it’s sort of a running joke with all the Blueys I live and work with that we give our kids the options of all the toys and boys want mostly (not all) trucks and girls want things princess.

          • It may be a sign of the times. I didn’t go to a particularly liberal university, as far as universities go, but I did go before some of the crazier aspects of feminism receded (“Women can’t get jobs as firepeople because they have trouble lifting the ladders, ergo the ladders are sexist”). In retrospect, it was actually a lull in racial tension, if you could overlook the whole “racism is an invention of the white man” thing that has been thankfully discarded.

            This was also back when liberalism in general was more humorless than it is these days.

        • Duck,

          In the end we’re biological animals with an evolutionary history. Part of that evolutionary history is that we are designed to be social animals, subject to the influences of our society. So some of the distribution of trucks and dolls is surely caused by that. But also part of that evolutionary history is hard-wired behavioral tendencies. So some of the distribution of trucks and dolls is surely caused by that.

          Funny that nobody doubts the evolutionary history of gender has shaped us physically, but some refuse to accept that it just might have had some significant shaping effect on our brains. It’s a rather unparsimonious theory.

          • >Part of that evolutionary history is that we are designed to be social animals, subject to the influences of our society.

            James, it makes me so happy that you say this. I think evo psych has a lot of explanatory power, and I find it infuriating when people use it to argue that some non-cross-cultural norm is “unnatural.”

    • Let us suppose that you are absolutely, 100% right about the nature of gender differences.

      The “eliminating free play”, etc things would still be bad. As I said upthread, the cure is worse than the disease.

    • Doesn’t sound like philosopher-kings in charge. Not that they’d do much better.

  7. I mind parents giving their kids crazy names (you should see some of the humdingers I’ve come across in my relatively short career), but think they should have the freedom to do so, and find the idea of legally-recognized names noxious in any context.

    I used to think that my wife was exaggerating about current naming conventions. Then I had gradeschool class rolls to look at, and I apologized. What.. the… hell…

    It’s not just a few kids with weird names, either. It’s the fact that even the normal names are goofy variations off one another and broken from tradition. It’s not just yuppie names, but double-yuppie, because they’re using creative spelling. I had a class once with one girl named Heaven and two named Nevaeh. Eventually they’ll decide to spell Navaeh backwards and end up with Heaven all over again.

    • Oh, man. I don’t know how I missed that. Sorry to go back over the same territory, and for not joining the conversation earlier. Suffice it to say that I agree with you?

  8. I am from Sweden and I can say that this is much ado about nothing. There is no large movement in Sweden to abolish all distinction between the genders. The above mentioned examples do not reflect the reality in most Swedish preschools.

    • Not a surprise, actually. Finding an odd corner of some foreign culture that happens to exactly match some perception of that culture is legion withing the media. I recall reading foreign news reports on the housing crisis in the US. Surely it was bad in some places. But if you believed those reports, the vast wastelands of empty housing stretching to the horizons, masses of drifting squatters existing on dumpster fare, cooked on abandoned grills in the backyards of unoccupied houses — I mean, I was surprised my neighbors weren’t eating each other.

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