What could possibly make a parent believe that their girl is actually, in reality, a boy? Taking part in the pre-recorded debate for Bringing Up Britain on Radio 4 last week, on the subject of children and gender, it hit home to me how normalised an idea which would have been inconceivable even a few years ago, has suddenly become. On the programme, Gender Critical Dad provided the lone voice of reality, resisting his daughter’s self-diagnosis that she’s really a boy; from the other parents came a resignation to their child’s greater truth, an approach supported by the professionals.
We’re not seeing a growing awareness of ‘gender dysphoria’ and a debate about how best to support children and adolescents who are distressed about the sex they were born, but a new belief in one simple explanation for the symptoms which changes the very meaning of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ into a set of personality characteristics. In any other area where a person’s belief contradicts reality (body dysmorphia or anorexia for example) we try to work out what’s going on underneath, but in this area uniquely we have chosen to believe instead that a person’s thinking is the reality and the body an illusion.
How could this have become the new normal so suddenly and why is everyone accepting a completely new diagnosis of children which lacks any basis in science, or solid research and evidence? Despite the relentless media promotion, the organisation and funding behind the trans movement, and its framing as a social justice issue, you’d still think the idea of medically altering the healthy bodies of children and adolescents would have met with a bit more resistance. Perhaps the reason it has exploded so rapidly now is because there is already a fertile soil established for it to take root and grow.
Culturally, the belief in sex stereotypes has been fostered for decades through the contrasting media representation of women and men as well as books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (the biggest selling self-help book of all time) and the last decade has seen an unprecedented explosion in extreme gendered toys, books and clothes marketed to children. It seems that the more women break into traditionally ‘male’ areas throughout society, the more extreme the cultural messages become that ‘girls are like this’ and ‘boys are like this’ and it’s ‘innate.’ We have never before so assiduously trained children into such rigid pink and blue gender boxes. No matter that brain research consistently tells us that the idea of the ‘male’ brain and the ‘female’ brain is a myth, the cultural messages have far greater impact on our imaginations.
Within that wider culture, there is an established child-centred parenting culture which has put parents in a position of deference towards their children. Behind the expert parenting advice lie assumptions which are not immediately apparent because (as in every point in history) we assume that the way we do things now is not only normal but an advance on previous methods and thinking. The current child-led parenting model is based on two core assumptions:
- The child is born with a fully-developed and fixed Self: the parents’ job is to honour, affirm and bolster this Self
- Children are psychologically fragile: the parents’ job is to build a child’s self-esteem and confidence and to protect them from anything which may shake it
What this means in reality is that the parent looks to the child for guidance as the child is assumed to know themselves best, and a therapeutic relationship is established based on affirmation of the child’s feelings, in order to protect them from failure, frustration or challenge. We assume both a level of self-knowledge and a fragility in our children which they don’t actually possess; a child in reality builds a sense of self (or identity) through relationship with the environment and children are born ego-centric, they are naturally resilient. What is missing from this picture is the adult role as the voice of experience, understanding and greater wisdom and knowledge.
The ‘born in the wrong body’ idea, based on the belief in an innate and fully-formed ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ Self at birth, simply feeds into these already-established beliefs in gender stereotypes and the fixed Self at birth, and the medical treatment of the ‘wrong body’ seems like a logical way to ‘fix’ and affirm the child in their ‘true self’ which they know best. ‘Born in the wrong body’ allows us to reconcile two established beliefs which are otherwise in conflict if a child rejects the gender box designated for him or her.
What is so apparent today is how the whole culture collectively supports and reinforces the same child-centred message as in the parenting guides; the media, professionals and social commentators overwhelmingly send the same message of affirmation of the child’s ‘authentic self’, disassociated from the body. Parents are not uniquely impervious to cultural influences but they are in a uniquely vulnerable position and therefore more susceptible to the directives of professionals, whether ‘parenting experts’ or ‘gender specialists.’ In the absence of public critical debate they are not getting the full picture; the general level of discourse so far has been a bit like only being allowed to read Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus while the studies in neuroscience are withheld.
We’re already seeing increasing numbers of young people who realise their ‘transition’ was a mistake, and professionals expressing concern about the treatment path which has such harmful and life-changing consequences for young people, so let’s hope Bringing Up Britain was just the start of a more open and balanced representation of an issue that more and more parents are being confronted with in their own lives.