Children and Gender

children and genderWhat 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:

  1. The child is born with a fully-developed and fixed Self: the parents’ job is to honour, affirm and bolster this Self
  2. 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.

6 Responses

  1. Jane
    | Reply

    Thanks for this really interesting article.
    I listened to Bringing Up Britain discussing transgender children, and although I was glad there was some debate, at last, I would have liked to have heard far more balanced debate (and far more from you). I was disappointed that the programme seemed strongly biased towards unscientific ‘own experiences’ rather empirical evidence, and that the BBC, a corporation that is suppose to be unbiased, seemed to give more airtime to those than any real facts. But at least it is a start.

  2. Margaret Haynes
    | Reply

    Stephanie, I see a lot of sense in what you are saying on this topic. Because I am interested, I wonder if you have also looked at the effect of modern and widespread hormone treatment, in for example the birth control pill. This has been found in drinking water and potentially alters the biochemistry of the body. Fish have been found in the sea that have both female and male reproductive organs. Also there are examples of girls not starting their periods or stopping completely and going into ‘early menopause’ after the Gardasil vaccine. So my point is that we are now living in a different world as far as hormones are concerned and I am interested in the effect of this. I wonder if you have thoughts about this?

    • Stephanie Davies-Arai
      | Reply

      I’ve seen a few things written about this but there’s no evidence that it’s the girls who are not starting their periods etc who are ‘coming out’ as trans. Hormones have an effect on the development of biological sex characteristics so you’d expect more variations of biological intersex conditions, which we’re not seeing. I think hormones in themselves are a red herring – there are such huge variations in neo-natal hormone levels in both girls and boys anyway, but increased levels of testosterone in girls for example doesn’t make them into boys and low testosterone doesn’t make a boy into a girl. Scientists are madly trying to find ‘evidence’ for the trans phenomena through hormone effects on the brain, while everyone ignores the blindingly obvious cultural factors – especially in the case of the huge spike in teenage girls who don’t want to become women. While we look at this group of young people as ‘transgender’ rather than ‘girls’ we won’t find the answers – the sexism of science! Girls have never been worth studying in their own right have they..? And heaven forbid we ask why so many girls reject being female at adolescence, we might have to do something about it…

  3. Margaret Haynes
    | Reply

    Thank you for your reply Stephanie. I didn’t mean to imply that it is only girls who don’t have periods who are not happy as girls; rather I mentioned that to illustrate the effects that drugs can have. The feminine is massively undervalued in today’s world I agree

  4. Lori Curry
    | Reply

    A good friend of mine who is a university professor and lesbian, feels that our society is pushing butch lesbians into transitioning. She asserts what is less threatening than being a lesbian, being a man! What is your thought on this? By the way, I agree with your articles’ points.

    • Stephanie Davies-Arai
      | Reply

      I agree, young lesbians are identifying as straight “trans guys” which is much more acceptable than being a butch lesbian in our society.

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