Gender development and gender affirmation
Gender is currently a hot topic in psychiatry, psychology, sociology, and surgery. Many self-appointed experts have materialized who travel the world on the conference circuit espousing often scientifically unsupported doctrine that has led to calls for earlier gender reassignment, preferably before puberty. An example is Diane Ehrensaft, a “paediatric gender therapist”. Her role in life is to liberate gender nonconforming children and youth.
In a video clip that I found quite disturbing vimeo.com/185149379 Ehrensaft declares that a female toddler who pulled hair clips out of her hair was communicating a gender message to her parents – i.e., I am a boy (ergo, hairclips are anathema). She then says that another child, born female, who was barely verbal, at around 18 months of age, insisted to her parents “I, boy!” Another child, at one year of age, unsnapped his stud clips on his jumpsuit to, in her words, “make a dress” which she interpreted as a “preverbal gender communication.”These comments demonstrate a deplorable misunderstanding of the cognitive capacities and concept formation of preverbal children. Primarily, they assume that these babies have a clear understanding of the concept of gender, that they associate hair clips and dresses with female gender, and that they can recognize and assert their own gender. Despite Ehrensaft’s assertions that there are many shades of gender youtube.com/watch?v=HpE3d69SiDU there are underlying assumptions of a gender binary (which she purportedly eschews) in her statements about babies and their early gender awareness.
Further, there are inherent assumptions that gender is innate, which discount powerful socialization effects on gender identity, if indeed, as Ehrensaft states, babies “know [their true gender] as early as the beginning of the second year of life; they probably know before, but they are preverbal,” in which case you need to be vigilant for preverbal gender communicationsof the type described above. These assertions stand in stark contrast to research, for an example see onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01056.x/full demonstrating that children below the age of three are unlikely to have gender constancy.
As children develop their concept of gender, they initially focus on the perceptual properties of a person and act as if these properties (e.g., the person’s name, long or short hair, pink or blue clothes etc) arethe defining characteristics of that person. They cannot conserve or retain the person’s basic identity when outward characteristics change. In other words, they are “perceptually bound” – they define the concepts of “male” and “female” in terms of outward appearance such as hair, clothing, toys etc rather than in terms of the person’s genitalia or biological sex. Some children older than three continue to have difficulty conserving sex across perceptual transformationsand these difficulties may continue up to the age of seven. Even when preschool children do show gender constancy, it is unlikely that they understand its biological basis, a phenomenon called pseudoconstancy.
Once gender constancy (i.e., consistency and stability of the concept) is achieved, children display lower levels of rigidity or gender stereotypy in gender-based behaviour and become more flexible in their reactions to gender norm “violations”. This generally occurs around five years of age. Thus, gender constancy becomes an organizing principle for children’s gender beliefs. Part of the gender development process is the attainment of a sense of the importance of and contentedness with one’s gender.Gender typing is a function of increasing age and emerging constancy.
Adults should interfere with these processes as little as possible. The best they can do is to allow these developmental processes to unfold naturally by the provision of a safe, stimulating environment in which all gender expressions are valued and affirmed.