Kids and Gender
Why “let kids be kids” is not the argument you think it is.
In the run-up to the election, the far right is attacking trans kids, their parents, doctors, and therapists in vile and dangerous ways. I’ve waded into some really ugly discussions on social media because I teach gender and sexuality and the amount of disinformation out there is bonkers and incredibly frightening. One of the main dog whistles I’ve seen is “you can do what you want if you are an adult, but let kids be kids.” This is not the argument you think it is. Let’s break it down, shall we?
Human male and female bodies are not very different. Sexual dimorphism, or the difference between the sexes in a species, is low in humans as compared to other species. The idea of the sexes being opposite is made up; it supports hierarchies where men are perceived as stronger and more intelligent, which is categorically untrue. On average, women live longer and have more robust immune systems than men. This makes sense as female bodies build whole new humans with their bodies. There is far more genetic variation between individual humans than there is between men and women. Unfortunately, most of the history of Western science has been dominated by white men who assumed they were the genetic ideal, giving rise to horribly inaccurate theories about the difference in women’s bodies (and non-white bodies) that have hampered both the study and practice of medicine. If you want to dive into this rabbit hole, I have a whole list of articles here. Enjoy.
We indoctrinate kids with made-up stuff about the genders from the time they are born. (Or before, if you think a gender-reveal party is a good idea.) How societies decide what is masculine and feminine is vastly different and is always changing. I was told I should put a scratchy headband with a pink fake flower on my (never sleeping) newborn’s head so everyone would know they were a girl. Why? Babies are just babies. Before puberty, kids are physically incredibly similar. Yet we tell them what colors they should like and dislike, what activities they should do and not do, and we pass on all the bullshit we haven’t unpacked about what is okay for boys and girls. This is indoctrination—not letting your kid self-express in whatever way feels best for them. I’m a pretty femme person, but I went through a tomboy phase. My androgynous kid had a princess phase. Kids should be allowed to play with gender roles or ignore them based on their needs, and parents and teachers should support that.
Play, which is vital to brain development, means trying on different roles, costumes, and ideas. Yet as a society, we constantly police kids’ behavior based on their genitals and tell them what kind of play is “natural” and “unnatural” for them. NOTHING ABOUT GENDER ROLES IS NATURAL. IT IS MADE UP. Some kids feel strongly feminine or masculine, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, and some don’t. This is normal. Forcing your kid who hates dresses to wear one or not letting your kid take dance lessons because they are male is indoctrination. It diminishes your kid’s confidence and joy. As a parent, even one who teaches the science of gender and sexuality to college students, I still run up against my social programming about gender. I work hard to unpack it and ensure that my indoctrination doesn’t become my kid’s trauma. My job as a parent is to help my kid grow fully into themselves, not force them into an arbitrary box that doesn’t fit.
So when someone says, “let kids be kids” I say yes! Let them wear what they want, do the activities they want, and explore their world and themselves without our bullshit, made-up ideas about what boys and girls are supposed to be like. Ultimately, forcing gender norms on kids makes them feel less-than or wrong because NOBODY totally fits what it is to be an ideal man or woman, no matter how hetero and gender-conforming we are. That is by design. It keeps us stressed out, controllable, and buying lots of shit we don’t need to compensate for our feeling of wrongness.
Unfortunately, the “let kids be kids” crowd assumes that gender norms are innate and that being trans is a trend. They are not, and it is not. Let me break it down.
Gender-affirming care is medically sound. Every major medical organization and countless peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that forcing a non-gender conforming child to conform to the gender they were assigned at birth (or worse, assigning an intersex kid a gender through nonconsensual surgeries) is incredibly bad for their mental and physical health.
Gender-affirming care is lifesaving. One in four queer kids (that’s gay, bi, trans, nonbinary — anything that’s not cis-gendered and heterosexual) attempts suicide. That number goes up if their family and community try to force them to be straight/cisgender and down if they have gender-affirming family, friends, medical providers, and schools. So using a trans or nonbinary kid’s pronouns and getting them gender-affirming therapy and medical care is, quite literally, suicide prevention.
Most nonbinary or trans kids who take puberty blockers or hormone replacement therapy regret it. No. Somebody made this shit up and put it on the internet, so people believe it. It is false. Recent studies show that 99% of kids who medically (that means hormones, not surgery) do not choose to detransition. The main reasons trans and nonbinary people stop HRT (hormone replacement therapy) are cost, social stigma, or medical reasons. Also, it’s all reversible. It’s low risk, and it could save your kid’s life. If your kid says they are trans, find them a gender-affirming doctor and therapist and get them what they need.
Parents are amputating their kids’ genitals. No, they are not. Genital reassignment surgery is painful, invasive, and risky. Nobody does it before adulthood, and many trans people don’t do it at all. For an underage person to have top surgery (creation or removal of breasts), they have to pass a whole lot of psych and medical evaluations, and it’s very rare before adulthood.
Being trans is a trend or a “social contagion.” Once again, bullshit. Trans and nonbinary people have always existed. There are names for them in most languages, and every culture treats gender differently. Most of what we think of as feminine and masculine is socially constructed, varies widely by culture and time, and is constantly changing. Social contagion theory has been debunked many, many times.
Using trans kids as a punching bag for political points is abhorrent. As humans, we fear what we don’t know, and the current crop of far-right candidates play on that fear in a way that will continue to cost lives and cause irreparable harm to families and children. (Side note – it’s not just conservatives spouting this nonsense, they’re just the ones currently trying to trade on it for votes.) If you feel uncomfortable with trans or nonbinary people, or you feel really strongly about conforming to gender norms, that is a you thing. You may have a happier, fuller life if you unpack what makes you feel like deviating from the current norm is dangerous or wrong because those norms are always changing and rarely attainable. There is nothing more empowering for a kid than letting them be fully themselves. So yes, let kids be kids by letting them explore gender (or not) in whatever ways they want and wholeheartedly supporting them.