Last week I appeared on BBC Breakfast to comment on the story of the 5year old Kansas boy who went to a Halloween party at school, dressed as Daphne from Scooby Doo. According to his mother, other mothers at the school made disparaging and critical remarks to her for allowing her son to dress as a girl. She was really angry and wrote it up on her blog, with a photo of her son dressed as Daphne, .... oh, and she titled the blog My Son is Gay.
If you would like to see the interview click here
Several things strike me about this story:
First, it is much much too early to draw any conclusions about the child’s sexual orientation. Wanting to dress up as girl is no indication that he is gay. The poor little boy is still working out what it means to be a boy, he is light years away from knowing whether he is a boy who likes girls or one who likes boys .. or maybe both boys and girls. Many children dress in the clothes of the other sex at this age – however it is boys dressing as girls that’s more likely to attract adverse comment rather than vice versa.
For me the main point is this. Children are great conformists, and even (especially) at this age they have strong views about what is appropriate dress for boys and girls. This little boy knew that what he was doing was likely to attract unwanted attention. He told his mother a few days before that he thought other kids would laugh at him and by her own admission she 'blew it off'. On the day of the party she writes that he is 'visibly nervous' and afraid of what people will say and do but she convinced him to go ahead. She over-rode his objections putting it down to the fact of he is ‘a bit of a worrier in general’, - all the more reason in my view not to put him through this ordeal.
I think that by refusing to back down she was making a point she wanted to make. It’s all very well to say the world should think differently – they should – but don’t use your child to make a point if he will suffer as a consequence.
What's really interesting is the furore this blog unleashed. So far 44,000 people have posted comments on the story. Why? I thought I would do a bit of research into the way in which children develop their sense of gender. So I googled 'gender consciousness'; every single reference on the first 2 pages were political, including a gender conscious approach to climate change. (Go figure!) I tried 'development of gender consciousness', -still nothing. I added 'in children' and finally something came up. This is not a story about a 5-year-olds’ choice of fancy dress costume, it’s highly charged story about tolerance of difference, individual choice and sexual politics.
How do children develop a sense of what it means to be a boy or girl? Is it nature or nurture? Research shows that the male and female brains differ and this is evident very early in the baby’s life. The female brain is hardwired for empathy and the male brain for understanding and building systems. This doesn’t mean that all boys have male brains nor all girls female brains -there are many areas of overlap, but on average there are significant differences and it shows in the ways in which boys and girls behave.
A child’s sense of gender develops over time. First they learn to identify themselves as a boy or a girl and learn ‘the rules’ of being a boy or girl. How to dress, behave, play etc. Because they are children, their sense of what it means to be a boy or girl is simplistic, as is most of their thinking at this stage. The 'rules' are rigid. Boys have short hair and girls have long; only girls wear pink boys never do, girls play with dolls, boys fight... Because their thinking is very rigid they feel the need to conform to the stereotypes. Many parents consciously try to avoid gender stereotyping and are often dismayed by their daughter’s insistence on ‘girly’ dresses and their son’s propensity to turn anything resembling a gun into a weapon. Not to worry; as their thinking becomes more complex (from 5-6 onwards), children come to understand that boys doing girly things are still boys and vice versa, although it is still easier for a girl to cross the gender divide than a boy. BUT look in any primary school playground and what you will see is groups of boys doing vigourous active 'aggressive' running and chasing and little girls in huddles chatting or playing cooperative games.
To see a BBC Breakfast News interview on this topic, click here