Many of us think about gender as a simple boy/girl binary.
We see the gender of our children on their bodies from birth and we interact with them in ways that communicate our understanding of what a boy, or what a girl, should be.
There is research evidence showing most people interact with even newborn babies differently depending on the gender of the baby and throughout their lives we continue to interact with children differently depending on their placement on the gender binary.
Our expectations are different depending on whether we think they are girls or boys. Many (but not all) seemingly biological differences can be explained by different experiences.
Alloway once wrote that we should expect girls to grow up to be physically weaker than men when we put them in dresses, tell them not to run around too much so they don't show their knickers, and encourage them to play sedentary, quiet games; and at the same time we encourage our boys to be physically active, to climb, to jump, to explore the world around them and to take physical risks.
Our expectations, set by our culture and society, shape the way children perform their gender.However some children do not feel they 'fit' into their assigned gender category. We have all heard about adults who are transgender (or whose gender is diverse, fluid and/or non-binary).
We have all heard the distressing rates of self-harm and suicide in teenagers who are struggling with their assigned gender. As Red Ruby Scarlett wrote recently, we assume that children born with a penis are boys, and children born with a vulva are girls, however this is not the case for all children. We know there are binary transgender boys who have a vulva and binary transgender girls who have a penis.
These children may have gender reassignment surgery in their adult lives but they may not, so in our adult world we may have transgender women with a penis transgender men with a vulva, and those who have both ovaries and testes in various proportions and who may chose an identity anywhere along the female to male continuum.
Whilst we are aware of these gender variations in adults, what we probably have not realised is that even very young children can struggle with gender identity. When we pretend that these children are too young to understand the complexities of gender identity, and either ignore their struggles, or insist that they act in accordance with the gender their bodies demonstrate, then we increase the risk of these children developing significant mental health problems.
Gender identity is something that each individual decides for him or herself. It is not something that we should impose on others. Basically the genitals we possess do not have to define our gender. Rather, the way children feel and the gender they decide for themselves should be respected. It doesn't matter if we think transgenderism is wrong.
It doesn't matter if our culture or faith requires us to be either male or female. What matters is our responsibility to our children; our responsibility to ensure that all children grow up feeling supported and respected. How we do this is our struggle and we need to take responsibility to engage with this struggle, not shift the responsibility to change on the children themselves.This is not about making gender irrelevant or even ignoring gender.
It is about recognising and supporting the identity children chose for themselves. Under the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child this is an important element; the right to self-determination. This means that we cannot be judgemental about children's chosen identity nor how they prefer to express it. It is perfectly appropriate for boys to love dressing in tutus and we need to make sure that the boy who chooses to do so is supported and not ridiculed.
It is perfectly appropriate for girls to refuse to wear dresses and to spend their time building bridges in the construction area. Gradually traditional gender roles in adulthood are shifting: we are seeing more men engaging in the caring professions and more women engineers for example. How we support our young children shapes their future and their ability to choose the kinds of employment they might like, along with their very identity as individuals.
We need to be open to the non-traditional gender choices children are making, and to extend the options available to them, so that we expand opportunities not restrict them. We need to have conversations with children and parents that are open about gender identity.