I’m a researcher in developmental psychology, and I’m interested in how young children learn symbols and how they think about the world. Most of my research is on children learning vocabulary but as a feminist (and mum of a boy and a girl) I’m also very interested in how children learn about sex and about stereotypes.
Now these days we are all anti-stereotyping and we are convinced we have not raised our children to know what sex stereotypes are. If the only influences on children were things people said directly to them, and especially things we as parents said directly to them, this might work out. But children don’t grow up in a vacuum — they see the other children at nursery, they see toys that other children play with, obviously they hear what other adults than their parents say but most of what children take in is not from people talking to them, but from what they see.
Making generalisations is a very useful skill for a baby or child — if they couldn’t make generalisations, they would never be able to work out that a new cat they saw was in fact a cat, or a new apple was just as good to eat as the last one, or a new car is likely also to go places. Children can work out at a very young age that there are men and women, boys and girls, in the world — it’s probably quite useful for them to work this out in the general scheme of things².
So we now have children like “Lily”, here shown on the Victoria Derbyshire programme. Lily is 6. Six year olds think that if you change your clothes, you change sex. Lily therefore thinks that putting on a dress makes you into a girl. Literally makes you into a girl. Not “means your inner gender essence is a girl”. Literally changes your sex.
Children know what they like. When society and the world tells them that the things they like are those that boys like — but they have been told in words that they are a girl — well, that’s easy. They already know that having short hair makes you into a boy. They know that playing with cars makes you into a boy. So it’s easy! Boy all the way. And their version of the world, at their age, means that changing sex is totally possible.