How to support children struggling with gender identity?

September 18, 2017 Published by

It seems that you can’t open the newspaper or turn on the TV without hearing about the issue of gender, and there has been a marked rise in the number of children saying they identify as being either of the opposite sex or of no sex at all.  As a society, we are becoming far more educated, and accepting, about what it means to be ‘gender neutral’; schools are adapting their policies to reflect this.  But some people can’t seem to get their heads around the notion of gender fluidity and believe that, ‘girls should be girls and boys should be boys.’  Even the prime minister (who holds a traditionally ‘male’ position herself) divides household chores based on gender.

The BBC recently conducted an experiment into gender neutrality; their aim was to show that the way we treat boys and girls in childhood has a profound impact on the roles men and women play in society.  At the start of the experiment, the children involved had polarised opinions on gender.  Dr Javid set out to challenge this and create a gender-neutral environment – the results showed significant changes in the children’s views and opinions on gender.  The experiment faced fierce criticism by some, who felt that it was harmful to the children involved. Dr Javid countered this by saying: “This is about giving children a full development so they can achieve absolutely anything they want. I’d challenge any sane and sensible adult to say we don’t want that.”

Should we be aiming for a gender-neutral society?




It’s likely that you’ve heard of the nature versus nurture debate already; the idea that behaviour may be created by our biology (what we are born with), our environment (such as the attitudes of people around us), or both. While the idea of a ‘male’ and ‘female’ brain appears to be a myth, that doesn’t mean there isn’t another biological reason (for example, hormones) for the differences we see between girls and boys. It’s a difference we even see between male and female monkeys, who won’t have been brought up being dragged down the pink or blue aisle of the toy store. Of course, human children aren’t monkeys, but it does suggest that environment isn’t the only thing deciding what toys children like to play with or wear.

At the same time, preference doesn’t indicate ability. What we saw in Dr Javid’s documentary was how a change in environment can give children equal opportunities to learn and develop – from the girls improving their spatial awareness through puzzles, to the boys getting better at understanding their emotions. This wasn’t about changing what children like, but what they aspire towards, and what they feel is expected of them. If both girls and boys are getting a balanced play diet they should be getting equal opportunities to develop their skills at the same pace.


Are ‘tomboys’ struggling with gender identity?

Girl dressed up as TomboyAt the start of the academic year, the parents of a six-year-old boy removed him from school in a row over whether another male pupil should be allowed to wear a dress.  They claimed that their son was confused by the fact that the child in question dressed as both a boy and a girl. 

Had the child involved been a female there probably wouldn’t have been an issue. In recent years it has become more acceptable for girls to dress in traditionally ‘boys’ clothing and play with ‘boys’ toys – although this does still have it’s own negative labels, with girls labelled as ‘tomboys’ if they like wearing trousers and playing football.

But a girl who is a so-called ‘tomboy’ could be facing the same anxieties as a boy who wants to dress as a girl.  Figures published by the NHS (May 2017) showed that more than double the number of girls compared to boys seek to use its gender identity development service, with 1,400 ‘assigned at birth’ females seeking treatment, compared with 616 males in the past year.

Regardless of the numbers or ratios, clearly we have a generation of children who are questioning their gender identity more than ever. Is this because, as a society, we are becoming more tolerant? Or, is it because children are feeling out of place if they don’t fit comfortably into the category others think they should?

There has long been the saying, let boys be boys, and let girls be girls. We say, let children be children! All children should be equal, but none of them are the same.


Photo Credit:

Where Tomboy and Fashion Collide by Rob Briscoe licensed under CC BY 2.0


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This post was written by Claire Gillies

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