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Unbaking the genderbread person

As many schools find themselves at the frontline of gender identity belief systems, what do parents need to know?

When it comes to gender identity theory — the idea that humans have an innate, immutable concept of gender that may or may not align with their sex — many people, including me, started with acceptance as a first principle. We thought that when people told us who they were, we should believe them. By the time we started to think more critically about the broader effects of this doctrine, we realised that dissent had been rebadged as blasphemy, and that the harms of this new belief system surrounded us. Male rapists were transferring to female prisons, crisis services had become mixed-sex, male athletes were winning women’s medals and young people’s bodies were being irreversibly harmed. 

For many children, first contact with these ideas is in school. Government guidance on what to teach regarding gender identity, and how to handle demands that pupils should be allowed to “transition”, has been delayed for years. As pressure increased from concerned parents and school leaders fearful of legal action no matter what course they choose, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, promised to publish guidance in time for the summer term, which starts today. The guidance is now expected by May half term. And this is where the next lines in the increasingly fraught battle between proponents and opponents of gender ideology will be drawn.

Genderbread lesson plans are steeped in gender stereotypes

Schools often witness clusters of close friends starting to identify out of their sex. They are places where, without carefully managed policies, explorations of identity can be made concrete and safeguarding may fall down. Many are spaces in which decisions about gender are made without parents’ consent or even knowledge. Some place girls in boys’ changing rooms or boys on girls’ sports teams. Often, they teach the “genderbread” person, which places gender identity on continuums of “man-ness” and “woman-ness”. Genderbread lesson plans are steeped in gender stereotypes, describing man-ness norms like “strong-willed, logical, athletic” and a “leader, builder, protector,” and woman-ness ones like “empathetic, sensitive, caring” and “teacher, caretaker, supporter”. These are direct quotes.

It has become normal to outsource lesson plans to campaigning charities such as Stonewall, whose lesson packs aimed at 7-year-olds teach children someone is trans if their gender doesn’t match up with the “label” they were given at birth. School leaders may think they are following best practice when they tear down safeguarding protocols, from councils suggesting local schools can socially transition children without parents’ knowledge to school trainers recommending children choose their own sleeping arrangements when on residential trips. As one expert told me when preparing a paper for parents I’m publishing today with human-rights campaign group Sex Matters: “Girls can get pregnant, whether that is consensual or not. It’s one reason why we don’t have mixed-sex facilities.” 

More broadly, schools also need guidance on how to assess – holistically, safely and in partnership with parents – the needs of children with gender distress, and on how to avoid creating an environment that facilitates the development of such distress in the first place. While thorough, informed government guidance for schools remains outstanding, concerned parents are on their own. So what can they do?

My Sex Matters paper summarises a series of interviews with specialist psychotherapists, parent support groups and other experts, as well as academic research and written expert advice fitting a supportive waiting model (as outlined here). It provides a range of ideas for parents of gender-questioning teenagers on areas such as how to engage with your child on the topic of gender, how to support yourself, how to communicate with a gender-distressed child, handling disagreement, supporting your child’s mind and body, engaging with the wider context – including how to advocate for your child with their school – and dealing with some specific challenges.

The main point is that you know your child best. That said, there are some general principles that are likely to be helpful for many families. 

Perhaps the most important is broadening your child’s perspective. Teenagers in distress are likely to look in, not out. While they are trying to shut their world down, you can help them to open it up. You can be curious about their ideas on gender, while not getting stuck on definitions or positions, and at the same time help your child to be busy and interested in other things. This might mean talking about ideas — politics and philosophy, perhaps — and giving your child opportunities to pursue other interests. You could go to the cinema together, go on family trips, pay for hobbies or encourage volunteering. It can be helpful to have conversations that encourage flexibility and that move away from the idea there is one single, right answer to anything.

Age-appropriate screen limits are likely to matter, too. It’s easy to get immersed online — a cursory glance into the depths of YouTube or TikTok will show you content ready to pull a vulnerable, lost teenager deeper into their distress. The more harmful content is dose-dependent, according to one of the experts I interviewed — 15 minutes is going to be less damaging to your child than several hours. Warm, compassionate parenting also needs to be combined with wider limits — in the area of gender (for example, being clear that breast binders cause physical harm) as well as more general behaviour (such as not accepting rudeness). 

Modelling healthy behaviours is likely to be crucial. This means demonstrating acceptance of your own body and being active as a family, showing self-respect and asserting your boundaries — disengaging from a conversation with your child when there’s too much heat in a disagreement. And while immeasurably difficult, it can be helpful to model resilience in the form of withstanding your child’s anger or silent treatment during moments in which these are at the forefront.

Experts recommend caution when it comes to seeking therapy for your child

Experts recommend caution when it comes to seeking therapy for your child. It may be better to get family therapy or therapy for yourself — otherwise you risk setting up a dynamic in which you, as the most important influence in your child’s life, become secondary to someone who doesn’t understand them as well as you do. Your child may be better served in the longer term by learning how to handle challenging moments for themselves. Normal developmental turbulence doesn’t necessarily point to deep-seated mental health conditions. If you do decide therapy is appropriate for your child, it’s important to find a therapist who will take an open, exploratory approach. 

The weight of evidence suggests outcomes for gender-distressed children are better when they aren’t affirmed in their gender identity. There may be exceptions — but we don’t have the data to know whether this is the case and, if it is, who these exceptions might be. It can be hard to keep faith that an open, supportive, wait-and-see approach is the right thing to do in the context of a toxic national dialogue, and institutions that have been encouraged to take the opposite approach. Support for yourself is vital — you might decide to join a parent support group, seek out supportive friends or join an online community. It’s also important to keep a long-term perspective in mind — children are more likely to resolve their gender distress if they are not immediately affirmed. Their current wishes also need to be viewed in the context of their long-term well-being. 

As the shockwaves of gender ideology continue to reverberate throughout society, parents are the first line of defence for those children who have felt the impact. Many are having to counter dogma, boost their children’s eroded self-esteem to its baseline level and navigate difficult conversations with schools. The expectations we place on families were framed this way by one of my interviewees: “We’re asking parents to be therapists, teachers, clowns and yoga instructors.” We don’t know if the forthcoming government guidance will take some of the pressure off these multiple roles. We do know what the stakes are, though. The high-wire act may need to continue.

Teenagers and Gender Identity: The Evidence Base, Part 3 – How Parents Can Support Their Children is published by Sex Matters.

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