We have written extensively about trans books for the youngest children, for example here. In this post a child clinical psychologist writes her anaylsis of The Gender Book, one of the many trans picture books now published for the youngest children.
I’m always looking for good resources to use with children. As a child therapist and mother myself, parents often ask me for recommendations to use in order to introduce their children to different ideas. When I saw that Jessica Kingsley were publishing a new book for children on gender, I was immediately interested. Jessica Kingsley are a respected publisher who often produce specialist psychology books. They have a solid reputation and I have many colleagues who have published books with them. I was predisposed to liking the book.
I order The Gender Book. It is advertised as suitable for five to twelve year olds, but the illustrations make it clear that it’s focused more on the younger kids. It’s brightly coloured and looks like lots of other picture books. The characters are ethnically diverse and wide-eyed. Two of them, Casey and Ellie, are our guides. They start off by telling us their pronouns.
I’m curious to see how they will tackle the difference between sex and gender for this age group. Young children typically have a rudimentary understanding of the difference between the sexes, evidence shows that many of them think that what makes someone a girl or a boy is clothes, hair and stereotypes. That’s why they’ll say things like ‘boys can’t like pink’ – to them, liking pink IS what a girl is. They are still building their understanding of the world and understanding what can be changed and what can’t. That’s a natural part of child development. As they grow up, their understanding becomes more nuanced as they start to understand sex and reproduction.
There’s only one mention of biological sex in this book. It’s this. “When each person is born, they’re given an assigned gender at birth based on their perceived biological sex. Generally this gender will be either male or female’.
The language seems quite complicated for five-year-olds, and I wonder how they’ll explain ‘perceived biological sex’. They don’t. In the next page we’re told that being assigned male or female at birth is determined by chromosomes, but there’s no explanation of reproductive differences or what being male or female actually means. There is, however, a picture of a pregnant transman with scars from having their breasts removed. I wonder what five-year-olds will make of that and how that will help them understand the difference between the sexes.
From here on in it gets more confusing. We’re told that people can be gender non-conforming – the picture shows a man with long hair and make up, and a woman with short hair and a tool box. Then we learn about cis people and trans people, there’s a cis man baking cookies and a transwoman knitting. We’re told that there’s a difference between gender identity and gender expression. The gender identity is the ‘gender that most feels like ours’ – but how do we know? What does it mean to feel like a male or female? The book doesn’t explain.
The book continues to throw confusing statements at us. We meet new people, one of them is agender, another is greygender. It’s not clear what any of it means or why a person might decide that that is the right label for them. We’re told that 1.7% of people are ‘intersex’, which seems a bit complicated for young children who may not yet have learned how to add and subtract – but it’s also wrong. This statistic is often quoted and is not backed up by evidence because the definition used for ‘intersex’ is not a valid one. The real figure is 0.018%.
Then the book starts to get creepy. We meet a bearded person called Joseph who has on high heels and an apron. He has lines on his arm which look like self-harm scars. He tells us that today he identifies as girl but yesterday he was a boy.
This disturbs me. Joseph is clearly a grown adult, whatever his gender identity. Why does he identify as a girl, not a woman – and why are we telling small children that adults can be girls or boys, if they say that they are? Telling a child that an adult male who says they are a girl should be treated as such will make them vulnerable, not to mention extremely confused. There is an odd sexualised vibe here. If a bearded grown man can be a girl, what does it mean to be a girl? We’re not told.
More words. We’re told about genderflux, bigender and omnigender people. The book feels more and more like a list because nothing is really defined. Apparently genderflux people feel like they have a little gender some days and a lot other days – but what is this gender thing? How do we know if we have a lot or a little of it? The children I know would want to know, but this book won’t help them with that.
Now we get to mental health, my specialist area. Again, I’m curious to see how they will address this for young children in an age-appropriate way. Turns out that they don’t worry about being age appropriate. We go straight in with Sadie who had dissociative identity disorder with lots of ‘multiple personality states’ she calls alters. Her alters are different genders so she uses ‘gendervague’ for herself.
I’ve worked with people with DID. It’s a highly complex mental health problem and psychologists do not use the term ‘alters’ or ‘multiple personalities’ anymore. It’s also rare and it’s not at all clear why it’s in a book for young children. What are they meant to be learning from this? It gets stranger – Cam has PTSD related to their assigned gender at birth (not sure what five-year-olds are going to make of that statement, nor am I as an adult sure what they mean) – and so they identify as gendervague, which makes them feel much safer and happier.
The mental health page is really problematic. Not only is there medicalised and outdated language which young children do not need, they are telling children that gender transition is a way to alleviate distress and mental health problems. The message is clear, identify as a different gender and you’ll feel happier. Even if you have post-traumatic stress disorder.
Perhaps the strangest page is towards the end. There’s a woman in a hijab. We’re told that covering their hair is an important part of how some girls understand their gender. Really? I’m surprised. No mention of religious faiths or cultural norms which require women to cover their hair – or indeed the lack of choice which women have in countries such as Afghanistan where they are obliged to cover their hair or their whole body due to their female sex. Not because that is how they understand their gender, but because they are made to. Surely any book on gender should cover gender inequality and the position of woman in many countries in the world? But women barely get a mention here.
Next to the woman in a hijab is a moustached man in a skirt taking a selfie of himself in a mirror. We’re told that wearing a skirt is part of how some boys experience being boys – just like the hijab for girls. Again the confusion of adults with children, if this is really about boys and not men, why not have a picture of a child?
I am shocked by the cultural insensitivity. Equating a woman wearing a hijab with a man wearing a skirt to take a selfie seems so crass I can hardly believe the editors let it through. The man is wearing a skirt as a performance – he’s taking a picture of it. The woman is wearing a hijab for reasons which we do not know, but it’s extremely unlikely to be so she can take a picture and post it on social media.
In the world of this book however, there is no reason to do anything except gender. The clothes people wear, the things they do – absolutely everything is a way to express their gender. It must be exhausting for all these people – and deeply confusing for children who may not be thinking about anything they do in terms of gender. Most of the things which young children do are not gendered and have no need to be gendered. They just are.
This book sets out to change that, however.
We’re nearly done – but there’s an exercise at the end. It’s a Gender Comparison Activity. Children are asked to write down things which make them feel like the gender they are – like the way they dress, their favourite colours, the way they act, the games and toys they like to play with. Then they’re asked to make a separate list of things which are associated with the opposite gender – like if they are a boy but they like to play with dolls (that is the actual example given).
Then the children are asked to think whether those lists make them feel any differently about their gender.
If they weren’t thinking about themselves and what they like in terms of conforming to gender stereotypes before, they will be now.
This book reinforces stereotypes – and of course, it is perfectly designed to chime with this stage of child development. Children at this age do not understand biological sex differences. They do not understand what makes someone male or female. They do think that ‘the way they dress’ is what makes someone a girl or a boy. They are very suggestible – if a bearded man in a dress says they are a girl, they may not challenge him. They don’t know any better.
This book reinforces their lack of understanding. It’s telling them that their rudimentary understanding of the difference between boys and girls is all there is – and it’s up to them to choose whether they fit in to the stereotypes, or whether they instead are one of the people who have discovered that identifying as ‘gendervague’ makes them feel safer and happier. I know which I would have chosen when I was five. I can imagine myself, worrying about whether woodwork was something which make me feel like my gender or whether that meant that I might not in fact be a girl.
This is a dangerous book. It introduces confusion to children where none was necessary.
This book promotes gender transition as the route to happiness and freedom without discussing any of the complexities. Many of the target readership will not understand sex and reproduction yet. For young children, gender really is about whether you have long hair or like playing with dolls. They do not understand the difference to biological sex. And there’s nothing here which will help them understand reality. It will just make them confused.
Children are encouraged to list the ways in which they fit gender stereotypes and the ways in which they don’t – so that they can start to question their gender. Because why on earth wouldn’t they? Who wants to be boring and binary, when you can experience ‘trans euphoria’, which we’re told is ‘the feeling of joy as a result of being perceived as your true gender identity’. There’s a picture of balloons and a happy looking family on this page – and a trans person having an injection, presumably with hormones. Lifelong medicalisation linked to joy.
I won’t be recommending this book to anyone. In fact, I am horrified that a respected publisher thought that this was acceptable. It appears to be written by someone with no understanding of child development, mental health or cultural sensitivity. It reinforces stereotypes at every turn, and never explains what it really means to ‘feel like a girl’ or ‘feel like a boy’. Children are left to assume it must be down to the high heels or toolbox. Which of course they will believe, because they are children and they believe what we tell them.
Our job, however, is to be adults. We need to help our children understand reality, and we can do an awful lot better than this.