The Boy Scouts have announced that children who are biologically female but identify as male may now be scouts. By so doing they have joined a movement whose understanding of gender would make perfect sense to a typical 3-year-old, but would confuse a typical 6-year-old.
Young children believe that people can decide to be either a mommy or daddy when they grow up. They believe that changes in appearance result in a changed gender. Thus a girl who cuts her hair unusually short would become a boy. It is not until children are about 6-years-old that they understand that gender is determined by biology and does not change when one's appearance changes. This is gender constancy, a previously noncontroversial concept that is standard content in child-development textbooks. Popular culture, however, is forcefully promoting the belief that gender is determined by feelings: When feelings are not consistent with biology, one should follow the truth of the feelings.
Typical 6-year-olds must be terribly confused by this new lesson disappointingly promoted by the Boy Scouts.
It is not uncommon for children to fantasize about being the opposite gender. It is easy to imagine a child with an older opposite-gender sibling believing that the other gender has all the fun. This used to be an occasion for parents and teachers to break down rigid gender stereotypes. Girls were assured that they could enjoy math and science; women can and do pursue careers in stereotypically masculine fields. Also important is that boys learned that real men can make dinner for their families, are important socializers of children, and can and do pursue careers in traditionally feminine fields.
These conversations about gender roles are important because children learn gender stereotypes at a very young age without adults trying to teach them. Indeed, children of egalitarian parents learn gender stereotypes despite their parents' instruction. Before the end of preschool, children play in gender-segregated groups when given the choice. Typically, mixed-gender play-groups occur only when adults determine the group composition. Kids figure out what boys do and what girls do and enforce a rigid dichotomy themselves.
Evidently, we are no longer supposed to challenge gender stereotypes, but impose stereotypes. A child's conformity to a gender stereotype now signals the child's true gender. Boys who like to do girls' things must really be girls. Girls who like to do boys' things must really be boys. DNA and physical characteristics are deemed unimportant. Kids can choose whether to be a mommy or a daddy when they grow up.
Thus, we are witnessing progressive edicts demanding medical intervention for children long before children are capable of making life-altering choices. A 4-year-old child from Australia made international headlines by becoming one of the youngest children to begin transitioning to the opposite gender. It was reported that an additional 250 Australian children, including many merely 3-years-old, were seeking treatment for gender dysphoria from a single major hospital in Melbourne. National Geographic may have gotten its most publicity since its 1969 issue on the moon-landing by putting a 9-year-old transgender child on its cover.
These children are years away from puberty. Brain development is not complete until about the age of 25. Their understanding of what it means to be a man or woman is importantly limited. In general, the ability to engage in serious abstract thinking begins at about age 12 and continues to develop with experience.
How can children whose abstract thinking ability is too limited for them to succeed in algebra make huge physical-life-changing decisions, some of which cannot be reversed? No one would let these children sign legal contracts, but based upon their feelings and the convictions of so-called experts, children are undergoing medical treatments that will alter their physical development. These changes go well beyond those that can be easily observed. Brain development will be unalterably changed. The vast majority of children who experience gender dysphoria will outgrow it, becoming content with their biological gender. Hormone treatment and surgery are harsh and risky treatments for a challenge that will likely be resolved with no medical intervention.
We all want to alleviate the distress of children who feel like they do not fit in. Well-meaning parents caught up by the glorification of gender transitions in popular culture are risking significant psychological and physical damage to their children. Warm parenting is a far safer option.
According to the Boy Scout Law, Scouts are supposed to be kind, but joining a progressive chorus that pressures parents to reinforce stereotypes and put children on a hormonal course that kids cannot possibly understand is in no way kind.
Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and the Working Group Coordinator for Marriage and Family with The Center for Vision & Values. He is also a researcher on Positive Youth Development.