‘Six year olds think that if you change your clothes, you change sex’
In a recent talk and subsequent Internet post, a professor of psychology disputed the idea that children can honestly determine their “gender identity”—whether or not they are a boy or a girl—at their earliest ages.
Katie Alcock, a psychology instructor at Lancaster University in Lancashire, England, recently gave a presentation on childhood gender identity that she then turned into a post on Medium. In that post, Alcock states that she is “very interested in how children learn about sex and about stereotypes.”
Noting that transgender activists routinely insist that children as young as three and four are capable of deciding whether or not they are a boy or a girl, Alcock states that research into children’s “developing knowledge of sex and gender” has been going on for decades. That research has revealed some telling consistencies, she writes:
[W]hen [boys and girls] see all the girls at nursery wearing pink and having long hair, well, that’s what girls do! And they also realise, from what people are saying, and from how their parents dress them, what toys they are given, and what toys other children who look like them (same clothes, same hair) what they are supposed to like and do based on what sex they are…
So, based on the idea that girls have long hair and boys have short hair, [a three-year-old boy] is also age-perfect in thinking that when appearance changes, sex changes too. Until the age of about 7 (yes, 7 — in some children it’s older) children think that when something changes its appearance, its underlying reality changes too. This doesn’t just apply to sex, it applies to pretty much everything.
This kind of generalization, Alcock notes, is generally “a very useful skill for a baby or child,” insofar as it allows them to make associations between things with which they’ve had prior experience, such as food or automobiles.
But though this generalizing can help kids figure out how to be associative, it also means that impressionable children are given to highly simplistic thoughts about sex:
By the time children are about 6 or 7 they are getting better at understanding that objects don’t change their real essence when they change their appearance but they still think that people change their sex when they change their appearance — this is known as sex (or gender, if you’re squeamish) constancy.
Alcock writes: “[S]ome children can understand that men have penises and women have vaginas, but still think that changing clothing makes a girl into a boy…In other words, to get to a mature understanding of sex constancy you need to understand what makes a boy and a girl, biologically, and also understand that the underlying essence of a thing isn’t dependent on its appearance.”
“[Young childrens’] version of the world, at their age, means that changing sex is totally possible,” Alcock writes.