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Social Transition: A Terrible Idea
Parents tend to go along with the prevailing customs of their time and place. The social pressure to conform is enormous, whether or not we experience it as social pressure, exactly. If parents don’t conform in certain ways, we’re considered outliers, weirdos, or worst of all, bad parents.
June Cleaver let her kids roam the neighborhood unsupervised till dusk in the early 1960s. In the early 2000s, I left my two kids in the car—where I could see them through the store window, on a cool day, for 5 minutes, when they had the flu and I needed some Pedialyte—and someone threatened to call social services. Times change.
Imagine, say, America in the twenty years between 1930 and 1950. Keeping your baby on a strict schedule was considered healthy. Giving your baby a “sun bath”—often leaving the baby outside in direct sunlight, undressed, with no sunscreen and no supervision—was considered healthy. Feeding your baby formula was considered healthy and modern. Breastfeeding was considered embarrassing and out of date. Your children’s doctor would almost inevitably tell you that their tonsils had to come out, so off to the hospital they’d go for surgery. Your children would walk to school unsupervised, do errands for you unsupervised, and have unscheduled free time with their friends.
When that type of parenting was expected, that’s the type of parenting people delivered.
Now imagine today. There are different expectations, and parents deliver on those expectations, too. People generally feed babies when they’re hungry. No one would leave a baby out in the sun alone. Breastfeeding is considered best. It’s rare for a child to have a tonsillectomy—tonsils are thought to help prevent some infections. Children are supervised a lot more. And there are “trans kids”—if children announce a wish not to be the sex they were born as, the smart, open-minded parent is supposed to support “transition”—and that starts with social transition: an extended period of everyone pretending that the child is the sex they prefer.
Note that these sets of expectations are a mixed bag: Breastfeeding and keeping your tonsils are probably better than the alternative; but on the other hand, kids have very little opportunity for developing autonomy compared to earlier generations—but who knows? Now we’ve got free-range parenting, and maybe that pendulum is swinging again, and kids will play unsupervised and ride buses on their own. And sunshine was once thought to be healthy, then unhealthy, and now it’s thought to be healthy again.
The point is: It’s not the case that every change in parenting trends is an advancement or improvement on what earlier generations did. Sometimes what we do is better than in the past, and sometimes what we do is worse. Parents make a lot of choices on autopilot, depending on what “everyone else is doing.”
Social transition is a great example of a modern-day parental choice made on autopilot. And it’s a terrible idea.
Self-Expression versus Social Transition
Social transition can best be described as “self-expression, plus.”
Everyone understands the self-expression piece. Certain kids are very gender nonconforming. The classic example is the tomboy who hates to wear dresses, wears short hair, prefers to play with boys, and adopts a more masculine or neutral nickname—think of Nancy’s friend “George” from the Nancy Drew books.
The “plus” part—the thing that makes social transition different from what we used to do—is that now, everyone treats these kids as if they were really the opposite sex. We call a masculine-presenting girl “he” and everyone in their lives—friends, family, teachers, coaches—pretends the child is really the opposite sex.
This is easy to do with a pre-pubertal, or barely pubertal, child. Kids all look alike. Stick a dinosaur T-shirt and a short haircut on a little girl, and she looks just like a boy. Let a boy grow his hair long and wear a dress, and he looks just like a girl.
Pre-pubertal children can easily pass as the other sex. But what happens when the child starts to develop secondary sex characteristics, after years of pretending to be the opposite sex—after years of everyone playing along and maintaining the fiction?
A whole lot of emotional distress happens, that’s what—much more emotional distress than if their parents and communities had used those years teaching the kids that they can express themselves however they like, they can be accepted and loved for exactly who they are, but they have a certain type of body that will develop a certain way. Your sex, height, eye color, skin tone—these are just reality.
As Dr Bernadette Wren, head of clinical psychology at the Tavistock and Portland Trust (home of the UK’s only gender clinic for children) has said,
“We have never recommended complete social transitioning but it has become a really popular thing and many advocacy groups really promote it. We take the long view because our concern has been that what might work to lower anxiety in a younger child may become the thing that is problematic when they get older. It can become harder for children as they move into adolescence….
“We think that is setting up problems for later.”
When years of pretending come crashing down and their children are in a full-blown emotional crisis because their bodies are changing in unwelcome ways, parents are then told that the modern, progressive, open-minded, loving thing to do is to move the child onto puberty blockers.
While puberty blockers are presented as a benign “pause button” allowing kids time to decide which sex they wish to resemble, they are anything but—see for example this summary of a UK court’s findings in the Keira Bell case; or this article that claims giving puberty blockers to sheep “irreversibly alters [certain] cognitive functions during [a] critical window of development.”
Once on puberty blockers, almost every kid progresses to cross-sex hormones. This is all done so that these kids can “be who they really are.”
Why am I quoting a UK clinical psychologist and linking to an article about a UK court decision? Because the UK is way ahead of us. So are Finland and Sweden. Here in America, we’re still in the midst of the cultural delusion that social transition, and all that it leads to, is a good, healthy idea for children.
Spending your childhood pretending you’re the opposite sex is a short-term fix that ultimately results in more distress, not less, and as the court in the Keira Bell case noted, it leads directly down the pathway to medicalization of an otherwise healthy child.
Before social transition was “a thing,” most kids who wanted to be the opposite sex discovered that once they went through puberty, they were content with their body. (See for example this summary of the older research by Dr. James Cantor, who said in 2016, “Only very few trans kids still want to transition by the time they are adults. Instead, they generally turn out to be regular gay or lesbian folks. The exact number varies by study, but roughly 60–90% of trans kids turn out no longer to be trans by adulthood.”)
Puberty often resolved most kids’ lingering distress about their sexed body—but now that social transition is offered, after years of pretending to be the opposite sex, the start of what these kids believe to be the “wrong” puberty becomes the cause of extreme emotional distress.
Social Transition Is Treated as a Trivial Decision—It’s Not
In 2015, the Frontline documentary Growing Up Trans took a look at the lives of several “trans kids.” While it seemed that the documentary makers’ assumption was that transition is the good and modern way to treat gender nonconforming kids, they did, to their credit, show a range of parental concerns around transition.
Some parents were simply of the opinion, “This is what my child wants.” That, coupled with our society’s current belief that this is the right thing to do, was enough for these parents. Other parents expressed a wish that their child could express gender nonconformity freely but expressed concerns that there is a lack of data supporting a medical pathway (but then… they allowed their young child to choose a medical pathway). And one parent was actively opposed to a medical pathway and expressed the opinion that it was a bad idea, but relented after his child punched another child at school (it wasn’t explained why that, of all things, was the trigger).
But while the documentary makers showed a wide range of parental opinion and hesitancy around permanent medicalization for their healthy children, neither the filmmakers nor any of the parents expressed a minute of hesitation with regard to letting the children pretend to be the opposite sex in the years leading up to that decision. One family even moved and changed schools so the child could go completely stealth (and others said they had considered that as well). That’s how deep the pretending goes. No one seems to give this a second thought.
Everyone in the child’s life participates in denying reality. For years. It’s nothing less than a mind-f*ck, with predictable results.
The Pretending Pervades the Entire Culture
Not so long ago—ten years? certainly twenty years ago—it was considered common knowledge that young children go through a developmental process by which they gradually understand what sex is.
Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), an American psychologist, described the developmental process of “sex constancy” (later called “gender constancy,” as our terms sex and gender became increasingly muddled). Kohlberg described children’s developmental understanding of sex in three phases:
1. Gender identity / gender labeling—At this phase, which occurs at about age 2-3, most kids can tell you what sex they are (whether they are a boy or a girl) but they don’t realize that sex is stable over time and situation. For example, a child might say he is a boy, but if asked if he’d be a boy or a girl if he put on a dress, he’ll say that would make him a girl.
2. Gender stability—During this phase, which occurs at about age 4-5, children understand that sex is fixed across time for themselves, but they don’t yet understand that it applies to others. For example, a boy will tell you he will grow up to be “a daddy” but if they see someone dressed as the opposite sex, they think that person has changed sex.
3. Gender constancy—During this phase, which occurs at about age 6, children understand that other people’s sex is fixed across time as well. Dad in a dress is a man in a dress. Mom with short hair is a woman.
Those of you who read “Trans Is Something We Made Up” know that one way to tell whether something is a human universal (as opposed to a cultural creation), is to see whether it occurs in other times, places, and cultures, not just our own.
Accordingly, some researchers (Monroe et al., 1984) wanted to determine whether sex constancy occurred in four other cultures: Belize, Kenya, Nepal, and American Samoa. They concluded that while in some cultures the stages were attained a little later, the stages still occurred in order, and therefore, the process “was little affected by culture, and thus seemed to be under the control of developmental factors.”
Sex constancy seems to be achieved as a developmental process the world over. Now, though, you won’t even find mention of it in Kohlberg’s Wikipedia or Britannica.com entry. If you can find it at all, it’s mentioned as an out-of-date notion—without a clear explanation of what’s replaced it, as in this graphic, which I borrowed from the Verywell Mind website:
“In modern times, we now know that there should be a broader interpretation of sex and gender. [What is that, exactly?] Children should always be taught that self-acceptance is most important.”
Nice, but (1) I don’t see an alternative developmental process being hypothesized, explained or described here; and (2) nothing in Kohlberg prevents anyone’s self-acceptance.
An ideology that promotes permanent medicalization and extreme cosmetic changes seems to be the direct opposite of self-acceptance. To me, self-acceptance looks more like “There’s no wrong way to be a boy,” and not, “If I like long hair and dresses, I’m a girl.”
So, I disagree with the graphic that “in modern times” we have a “broader interpretation of sex and gender.” On the contrary, our interpretations have become very rigid. “Stereotypical girl stuff” is for girls and means you’re a girl. “Stereotypical boy stuff” is for boys and means you’re a boy. That’s not broader. That’s narrower.
Our Current Cultural Narrative Disrupts the Developmental Process Described by Kohlberg
It’s very common now, in the well-intentioned name of acceptance and inclusion, for very young students to be exposed to gender concepts in the curriculum. For example, this Washington Post article describes a transwoman visiting a kindergarten class:
“I have a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender. I was born this way,” the advocate, Sarah McBride, read to the students from the storybook “I Am Jazz.”…
After her reading, McBride told the children, “I’m like Jazz. When I was born, the doctors and my parents, they all thought that I was a boy.”
“Why?” asked a girl in a blue sweater and ponytail.
“Because society, people around them told them that was the case,” McBride said. “It took me getting a little bit older to be able to say that in my heart and in my mind, I knew I was really a girl.”
Notice what is happening. Inclusion is wonderful. Acceptance is wonderful. But someone is coming into a kindergarten classroom (with kids who haven’t completed their typical developmental process of understanding fully what sex and gender are) and is directly contradicting what they’re supposed to be discovering developmentally.
If you tell a room full of 5-year-olds that a boy can turn into a girl, or vice versa, many of the kids will be predisposed to believe it in a very concrete way, the same way they believe in the power of magicians or Santa. And so when a few gender nonconforming kids go home and tell Mommy and Daddy that they feel like they “really” are a boy / girl inside (because it’s a concept they were taught in school), Mommy and Daddy are hip to the modern-day knowledge that some kids are trans, and the thing to do is transition them, starting with a “harmless” social transition, to see if that’s how they really feel.
This is a notion that feeds on itself, with our culture assuring everyone that it’s all true.
No. There is no evidence that anyone could have “a girl brain in a boy body.” Jazz was born a boy and has endured puberty blockers, had several failed surgeries, will never experience an orgasm, is infertile, and struggles with mental health issues—and wasn’t transitioning supposed to fix that?
It Seems So Simple But It’s Not
Nine-year-old Daniel from the Frontline documentary says, “I transitioned when I was 6 or 7….and now I’m almost completely male. I changed my name, my clothes, my room and my pronouns.”
As Daniel’s mother describes it, at first she responded to her child by saying, “I understand that you wish you were a boy, but we can’t do anything about that.” Then later she says the conversations got more serious: “Well, you can live as a boy. I don’t know what that means, I don’t know where to go really from here, but you can live as a boy, you can change your name.” She said her child “immediately jumped on that idea.” She said, “We just had to listen to our child…nothing else mattered.”
If you watch the video, this mother seems like a genuinely caring and loving parent. She decided that she “had to listen” to her child. Why is that?
When is it right to listen or not listen to your child? There are no easy answers, but most people agree that the younger the child, the smaller the decisions it’s appropriate to let them make.
Six-year-olds can decide whether to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt, but they don’t plan their entire back-to-school wardrobe, nor do they head to the store to go clothes shopping.
Six-year-olds can decide whether to eat their dinner, and how much to eat, but they don’t decide the menu or plan the grocery list.
Six-year-olds can decide whether they want to attend a birthday party, but they don’t decide how much to spend for the present or when to leave to get to the party on time.
Six-year-olds can tell you if they want to be an astronaut or ballerina when they grow up, but they don’t immediately commit to a college on that basis.
Six-year-olds can decide if they like “girl stuff” or “boy stuff” and whether they prefer girls or boys as friends, but they don’t make long-range plans about what type of body they’ll want in ten or twenty years, especially if it involves life-long drugs, surgeries with a high rate of complications, and giving up their fertility and sexual response.
It's an Intervention that Perpetuates the Problem It Purports to Solve
Ken Zucker is an American-Canadian psychologist with decades of experience treating gender-nonconforming kids. In 2018 he wrote an article titled “The Myth of Persistence.” The whole thing is worth reading, but I’ll summarize a few points here.
Zucker notes (similarly to Cantor above) that if you look at older follow-up studies on kids who were very distressed about their sex (that is, kids so distressed that they met the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis), 67% no longer wished to be the opposite sex when they were older. If you look at kids who said they wanted to be the opposite sex but did not meet full criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis, that number is much higher: 93%. Virtually all of them, when they got older, no longer wished to be the opposite sex. These older studies are from the time when parents were told essentially to “wait and see” what happened as the child got older.
By contrast, today, “With the emergence in the last 10–15 years of a pre-pubertal gender social transition as a type of psychosocial treatment …it is not clear if the desistance rates reported in the four core studies will be ‘replicated’ in contemporary samples. Indeed, the data for [boys] in Steensma et al. (2013a) already suggest this: of the 23 [boys] classified as persisters, 10 (43%) had made a partial or complete social transition prior to puberty compared to only 2 (3.6%) of the 56 [boys] classified as desisters. Thus, I would hypothesize that when more follow-up data of children who socially transition prior to puberty become available, the persistence rate will be extremely high. This is not a value judgment—it is simply an empirical prediction.”
Simply put, he’s noting that in the past, most kids naturally desisted. By contrast, he’s noticing that 43% of the boys who continued to want to change sex had done “social transition,” compared to 4% of the boys who later decided they didn’t want to change sex. His conclusion?
“I would argue that parents who support, implement, or encourage a gender social transition (and clinicians who recommend one) are implementing a psychosocial treatment that will increase the odds of long-term persistence.”
And the persistence of what? Not of gender nonconformity. Of your child’s emotional distress about his or her body. Do you want a child who is distressed about his or her body, or one who is content with it?
Any way you look at it, social transition is a bad idea. What do you think?