October 24, 2018

Until the turn of the 21st century, social scientists generally agreed upon an ideal rearing environment for children. “If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met,” wrote researchers Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur in 1994, “we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent family ideal.” On average, a married biological mother and father provide distinct advantages over alternative family forms. However, this empirical observation quickly faded as researchers began to report no differences in child outcomes between homosexual and heterosexual parent households. By 2005, the American Psychological Association had affirmed this “no-difference hypothesis.” However, in 2012, Loren Marks scrutinized the 59 studies behind the APA statement, and found they all suffered from myriad methodological problems. The APA endorsement was not empirically warranted, but served as an indicator of academic bias in the uncritical acceptance of politically correct, yet clearly deficient, studies.

There is new evidence that this same biased approach is being applied to the refashioning of children’s gender identity development. Recently, top child-psychology journal Child Development published a study of children they labeled as “transgender preschoolers.” These children believe they were born into the wrong body and have already socially transitioned to their preferred gender identity. The study’s authors, Anne Fast and Kristina Olson, focused on a very small sample of 36 “transgender” children and reported that they were just as likely as “cisgender” (gender-normative) children to have a clear sense of gender identity and traditional or stereotypical gender role expectations. For example, just like “cisgender” girls, biological boys who identified as girls embraced dolls, anything pink, and female friends. In addition, 79 percent of “transgender” children said that their current gender was different than their gender as a newborn (early instability). Moreover, 97 percent reported that their adult gender would match their current gender (long-term stability). A small number of these children, by the way, did not respond to these questions, potentially reflecting confusion or ambivalence.

The study’s implication, expressed in the media, is that transgender children do not differ from the typical child in developing gender role expectations. Transgender identity – we are told – also develops early, is expected to be stable, and justifies a “gender-affirmative” approach for these children. A “social transition” may eventually give way to puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and sex-reassignment surgery. As such, the article takes sides in a vigorous debate over gender dysphoria (the more flexible, alternative label to “transgender”) in young children. In particular, the idea that very young children can be unerringly labeled as “transgender,” and will fully transition over time, directly contradicts prior research, including the most recent studies with the largest samples. In fact, only a minority of gender dysphoric children commit to a transgender identity by late adolescence. Transactivists have tried to discredit this research, calling it “alarmist,” but the studies stand up to scrutiny and are remarkably consistent.

In short, gender dysphoria is generally temporary (“desistance” is the official term for the transition out of dysphoria) for about 80 percent of children who experience it, and is a much better predictor of later homosexual or bisexual identity than transgender identity. Accordingly, Dr. James Barrett, a psychiatrist dealing with gender identity, has noted that most gender dysphoric children desist after puberty and “… will end up with no need for lifelong medical intervention, surgery and with no loss of natural fertility should they want children.” Dr. Kenneth Zucker, an expert in the field, argues that the best solution is to help children align their gender identity with their anatomic sex. Zucker has further suggested that therapists who affirm early transgender identity and transition essentially create a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially as hormonal treatments begin. Similarly, a Dutch study found that 100 percent of gender-dysphoric adolescents who initiated puberty suppression treatment decided to move on to the next step: cross-sex hormones.

In contrast, affirmation therapists such as Dr. Diane Ehrensaft believe that gender identity is a biologically-based variant of human development, hardwired in the brain, and the child faithfully reveals his/her “authentic” self. The “transgender child” must therefore be able to pursue transgender identity fully or risk feeling repressed, suppressed, and depressed. The threat of potential psychological harm has increasingly led to hypersensitivity to gender non-conforming (or gender role non-conforming) children and a surge in referrals to proliferating gender clinics. Yet, there are anecdotal accounts of adolescents who desist even after hormonal treatment has begun. Adults who experienced childhood gender dysphoria also express relief that they were not encouraged to pursue hormone treatment or surgery.

The instability of gender identity is underscored by another interesting finding in the recent Fast and Olson study. “Transgender” preschoolers, as well as the siblings of “transgender” or gender-nonconforming children, were more likely than comparison group peers to believe that a person’s gender could change between childhood and adulthood. If these children are more likely to allow for long-term gender instability for others, where do they get the idea that their own gender identity will not change? How would the children have responded if the researchers shared that most children experience only temporary gender dysphoria?

In contrast, prior to answering gender identity questions, the children in the Fast and Olson study had current transgender ideology presented to them with no reference to desistance: “[P]articipants were told that everybody has an outside part (physical body) and an inside part (mind, thought, and feelings) … for some people the outside and inside parts are the same and for other people they are different …” These children were also told that “some people feel like they are both, neither, or that it changes over time.” This reference to gender instability may have been confusing to these children when stability seems to be the norm. Perhaps that is why they were more likely to consider instability for others. It also seems highly unlikely that it has previously occurred to these preschoolers, living in a gender-binary society, that one can be “both” genders or “neither.” Impressionable children are being instructed in a gender ideology which has no evidence base in the scientific literature, and is also incoherent.

Finally, Fast and Olson suggest that “In the case that transgender children respond differently … we might assume personal experience of being transgender is playing a critical role in this difference.” This is a problematic statement that bypasses the fundamental question of whether these children are genuinely “being transgendered” rather than experiencing gender dysphoria, which is often temporary. Given the inherent complexity of gender transitions, it seems better to remain neutral and allow for gender ambivalence than to affix a label that is not only likely to be incorrect but may also lead to permanent psychological and physical harm.

About the Author

David A. Nelson, Ph.D. is a Professor of Child Psychology in the School of Family Life & Associate Dean of the College of Family, Home, & Social Sciences at Brigham Young University.

About our Editors