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To be a boy or a girl

Many young people feel alienated and confused because they don’t fit with our traditional Western ideas of sex and gender, says neuroscience educator, Nathan Wallis.

The female (XX) and male (XY) model of biological sex is too simplistic, as are our traditional ideas about gender and sexual orientation, says Nathan Wallis. “The percentage of babies born ‘intersex’ – with a combination of female and male biological traits – is similar to the percentage of people with red hair,” he says.

On top of this, Nathan says, your sex at birth and your gender are not the same thing. Your gender identity is your internal perception of yourself – how you see yourself and how you feel – and this might be different from the sex assigned to you at birth.

And yet we tend to make all sorts of assumptions about gender based on biological sex. Even before babies are born, at the 20-week scan, we can find out whether we are having a ‘blue’ or a ‘pink’ one, which may be followed by a ‘gender reveal’. Depending on the sex, we go out and buy pretty paisley dresses or bodysuits with tractors on them.  

From birth, we also tend to treat baby girls and baby boys differently, whether we realise it or not, Nathan says. And it’s not just the toys we give them; we also tend to be rougher in the way we hold and later play with baby boys and use different words when talking to them (‘strong’/’lovely’, for example). This means that differences we perceive between boys and girls may be partly attributed to how we treat them, he says.

“We are born with chromosomes, which sets the template, but our genes take on a transcript from the environment”, says Nathan. “There are brain and hormone differences, but environmental conditions are loaded on top of that. Every experience and interaction a baby has influences their brain development.”

Despite learning what it means to be a ‘girl’ or a ‘boy’ from a very young age, “a child’s gender is not necessarily connected to their biological sex,” Nathan says. For many kids, their gender identity doesn’t fit with the social norms associated with the sex assigned to them at birth. They may have learnt what it means to be a boy and yet feel on the inside that they are a girl. 

The term ‘transgender’ refers to a person whose sex assigned at birth does not match their gender identity (how they feel on the inside). The cultural messages these children absorb about what it is to be male or female can be alienating, confusing and distressing. ‘Gender dysphoria’ describes the distress some transgender people feel due to this mismatch between sex and gender. 

Nathan points out that, when it comes to sexual orientation, differences in the hypothalamus region of the brain suggest that this is set at birth. “It is not a phase, and it is not something to be ‘cured’”.

Messages For Parents

  • We impose our ideas of gender onto our children. Gendered messaging is everywhere – from television to toys to clothing. 
  • This is a challenging issue, and there will be people with different worldviews from you and your family. 
  • Whatever your situation, surround your child with caring people and send them to a supportive school.
  • Remind all children (and yourself) that: There are people who will bring you down and others who will love you and build you up. Listen to the ones who will build you up and give as little attention as possible to the others.

Neuroscience educator, Nathan Wallis, is a father of three and a foster parent, with a professional background in child counselling, teaching and social service management.

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