Shocked by boys in dresses? That says more about adult gender stereotypes than a kid's identity

A Christian family took their child out of school because a classmate wore trousers one day, a dress the next. 

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According to Sally and Nigel Rowe, the parents who’ve taken their child out of primary school in protest at a fellow classmate wearing a dress, politics is complex: “A six-year-old is not really able to, does not have the mental capacity to work out those kinds of things.”

I couldn’t agree more. As an atheist whose children were allocated places at a Church of England primary school, I, too, often have the feeling that “there’s a political agenda that’s driving and pushing” the beliefs my sons encounter in the classroom. Alas, unlike the Rowes, I don’t have the Daily Mail and millennia of patriarchal ideas about male and female conditioning on my side.

One person’s education is always another person’s indoctrination. Indeed, ever since my ten year old informed his grandma that “Theresa May’s a numpty”, I’ve been suspected of running my own Young Pioneers club on the quiet. We pretend this is all a question of whether or not children are mature enough to understand particular concepts, but really it’s something else. As adults we use the raising and educating of children to thrash out our own ideas of right and wrong. We know how powerful childhood conditioning is, and each of us wants our team to win.

According to the Rowes, their son’s classmate identifies “as a girl some days, as a boy on other days”. There are lots of questions one might ask about this. What does it mean to be a boy or a girl? Why should the wearing of a dress indicate girl-ness? What else goes into making a girl? For the Rowes, however, these are of little interest (perhaps they lack the “mental capacity to work out those kinds of things”).

Their main objections are that wearing a dress one day, trousers the next is “inconsistent” (which makes you wonder if they’ve ever met a real, live priest) and that as Christians they believe that “there are boys and there are girls” and that while girls can wear trousers, boys can’t wear skirts (or particular shoes, according to a Today programme interview. Alas, they didn’t tell us what style, although I’m guessing it’s listed in The Book of Lelli Kelly).

I’ll admit to not being 100 per cent au fait with the Bible’s teachings on school uniform (or ParentPay accounts, homework diaries or arriving late for after-school club – help me, o Lord, through this moral minefield!). What I do know is that creating arbitrary distinctions between male and female children, whether it’s due to dress codes, boy/girl lines in the playground, gendered reading schemes etc., affects the way children see themselves and their own potential. We know this from research into stereotype threat and gender-neutral schooling systems, and from popular, albeit less scientific experiments such as the TV programme No More Boys And Girls.

The Rowes know this, too. For all they say about gender being “in our DNA”, if they were that confident, they wouldn’t be so horrified at the idea of a male child wearing bottoms consisting of one tube of fabric rather than two. Their argument is that ”a school is not the environment in which this agenda should be pushed”, thereby recognising that the coexistence of maleness and socially constructed femininity is politically disruptive. Yet in response to the question “what would be wrong with that?”, the only answer they can give is that their own children became “confused” and “unhappy”. But why would that be the case?

Schools have long been, and remain, a site for what I might call gender indoctrination, and what someone else might call the management of innate differences between boys and girls. When I was at school in the 1980s, boys had only just been allowed to learn sewing, although while we made samplers (decorative!), they made pencil cases (practical!). Rising panic about the supposed “underperformance” of boys due to the “feminisation” of education led, in the 1990s and early noughties, to the increasing acceptability of neurosexism within pedagogy. Throughout it all, the insistence that girls wear one set of clothing, boys another, has been a powerful tool in reminding children “you’re cut out for different things”.

Every GCSE I sat, I sat as a girl, in girl clothes, with what I was told was a girl brain. In the classroom, the playground and in corridors, I knew to only take up girl space, to only misbehave to the degree that a girl can misbehave (which is not at all. Boys will be boys, but girls will be quiet). Would I, personally, have felt different without constant, arbitrary reminders of my supposed girl-ness? I don’t know. But surely it’s worth the risk of “confusion” to give children the chance to find out.

Reporting on the Rowe case is unclear as to whether the real issue for them is boys in dresses, acceptance of transgender children or both. I get the impression that they’re not clear, either, and they wouldn’t be the only ones. It would be counter-productive if the experiences of trans people and boys who want to wear dresses were conflated, with the result that rather than treating all children gender-neutrally, pupils were told that they could choose their own clothing, but anyone who wore a dress implicitly consented to being seen and treated “as a girl” (whatever that means).

In an ideal world, both home and school should be a place where girls and boys are treated not as walking gender stereotypes, but as human beings. To my mind, the reason this might be seen as radical indoctrination, not basic respect, is that the social change this could bring about could indeed be radical. We haven’t tried it yet, so we just don’t know.

A six-year-old probably doesn’t have the mental capacity to work through all the possible implications of liberation from gender. As adults, we do. That’s why this argument isn’t really about them. It’s about us and our own fears. Let’s at least be honest about that.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.