I live opposite a primary school. On mornings when I start work at the usual time rather than in the middle of the night, I leave home just as a stream of Joshuas and Emilys, accompanied by their parents, au pairs, younger siblings and family pets, are making their way across the park in the opposite direction from me. Sometimes we play a hilarious game which involves me standing still for minutes at a time as the parade of mummies and buggies moves ceaselessly forward and I wait patiently for a gap large enough to allow me through the park gates.
It’s OK, I’m fine with that. Well, mostly.
Anyway, it gives me a good chance to peer closely at today’s five-to-eleven-year-olds, and I’ve noticed something which makes me anxious. The gender of small children, you see, is not always easily discernible from their outward physical appearance, which is why we have a tradition of offering clues to the innocent observer in the way we dress them and cut their hair. However, this tradition seems to have gone by the wayside in the last few years, with alarming results. There is a whole swathe of small children whose gender I simply can’t determine, because they have shoulder-length hair and wear dungarees, and none of that is enough of a clue for me.
Well, it doesn’t matter on the school run, because I’m not some kind of freak who befriends small children in the street. But it can make life more difficult when you meet the children of people you have met, whose gender you ought either to know or be able to discern. A couple of summers ago the beloved and I were at a garden party full of other people’s children, and were befriended by an angelic little blonde thing who might have been either or both. After close observation we agreed, it must be a girl. She has a girl’s face. We thought we’d confirm it.
“You’re a very pretty little girl, aren’t you?”, said my beloved. She nodded, bashfully. Phew, got it right.
After a while her father came over to retrieve her. “She’s lovely”, we said. He looked at us angrily. “His name is Oliver*”, he said. We felt bad.
So this is my advice for parents: by all means, have an androgenous-looking child. But either have an androgenous-looking child, or get cross when people can’t tell what sex it is. Not both.
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent