June 13, 2022

A few months after I had my twins, I heard a phrase that, I was promised, would change the lives of me and my children, and only for the better: “baby-led.” I was complaining to a friend about my difficulties with the babies’ napping schedules, and my fears that I would be breast-feeding 24 hours a day for the rest of my life.

“You should do the baby-led approach,” my friend said.

Baby-led weaning was coined in the early 2000s, and it advocates that, instead of parents spooning food into their baby’s mouth, they let the baby take the lead by feeding themselves, with parents putting a boiled piece of broccoli, say, or a small cup of hummus on the high-chair tray, which the baby can eat with their fingers. Baby-led weaning became so popular that the baby-led approach has expanded to all areas of early parenting, with baby-led sleeping, baby-led walking and baby-led potty training. Baby-led parenting, in other words.

I embraced the baby-led approach with enthusiasm that was really relief. Hell, I didn’t know how to do anything with these babies – I was just some idiot who put their nappies on the wrong way round every time. How marvellous I could delegate all complicated decisions to my infants! Now they wouldn’t scream at me anymore when I tried to make them do something they didn’t want, ie have a nap. The babies would be in charge.

This did not work out as well as I’d hoped. Baby-led weaning was fine. Baby-led sleeping, however, meant that none of us slept at all. It turned out that my babies were even more clueless than me about how they should be raised. And so, I returned to attempting to get them on a schedule, which they didn’t love, and it wasn’t always fun for me. But eventually, all three of us were sleeping at night.

The first generation of kids who grew up with the baby-led approach are now in their late teens and early 20s, and we are currently living in a baby-led world. Young people have always believed that they know better than the older generation, and now the older generation agrees with them. Middle-aged and experienced editors working in journalism and publishing live in fear of printing something that might displease the twenty-somethings who work in their company’s digital and publicity departments. Parents defer to their teenaged children about the correct languages to use and opinions to hold.

Some teachers even capitulate to the teenaged bullies in their class: last month, the Times reported that a girl in a London private school “was surrounded by up to 60 students who screamed and spat her” after she questioned gender ideology. “Teachers were initially supportive but withdrew their backing after the other sixth-formers accused the girl of transphobia, and the school ended up apologising for not maintaining a ‘safe-space’ in the sixth form,” wrote Nicola Woolcock, the paper’s education correspondent. This girl, ‘Kate’, was interviewed by Julie Bindel for UnHerd last week and she described overhearing her favourite teacher apologising for Kate’s “terrible, hateful behaviour”. Kate, who had only recently left hospital where she was being treated for anorexia, ended up leaving the school.

Babies are tyrants. If they don’t get their way, they cry, they scream as if the world is ending and no compromise is possible. Two babies screaming together, I can tell you from experience, is a nightmare. A pack of them is unimaginable, so I have some sympathy with the teachers at Kate’s school. Anyone who has ever raised a toddler might find the now regular Twitter meltdowns when someone’s employer hasn’t done exactly what they wanted strangely familiar. This is part of the reason the phrase “baby-led” is so alluring: no parent wants deal with a screaming tantrum, and no employer does either. So much easier to let the kids lead the way, even if it does lead to a Lord of the Flies-type scenario, with the adults fearfully letting the kids dictate the norms, as appears to have happened at Kate’s school.

Younger generations have always looked for ways to differentiate themselves from the stuffy old farts who came before – their parents, in other words – while also seeking an identity that confers upon them a set of ready-made beliefs and a supportive social group. This has become much harder with the dissolving of traditional barriers between adults and young people; parents chase social media likes as passionately as their children, the kids are listening to Harry Styles and Kate Bush, just like their mum and dad. In previous decades you could be a punk, or a skater, or a goth. For the current young generation, it’s being a social activist, and the changing parameters in discussions about race and, in particular, gender have become the defining generational divide. Telling your mum off for using the wrong words is great way to prove that she’s old and passé, even if she does still go to Glastonbury. A lot of good has come from this: today’s teenagers are far more clued up than we were in the Nineties, when jokes about disabled, fat, BAME and gay people were pretty much par for the course in any stand-up show and school playground. But a lot of deeply weird shifts have emerged from this, too, and all of them are due to us now living in a baby-led world, where the grown-ups are too scared to say “No”.

Baby-led doctoring, for starters. In the appallingly sexist but undeniably revealing documentary, What is a Woman?, provocateur Matt Walsh interviews American paediatric professor Dr Michelle Forcier, who is dressed in a toga and talks in the soothing, beatific voice of a cult leader. She says that children are ready to be put on medical treatment to change gender “when they ask for it”. By “medical treatment”, she means Lupron, which is now used as a puberty blocker on gender non-conforming children, but has been used in the past, Walsh rightly says, to chemically castrate sex offenders. Forcier wrongly insists that puberty blockers “don’t have permanent effects”, and ends the interview.

Forcier is not an outlier. Trans activists now argue that confused four-year-olds should be seen as analogous to trans adults. Not very long ago, I received an email from my children’s nursery to say that a three-year-old who I’ll call Daisy was now a boy and should be called Robert. As it happened, my three-year-old had, that same morning, informed me he was an astronaut, but it hadn’t occurred to me to tell anyone (or NASA), and that’s because children’s identities are mutable. They are still discovering who they are, and that’s as true for three-year-olds as it is for 13-year-olds. By now, I’ve received several emails from parents I vaguely know, telling me their child — always under 15, invariably female — is trans and now goes by a new name. Those parents are, of course, only trying to support their child. But it is not supportive to publicly lock a child into an identity when, in a week, or month, or year, they will likely be a very different person.

In March, the Cass Report, an independent investigation into the quality of care for gender dysphoric young people in this country was published. It found that treatment by the NHS’s specialist Gender Identity Development Service had become mired in ideology, with clinicians too scared to raise concerns about rushing children into changing gender, or asking why girls are disproportionately now identifying as boys, lest they be accused of bigotry. If even doctors are too scared to press the brakes on unhappy children diagnosing themselves, what hope for parents?

Discussions about gender are often described as “toxic”, and that means they are characterised by tantrums and threats from activists — again, arguing tactics that will be familiar to parents of teenagers and toddlers alike, and yet that does not diminish their effect. Parents have been terrorised into buying their unhappy teenage daughters binders to suppress their breasts because ignorant and bad faith organisations have told them — without any evidence — that not doing so will push their children towards suicide. Similarly bosses of liberal organisations have allowed feminists to be muffled and denounced so as to avoid censure from young activist employees.

Adults in their 40s and 50s — my generation — remember what it was like when we were teens. Many of us cringed at the words our parents used: “the blacks”, “poofters” and worse. We tried to tell them not to use those words, but there wasn’t the embarrassment then as there is now about being a bit bigoted. An adult didn’t gain anything, really, from being what was called then politically correct and what is now called woke. Like I said, things are different now, and that’s clearly a good thing. But in our rush to not repeat the mistakes our parents made, too often we have forgotten that, as well as loving and accepting our kids, it is our job to guide and safeguard them.

I was talking to a friend recently about a mutual friend whose daughter has said she is a boy, and so her mum bought her a chest binder, and I said how sad I found that. My friend was shocked by my sadness.

“But what would you do if your daughter wanted one?” she asked.

“I’d ask her what she thought she could do as a boy that she can’t do as a girl, and I’d ask if she wanted to be a boy, or did she want to be different person,” I said.

“But it’s the daughter’s choice,” my friend said.

“It would be her choice if she wanted to self-harm. But I wouldn’t buy her the razor,” I replied.

I don’t know if I’m right, but, like Kate, I was a very unhappy adolescent girl who was treated for anorexia. So I know a little about unhappy and confused adolescent girls, and how much we attack our own bodies to express that unhappiness. I also know what it’s like to be a desperate parent who just wants their kid to stop crying, to be happy and healthy and safe, and to feel like I’m a good parent who listens. The baby-led approach is an expression of that because sometimes (often) we don’t know what’s best for our kids, especially when it comes to a new issue like gender. But guess what? Your kid doesn’t know either, and nor, it seems, does anyone else who is supposed to safeguard them. Our kids aren’t breaking down barriers, they’re rock climbing without any safety ropes, and we’re encouraging it. It’s time for my generation to grow up, and be the adults.