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Parents can’t dictate a child’s personality

Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex: will their child be a feminist? (Getty)

The popular Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, is happy to announce that not only is she expecting a baby at the end of April: she’s expecting a feminist.

Last month, Vanity Fair reported that she and Prince Harry plan to raise the child as “gender fluid”. That’s to say, not burdening the child with male or female stereotypes: no pink-themed or blue-themed nurseries or baby clothes. No dolls for a girl, toy trucks for a boy. But a palace spokesman told Hello! that the story was “totally false”.

Whether or not it’s true, I’d suggest that Meghan might report back to us with these theories in 10 years’ time, when she’s had a little more experience.

A friend of mine once told me she’d be delighted if her baby son grew up to be gay. Gay men were always kind to their mothers, and she would thus never lose him to another woman. She dressed him, from infancy, in beautiful clothes that some thought distinctly feminine. He was a very pretty little boy indeed.

But he grew up to be emphatically and contentedly heterosexual.

Parents cannot dictate a child’s personality. Meghan and Harry’s baby may be carefully programmed with all the feminist, gender-neutral and “woke” attitudes they can summon. But the child will have his, or her, unique character from the start, and that will decide whether they accept, or reject, the parents’ nostrums.

Stereotyping is indeed limiting – many girls enjoy what are deemed to be boys’ toys, and vice-versa – but there remains much evidence that male and female brains usually differ, from the earliest moments of development.

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge, has stressed, in a recent review of The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon, that research among babies just one day from birth has shown that females, on average, react more positively to people, while males react more positively to objects. The brain is wired differently.

So, Meghan, let’s return to those theories a decade on …

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An Irish broadcaster of my acquaintance was given an award by the Queen a few years ago. He stepped up to have the medal pinned to his chest, and the Queen politely asked him about his journey – a standard question in royal conversation. He told her he hoped to attend Ascot while he was in the London area. “Well, for goodness’ sake don’t back any of my horses!” she told him. (The royal nags had been a disappointment that year.)

As he stepped down from the conferring ceremony, he duly thanked HM for being a helpful racing tipster …

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I was due to travel from London’s Stratford International station on the high-speed train that terminates at Sandwich in Kent, but the train was delayed. Then it was cancelled. Then the other trains going in a similar direction were delayed or cancelled. The station filled up with anxious Friday afternoon commuters trying to get home.

The public announcements apologised for cancellations, citing “an incident on the line”, but gave no details. Yet word got around among the waiting travellers, as witnesses sent texts on their mobile phones. There had been a suicide on the track near Canterbury. A young woman had thrown herself under an approaching train and, of course, died.

All afternoon, the travelling public waited with remarkable patience and forbearance. I heard no grumbling or complaints. It was a tragic situation, and I think people felt that. A young woman in such despair that she takes her own life. A grieving family’s shock – a shock and a sorrow from which they will never fully recover. That Friday afternoon will be engraved forever on their memories.

Then there is the train driver. I once interviewed a train driver who told me that a suicide on the line is a most dreadful ordeal: he sees the person jump, he perhaps sees the suicide’s haunting face, he desperately tries to brake in time, but can’t. Then he senses the crunch of human flesh and bone beneath his locomotive. It is every train driver’s greatest fear.

There’s a modern movement to whitewash suicide as a “choice”. It’s a tragedy that always affects other people. As the train services resumed later in the evening, I think every commuter reflected on that.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4