Seeing the Twitter photo of Adele strolling her two-year-old son dressed as Princess Anna from the movie Frozen through Disneyland made me admire the pop star even more than I already do. I wondered though her reaction the first time her boy asked to wear a princess costume. Like a lot of parents of little boys, chances are she wasn’t expecting him to want to dress in a sparkly tulle skirt.
Of course the best possible response is, “So what?” But for some parents of toddler boys who want to dress in clothes that the general public says are only “girls’ clothes,” it can be confusing and worrisome. I know, because that was me 24 years ago. And it can still trigger concern today.
I know that because I got a letter from a dad recently whose four-year-old son was wearing his mom’s heels, wrapping a towel around his head for hair, and pretending other clothes were a skirt. He wrote:
“This is all so new to us. My wife and I are very concerned about him getting teased and bullied if he expresses any of this in preschool or out in public.
“He’s asked to grow his hair longer and we’ve agreed to allow him to do that. But as for the heels we told him yesterday that he’s getting older and can’t wear mommy’s clothes anymore. Seems to be ok with it. Still loves to hold a scarf because it has tassels at the end and he sees it as hair or pretends it’s a girl. It’s probably his version of a doll since we don’t have any of those. Please pass along any advice you could share. We want our son to be happy, but also don’t want him teased.”
I appreciated this dad Roger’s letter so much. It took me back a couple of decades to the time Harry’s dad and I were worried about him being teased or bullied for the same reasons. We wanted our child to be happy, too, and I shared that with Roger. Here’s the rest of my reply:
“From my point of view, a kid’s happiness comes from the freedom to be and express who they know themselves to be. And it sounds like Justin is a boy who likes expressing the so-called “feminine” side of his whole being. It took me years to recognize that each child – each adult – has traits that our society has deem as either masculine or feminine, but they’re really just the characteristics that make a complete person.
“While I understand you want to protect Justin, I think it’s important that you not become Justin’s first bully by not allowing him to do or — as I think you so accurately stated — ‘express’ his likes or dislikes regarding clothes, toys or colors. We’ve been taught those things have a gender, so there may be a little unlearning to do on your part.
“If Justin is in preschool, I wonder if they have a ‘dress-up corner,’ or ‘drama corner.’ Many do, as imaginary play is important for kids. Maybe providing a dress-up box for Justin would allow him some freedom to explore himself. I made a lot of mistakes with Harry, but I tried to guide myself so that I never made Harry feel like his outlets of expression in play were ‘wrong’ or something he shouldn’t be doing.
“And I’m all for boys having a baby doll, because I think caring and nurturing play is going to help them be better fathers some day.
“Perhaps the best way for you to protect Justin at preschool is to talk to the administrators and ask what they teach about gender expression. And how do they handle children teasing those who express outside the rigid gender boxes?
It’s kids like yours who are going to bust all those myths, not just for other children, but for adults, too. At some point you may have to explain to Justin that while some people think there are ‘girls’ colors’ and ‘girls’ toys,’ there really is no such thing. And that may take examining your own beliefs, too. I recognize that I had a double standard when it came to those things.
“There are two wonderful books I recommend you and your wife read. The first is called Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children, by Dr. Diane Ehrensaft, the developmental and clinical psychologist who wrote the foreword to My Son Wears Heels. The other is Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son, by Lori Duron. I only wish I’d had those books when Harry was two. While I want to be able to help you in whatever way I can, I can tell you that the love you have for Justin will be your best guide.”
Ideally the parents of gender-nonconforming or gender creative children will become gender creative parents, giving their kids the freedom and time to explore their inner gender self. I hope little girl who wants the thrill of waving a light saber and every toddler boy who wants the chance to cradle a baby doll gets their wish. Because in the end, those freedoms mean they’ll feel loved, safe, and valued.
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