Does your child challenge traditional gender roles?

Some boys like to wear dresses and play with makeup; some girls prefer boy clothes and playing with trucks. We talk to parents who are wondering what these preferences mean.
Little boy challenging traditional gender roles in a fairy costume with pink beret washing the dishes with his mom

Photo: iStockphoto

Max Silver* was proud to walk into his Thunder Bay, Ont., junior kindergarten class wearing a red dress embroidered with a white heart. He’d picked out the dress on a recent shopping trip, then wore it all weekend at home. On Monday, he chose to wear it to school, too. His mother, Robin Silver*, had misgivings, and packed a second outfit in his bag, just in case. Max seemed perfectly happy, but Robin was concerned about what others would think or say about his attire.

Before school that morning, Robin quietly took Max’s teacher aside to give her a heads-up on his outfit, and to discuss how it would be handled in the classroom. His teacher seemed a little wary of addressing it with her students, but she vowed to do her best to make him feel comfortable. In the weeks to come, interactions with Max’s classmates during drop-off and pickup gave Robin a sense of how they were reacting. It was the girls’ responses that surprised her the most. “The girls in his class became the gender police,” she says. “They would approach me all the time and ask, ‘why does he have pink boots? Why did he wear a dress? Did you know his boots are pink?’ They demanded to know why he was wearing ‘girl’ clothes. But the boys ignored it.”

Exploring gender roles, especially through dress, is actually a very normal part of childhood development, especially in the preschool years. But some kids, like Max, are more experimental than others. Gender-variant, gender-queer, transgender, cross-dresser, bisexual, gay — there’s a litany of terms we might use to label children like Max, and conclusions we could jump to. The term “pink boys” is another phrase that’s growing in acceptance, as strict gender definitions loosen over time.

But does giving Max a label like this do him any good? And why do we want to give him one? A child who challenges our idea of what it means to be a boy or a girl encounters perplexing dilemmas — which pronouns to use, what clothes to put on in the morning, which toys to play with, and which bathroom to use at school. Mean- while, parents wonder about their child’s future: whether cross-dressing in the preschool years means that their child will grow up to be gay, or that he or she will one day ask for a sex change. And perhaps more fundamentally, there are questions about whether a gender-bending kid — and his or her family — will face scrutiny or lose friends.

From a child’s infancy, or even during pregnancy, many parents embrace the gender norms, stocking up on pink or blue outfits as soon as they find out what they’re having. Other parents insist on a gender-neutral approach — shades of yellow and green, buying kitchen play sets for their little boys and favouring trucks and dinosaurs for their daughters. Toronto parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, mom and dad to baby Storm, made international headlines in 2011 when they chose not to reveal their baby’s gender, announcing they would raise Storm without any gender at all. (This decision was inspired by their son, Jazz, who has worn both boys’ and girls’ clothing since he was 18 months old.)

The viral reaction to their story demonstrated just how instinctively most of us want to split the world into girls and boys — and how inevitable that very practical division often is. “We like to know who is standing in front of us — a girl or a boy?” says Helma Seidl, an Ottawa therapist who specializes in sexuality and transgender issues.

By preschool, most kids love fantasy play, and will often try on different roles to experiment; it’s part of learning about who they are and how they fit in. Many boys wear mom’s high heels around the house; some girls practise shaving in front of the mirror with Daddy. “Kids have great imaginations,” says Seidl, who works with patients as young as four. “They love to dress up and they love to feel good about themselves.” Some kids, however, challenge our notion of what’s appropriate by dressing in opposite-gender clothing beyond the preschool years.

At the age of two, Karen MacDonald’s* daughter Sophie* started pulling her older brother’s clothes out of his dresser, and has been wearing boy clothes ever since. Because of her attire, haircut and love of all things hockey, most people call Sophie, who’s now 13, a tomboy. Until a year ago, even her underwear was from the boys’ department. She’s only worn a dress a handful of times, in response to family pressure (mostly from her super-girlie older sister or after insistence from her mom, for special occasions).

Sophie says she likes boys’ clothes better because they’re more comfortable and easier to play sports in; her mother speculates that Sophie’s worship of her older brother could have been another motivating factor. She used to worry that Sophie was unhappy being a girl, but as her daughter has grown older, MacDonald’s fears have dissipated — mostly because Sophie seems very comfortable with who she is. Hockey is still one of her passions, but so are crafts and cooking. She has a close group of girlfriends, and had a boyfriend for a while.

It can be difficult for parents to let go of how they’d imagined they would bring up their little girl or little boy — activities they’d do together, memories they’d share. Even though parents know they should accept their children without worrying, says Seidl, it’s still confusing to adjust their expectations.

As parents, we have a tendency to compare ourselves, and our natural instincts are to protect our children from harm or judgment. That’s why we may get nervous when kids behave in opposition to any cultural norm. With gender-bending behaviour, Seidl says the threat of bullying is what keeps parents up at night. It’s a realistic fear — especially for boys, says the therapist. “Our society is OK with tomboys, but not with boys exploring femininity.” Parents may need to take extra steps in working with their son’s school and daycare to avoid bullying by other kids (and sometimes, even by other parents).

Now seven, Max Silver has outgrown his fascination with girls’ clothes. The experience has left his mother with mixed feelings. While Robin found it easy to support Max’s choices at home, she admits that having a boy in a dress outside the house made her uncomfortable. “Even though I’m happy he felt free to explore different sides of himself, I also wanted to protect him from judgment. I was surprised to find out how worried I was.”

Some parents come to realize that the issue is more difficult for them to manage than it is for their child. An adult may feel much more self-conscious walking down the street or through the grocery store with a boy in a dress than their confident, gender-bending kid does. Earlier this year, a dad in Germany supported his cross-dressing son by wearing a skirt in public and painting his nails in solidarity. The photos and news articles documenting his decision generated over- whelmingly positive feedback, some dubbing him “dad of the year.” But not all parents are willing to go that far for their gender-fluid kids, and that’s perfectly OK, too, say experts.

If your child is handling his or her own differences just fine, it’s best to sit back and give him the space to be himself, says Seidl. Some kids who cross-dress may not necessarily want to live as the other gender, but still want to experiment, or are simply curious. Seidl tells parents to create a safe space for these children to express themselves at home, but to also teach them that the outside world may not be as understanding.

Find compromises that both child and parent can live with (such as wearing dresses only at home, but being allowed to wear rainbow nail polish to school). These solutions will be different for each family, depending on comfort levels and where you live. Community acceptance for a little boy who wears a skirt — and how his parents feel about it — can vary, whether you’re in a small town or big city.

It’s important to remember that choosing opposite-gender clothing is, by itself, not a sign that your child is under stress or will experience a troubled adolescence. But, if a child constantly breaks gender norms and says she’s un- happy with being a girl or a boy, it may be time to consult a gender specialist (either a psychologist or psychiatrist) who can assess a child for a disorder called gender dysphoria. “There is a real spectrum with gender and related behaviours. Not all girls are girlie-girls and not all boys love hockey,” says psychologist Kenneth Zucker, head of the Gender Identity Service at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). He says a small number of kids — less than one percent — are diagnosed with gender dysphoria, meaning they are persistently unhappy with being a boy or a girl.

According to Zucker, decades of research have shown that a child who habitually challenges gender norms while growing up is more likely to identify as gay or lesbian as a teen or adult. (This is especially true for boys.) Follow-up studies Zucker has conducted in Toronto have found that a small minority — about 15 percent — of these children will want to have a sex change. CAMH’s Gender Identity clinic has a waiting list of about 90 kids, and Zucker reports a massive increase in adolescent referrals in the last few years. Often the patients he sees are near puberty, though kids of all ages will come to the clinic with referrals from their doctors, or because parents have called with concerns.

Zucker suggests that emotional disturbance or trauma can be factors in persistent gender-bending. “Any gender-related behaviour should not be looked at in isolation,” he says. “It’s the overall pattern that’s important.” A child’s motivation isn’t always explicit, he explains. The birth of a baby sister may prompt a young boy to start acting and dressing like a girl because he believes that this will get him more attention. But if a four-year-old boy obsessively wears girls’ clothes, exclusively plays with girls and girls’ toys, and talks about hating his penis, there may be more serious, underlying issues. “What brings kids to the clinic is that they want to be the opposite sex,” says Zucker. He adds that it’s key for a professional to address these feelings before the surging hormones of puberty arrive.

So if your daughter loves to wear soccer shorts every day, or your son carries a purse, is it a cause for concern? It depends on how secure your child feels about who he or she is. Most parents want their children to be happy, no matter what their wardrobe is, Seidl says. And only your child can answer that question, as she or he leads the charge in changing our definitions of what it means to be a girl or a boy.

“I think that there are way more sparkly, girlie boys out there than we realize,” says Robin. “And I think they’re really going to show us newer and different ways to think about how we teach and about how we imagine gender and childhood.”

*Names have been changed

Read more:
Why it’s not unusual for preschoolers to obsess over gender differences
Gender in the classroom
This dad and his son are going as Elsa and Anna for Halloween!

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