by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.
With increasing frequency, parents are opening up about their gender non-conforming children. However, parental anxiety tends to be higher for boys than girls. Traditionally parents have had little concern about their girls as they progress through a tomboy period. We tend to extol the masculine in society. So when our girls explore their virile side we see her exercising strength and power. Parents smile as she dons boys’ clothes, adopts a macho style, and decries all things girly girl. In most cases this phase passes and girls conform to culturally conventional gender expectations (not that this is good or bad, it just tends to roll this way developmentally).
What about the boys? Well there are names for boys who are set on exploring their feminine side and they are not as innocuous as Tomboy. In society, feminine is viewed the opposite of power and strength. A boy is demoting himself by dressing like a princess instead of a pirate. Parents of boys who dress up in girls’ clothes have other concerns beyond their son’s strength. They wonder if he is gay or transgendered.
By age three, a child knows his or her gender; sexual preference will not be realized until later in development. Some children strongly identify with their sex, while other kids are gender independent. There is no compelling data that demonstrates that early behavior (such as dress up) predicts homosexuality. Parents are advised not to make conclusions about their young child’s sexual preference.
Transgender represents different issues than gayness does. In the field of psychology, homosexuality is recognized as a normal variation of human sexuality. On the other hand, transgender is a clinical condition included in the manual used to diagnose clinical conditions. As children, transgendered individuals tend to experience great discomfort in their own bodies. Consequently they are prone to emotional distress around identity and adjustment. These individuals may refuse to identify as their biological gender and may be repulsed by their body. Transgendered children deserve appropriate counseling and support.
When parents consult with me, it is never about tomboys; it is about their boy princesses. I find that half are anxious about their child being gay and the other half are accepting of their son no matter what. However, all of these parents worry about their son’s safety and acceptance in the community. Should they give in to feminine Halloween costumes? Should he be allowed to wear nail polish to school or go to ballet class? Then we discuss limits.
I suggest that parents take a gender neutral position on toys that are bought. However, if Johnny insists on a Snow White costume and his parents are okay with this, then allow it in the home only. They may explain that others will be confused at school if he shows up as a princess; the same goes for nail polish. This does not imply shame; it is a practical safety maneuver. Hopefully someday boys will be allowed the same freedom of gender independence that girls are. But the reality is that boys who dress as girls are in for a difficult time and it is our job to protect our children. Johnny’s emotional well being hinges on unconditional acceptance by his parents. With time and development, Johnny’s sexual orientation will become apparent. When he looks back at his childhood it will not be important whether he was allowed to trick or treat as Wonder Woman. Acceptance, love and support—whether he is gay or straight—will be his cherished memory. Regarding enrollment in ballet class, I consider this a gender neutral activity (tutu optional); same goes for soccer. Here’s to gender liberation!