I have a question that I'm sure others have asked before me. My son, who is 4 1/2, has recently become obsessed with being a princess. We have given him some play clothes, and all he wants to do is wear his pink princess dress, tiara, and ballet slippers, and waltz around the house. Neither my husband nor I have any problem with this ideologically (we were the ones who bought him his first dress), but we're more worried because it has started to consume his thoughts. We've begun to limit the time he can play princess, and when he can't, he will choose other toys, but when he can, he's right back into it.
I am also worried because kids he sees at camp and in the neighborhood have started to say things to him like, "You're a girl, not a boy, because you wear dresses." I don't want that to hurt his feelings or confuse him. I've told him that, while he can absolutely pretend to be a princess, he is still a boy, to which he responds that he now wants to be a girl so he can wear real dresses to school like his sister and me.
I've looked on the internet for advice, and have gotten answers ranging from "this is just a phase" to "get him to a transgender psychologist now!" I love that he is creative and exploratory, but the peer taunting (although still relatively mild) and his own obsession with this has gotten me somewhat concerned and questioning whether I should take him for professional help, if only to determine whether he has gender issues now so we can help him navigate later. My husband thinks it's just a phase and we should continue doing what we are doing, but I would love your thoughts as well.
- From: Megan, Westwood, Ma
Here's the short answer: Yes, it's a phase.
For the longer answer, I consulted with early childhood educator Nancy Carlsson-Paige. We had a conversation that I found fascinating and illuminating. I hope you do, too. Here it is, edited and condensed.
NCP. I've been working in early childhood 35 years and I've seen countless 4-year-old boys in the dress-up corner, trying on tutus and tiaras....
BFM: They're sparkly, dazzling...
NCP. Exactly. Kids learn the labels, the words, girl and boy, but it's not a permanent stage to them. They could just as easily say, 'I'm gonna grow up and be a truck.'
BFM. Oh, come on!
NCP. No, no. We have to realize they do not have an established sense of gender identity until they are thinking in a more logical way. Meaning until they understand that something is what it is and it is not changeable. That happens between 6 and 8...
BFM: So until then....
NCP: Until then, if he likes dresses and things he has to be a girl to wear them, fine, because he thinks being a boy or girl is changeable. Because he doesn't have the same meaning attached to the label.
BFM: This mother is worried...
NCP. Of course. I've seen many concerned parents over this. It has to do with our own biases and fears around sexual orientation, and it's also culturally, socially imposed. But I don't think her son is confused by this or that his feelings are hurt. She can test that out by asking him some open-ended questions. Let's say she's with him and a playmate says, "You're a girl, you're not a boy. You like princess dresses." She could turn to her son and say, "What do you think of that? He just said you're a girl, not a boy. What do you think?"
He might say, "That's silly." Or he might just as easily say, "I am a girl." And then she could say, "Oh. Why do you think you're a girl?"
"Because I'm wearing this dress."
"Oh. So when you wear a dress, you're a girl. But really, you're a boy. But you can pretend to be a girl when you wear a princess dress..." That would be her way to clarify the situation for him.
On the other hand, if he said, "I don't want him to call me a girl," then the mom could say, "Well, do you know why he's calling you a girl? He's calling you a girl because you are wearing a princess dress."
"Well," he might say, "I don't want to wear a dress! Maybe just at home."
She might also say, "Tell me why you like the dress?"
"It twinkles," he might say. In other words, he won't have a fully developed answer. It just makes him feel special. I would just affirm that: "You like it because it's so sparkly."
BFM: I love the way you can project a conversation!
NCP: The point is to let the little boy be the guide to what sense he's making of gender. That way, you stay away from projecting our personal and societal fears and thoughts on him.
BFM: But what about the mom's concern....
NCP: That there's an underlying transgender issue here? I don't want to disregard it. It's very rare -- extremely rare -- but it does happen. It's also extremely rare that a child who will be manifesting a transgendered preference will do so through this kind of play. And if it was a manifestation of a transgender preference, you would not want to tell him he should not do it. What we want is for every child to find his/her normal, healthy path in life. A small percentage of boys who like to dress up will be gay; a small percentage of girls who are 'tomboys' will be lesbian.
BFM: But mostly....?
NCP: Mostly, it's exploratory play that is not related to gender.
BFM: So you wouldn't limit the play, or worry about it...?
NCP: He's exploring the fullness of being a human being. I don't think the mother should limit him; he'll get the message there's something wrong with it. If he expresses concern about that playmates tease him, then she can offer for him to wear the dresses at home, where they can't see.
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