Son is obsessed with being a princess

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  August 11, 2010 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

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

Dear Megan,

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.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.


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33 comments so far...
  1. I've got to think that by drawing attention to it, you make it worse. Don't limit, don't talk about it except in the context of the teasing. Depending on the camp or school program, I might say that princess dresses are toys and not appropriate for camp/school, but maybe you could make some sparkly t-shirts or something. Plain t's and fabric paint are pretty cheap.

    I think it's really common for kids that age to go through a phase where they're obsessed with something. If he was obsessed with superheros, you wouldn't have written in. It's just a little uncomfortable that he's obsessed with something somewhat unusual for his gender.

    While princesses were not my son's obsession, I do have a great photo from a playdate at that age with a female friend in a Snow White costume, a male friend in a Spiderman costume, and my boy in a bridal ensemble. Try to just enjoy it! Hopefully it will pass soon.

    Posted by akmom August 11, 10 07:00 AM
  1. Oh, sure, it's a phase. Mine has lasted 57 years and it began at exactly the same time as the boy's in the story. I have never felt more well adjusted than when I figured out I had gender identity disorder (GID) for lack of a better term. I think we need to be aware of our own deep-seated fears and prejudices about gender identity. Questioning the way your "expert" suggests could send a sensitive child into the closet. I'd suggest the parents see a licensed gender therapist with more experience dealing with the issue. Times are changing, people. We needn't fear difference.

    Posted by Alyson August 11, 10 09:36 AM
  1. Please define "extremely rare" for the prevalence of transgender. Out of 10,000 people, 9,830 or so have gender identities that fully match the sex of their bodies, while 160 or so have gender identities that blend some amount of that which we call 'opposite' to the sex of their bodies. For most the amount of blending is small, and they can live comfortably with the presentation that fits the sex of their bodies. But within that 160-out-of-10,000, a few as 5 to as many as 20 have gender identity that is so intensely 'opposite' that they go to the great lengths necessary to live their lives completely as the gender that doesn't match their birth genitalia. So, yes, most who experiment with cross-gender dress and play will 'grow out' of it. But for some few, it's not experimentation. It IS their gender identity, and attempts to 'help' them 'get over a phase' will harm not help.

    How will a parent know? The child's insistence is vigorous and persistent. A 'phase' that lasts two years and maintains intensity is likely the child's true gender identity. Naturally, as a parent, you will worry about what society will do to such a child. But trying to change the child to prevent suffering such rejection, torment and humiliation at the hands of society will cause more harm to your child.

    If it's a phase he or she grows out of, my congratulations. But if the phase is intense and persistent, help your child become the person they truly are.

    Posted by Hazumu August 11, 10 10:49 AM
  1. My son is 7 and he likes the color pink, loves princesses, Hannah Montana, etc. and gravitates towards girls for friends. Though, it is slowly changing. Unfortunately, he is a product of his environment,spending the majority of his time with his mother, grandmother and aunts. He is bright, very social and gets along with all kids in his class. But, what was cute when he was 4 became less so at 6 and 7. More than a year ago, his mother and I (we do not live together) sought counsel from a specialist. He was optimistic about my son's future but adamant that a radical approach to his behavior had to ensue. And thankfully his situation was not severe! That meant no more girl anything, more time with dad, etc. Oh, and everyone had to be in on the objective; teachers, siblings and relatives. It seems to be working but we still have a ways to go. As we were told by the professional, it takes time. But, the alternative for young children confused about gender is very sobering. It can lead to ridicule, alienation and ultimately suicide if left unresolved. The worst thing you can do is to ignore it.

    Posted by J August 11, 10 10:59 AM
  1. Or the boy is really transgendered. Within the community there seem to be a lot of people who knew from about the age of the boy that something wasn't right and would actively dress as the opposite gender because it felt more right to them, they just might not have known the words for what it was called.

    It could be a phase, or it might not be. If it isn't a phase, there's nothing wrong with it and the mindset that there is something wrong with it needs to be changed. The parents of the boy, if this isn't a phase, should try and be as supportive as possible and look at various ways to help the child, starting with a gender therapist.

    If it is a phase, that's all fine-and-dandy to. Both options are fine-and-dandy and the child shouldn't be restricted.

    Posted by L.C. August 11, 10 11:04 AM
  1. "Hopefully it will pass soon."

    Or maybe it doesn't, so what? Maybe he's the future star of the next "Priscilla Queen of the Desert." Big whoop.

    LW, it's one thing to say "you can't wear your dress up clothes to school," which makes sense to me, but you telling him that he has to arbitrarily limit his time wearing princess dresses is just a variation of what you fear: that kids will make fun of him for wearing princess dresses. They both say "princess dresses are wrong." I would just let him wear his princess dresses and not make a big deal about it.

    This is his journey, you can't shield him from who he is (whoever that is), you can only help him develop the skills he needs to cope.

    Posted by smp August 11, 10 11:12 AM
  1. "One's Gender Identity is invisible to everyone,...except you."

    Marlo Bernier
    Filmmaker
    Los Angeles

    Posted by Marlo Bernier August 11, 10 11:59 AM
  1. Time and patience will tell if this is a phase, but the expert is wrong about the age thing - 4-1/2 is NOT too young to realize you're in the wrong body. Many trans people knew at this age. The expert also seems to be confusing gender identity and sexual orientation. I understand that people want to protect their children from ridicule, but trying to change kids instead of teaching them to live in society ultimately does more harm if the child is transgender.

    Posted by Been There August 11, 10 12:09 PM
  1. Nobody wants their child to be trans but lets face it--some are.

    Limiting the kid's expression teaches shame about one's identity, which can lead to school problems down the road.

    Your best bet is to give your kid tons of love, find supportive community online or in person, and keep walking.

    Posted by Jesse August 11, 10 12:22 PM
  1. But, what was cute when he was 4 became less so at 6 and 7. More than a year ago, his mother and I (we do not live together) sought counsel from a specialist. He was optimistic about my son's future but adamant that a radical approach to his behavior had to ensue. And thankfully his situation was not severe! That meant no more girl anything, more time with dad, etc. Oh, and everyone had to be in on the objective; teachers, siblings and relatives. It seems to be working but we still have a ways to go. - posted by J

    This makes me totally sick to my stomach. You're brainwashing and reprogramming your own child. What's next - "curing" homosexuality? If you don't think this approach is radical, I'm afraid to ask what is.

    Posted by just-cos August 11, 10 12:29 PM
  1. I dont see any problem with just enjoying different kind of things, especially if society say its not "correct" to like them (pink vs blue)

    Posted by Zee August 11, 10 12:30 PM
  1. When my best friend and I were 4, we were going to grow up to be apple trees. We really liked apples. We really liked trees. We liked the idea of touching the sky and having cool leaves and squirrels and birds could live in us and be our pets.

    We both laugh ourselves silly at this now, but it's a memory that perserveres because it was our very first career choice in life.

    Our reasoning went something like this: Grown ups have jobs. Growing leaves and apples is a job. Therefore, when we're grown ups, our jobs will be to be trees and grow leaves and apples.

    The rest mentioned above were just the benefit package we decided on.

    The point? We really thought that it was possible to do this. Trees were alive. People are alive. Sooo, what's the issue here, right?

    People love to assign a lot more to childhood thinking than there really is. Give your boy time. Then see where you are in a few more years when he realizes that girls and boys are things you will always be, barring the help of hormone therapy and a surgeon later in life.

    Posted by Phe August 11, 10 12:47 PM
  1. "That there's an underlying transgender issue here?.. It's very rare -- extremely rare -- but it does happen."

    It's not as rare as you think.

    It used to be that a child who said, "But I'm not a girl- I'm a boy!" was repeatedly told that they were wrong and had all of their feelings and desires invalidated/crushed. Most children expressing incongruence with their birth sex had to wait until early or middle adulthood to transition or otherwise affirm their gender identity.

    As more people learn about what it means to be transgender, more children are able to freely express themselves. More parents are listening to what their child is telling them and looking at appropriate ways to support their child without invalidating their individual sense of self.

    Also, please check the use of the phrase "transgender preference." I don't know a single transgender person who feels their gender identity was a choice.

    So yes- this MAY be a phase. It also may not. The best thing this parent can do is give her child a realistic expectation of the reactions he will receive from the rest of the world and support his decisions around clothing.

    A previous poster was wrong: The worst thing you can do is to *force your child to be someone they are not.* THAT is what leads to depression and suicidal ideation.

    Posted by AP August 11, 10 12:54 PM
  1. Don't write stuff off as "just a phase." It trivializes what your child is going through, and if you're not serious about supporting your child because you expect the phase to end, what happens if it doesn't? Sure, it might be a phase, but treat it as if it's not.

    Gender is a perfomance, a set of interactions. It's something you do. And your son is learning that there are things that he likes to do that are considered gendered behavior, and specifically feminine-gendered. Since he's cis-male (that is, born generally unambiguously biologically male), he's facing ostracization because he's engaging in behaviors gendered feminine, not masculine. That's the issue you're dealing with.

    Have a talk with your son about how people, both men and women, engage in a lot of different behaviors that we consider both masculine and feminine, and how a lot of those assignments are arbitrary. For example, why IS it that, in our society, women can wear skirts, but men can't? It's certainly not because men are incapable of wearing skirts. And talk to him about how some people are uncomfortable when others, like your son, ignore those assignments, and how those people might treat him. Set it up as, "You're not doing anything wrong, and it's sad that people act this way," not, "You've brought this on yourself."

    Ignore advice from people like J. Forcing children, and people in general, to conform to strict forms of masculinity and femininity is inhumane.

    Posted by sabend August 11, 10 01:04 PM
  1. why buy a little boy a princess dress?

    Posted by E.S August 11, 10 01:35 PM
  1. Just out of curiosity, what was the reasoning behind buying the princess costume in the first place? Did the kid ask for it, or were Mom and Dad trying to show how open-minded they are and now they are having second thoughts?

    In general, parents should be careful about doing something they may have a hard time undoing later. Forget that this question is about gender issues--substitute with "get the four year old to stop comfort nursing before kindergarten starts" or "get the seven year old out of the family bed" or "our hourlong bedtime routine involves five stories, three songs, and twelve stuffed animals arranged alphabetically" and the gist of it would be about the same. No exit strategy was in place.

    Posted by di August 11, 10 02:42 PM
  1. Indeed, he might be transgendered at his early age. I, for instance, knew, from the age of 8, that I was a transsexual. It is therefore very important to have him (her) evaluated by a proper specialist as this condition does not go away with time. I, myself, tried three times to deny who I really was until the issue became a matter of life and death and of sanity. I underwent gender reassignment surgery at the age of 44 and have been, for the last 12 yetas, living a productive and happy life.

    Posted by Myriamme Lafond August 11, 10 02:56 PM
  1. The expert didn't address this mother's concern, and to dismiss her thoughts as "biases and fears around sexual orientation" is really unfair! This is a mother who wrote a carefully worded letter, being careful to express that it was she who bought the dresses in the first place.

    Her issue was about the social impact of her son's behavior. Nobody wants to see their child ostracized at school. Bullying is on every parent's radar right now, including the LWs. As a reader, I'd prefer (as would the LW, I'm sure) some appropriate advice on how to handle the challenges this boy is facing socially, and the role of the parent in the response.

    Posted by Sarah B August 11, 10 03:28 PM
  1. I was interested in what NCP had to say until she said this - "A small percentage of boys who like to dress up will be gay; a small percentage of girls who are 'tomboys' will be lesbian" as it relates to this young child's possible transgenderism.

    That's what happens when you ask the advice of a childhood educator rather than a child psychologist. Anyone who know the slightest bit about transgenderism would never associate gender with sexual preference .

    Posted by Been there, done that. August 11, 10 06:26 PM
  1. True transgender is now known to be the way that the brain is hardwired. PET scan research has produced hard data.

    In a nutshell, male brains are influenced by testosterone to pack the brains cells cells during the nine months in the womb. Female brains pack the same number of cells into 10% less space causing major differences in things like spatial vision, etc.

    There REALLY IS a biological reason for the man to not see the carton of milk in the fridge--his corpus callosum is less developed.

    It is unusual but physically possible for a baby to have a male body and a female braincell packing. These are the people who experience true relief when they undergo the hormonal treatments so that the body gender matches the brain gender. The fact that medical research can now prove this cause of transgender should be reassuring.

    And on the subject of dress--plenty of masculine dress in other cultures is what we would call a "skirt" or a "dress". Clothing gender is VERY subjective.

    Posted by Irene August 11, 10 08:21 PM
  1. I feel so very sorry for J's little boy.

    "But, the alternative for young children confused about gender is very sobering. It can lead to ridicule, alienation and ultimately suicide if left unresolved. The worst thing you can do is to ignore it."
    -- No, the worst you can do is fill him with deep self-loathing about who he is, and convince him that his natural tendencies are shameful and disgusting. The worst you can do is to try to crush his little soul right out of him, That, J, is what leads to suicide. I hope your boy finds the help he needs -- because his parents and that "specialist" sure aren't getting it for him.

    Posted by jlen August 11, 10 09:25 PM
  1. There seems to be some confusion here: Kids are NOT little adults. Their thought processes are not the same,and their sense if identity, both socially and emotionally, are not complete yet. Forcing a child to choose an identity or sexuality at this age is just plain wrong. Let the kid be a kid.

    And, yes, if you want to know, I am a transsexual. I believe part of this is because my parents went ballistic when they found me in a nightgown (think Bradshaw's Wonded Child Syndrome).

    Posted by Nancy W. August 11, 10 10:08 PM
  1. Congratulations to the mom for trying to do the right thing. Dad, you are also trying, but you received some bad advice. The coaching you received from the "expert" was classic, not contemporary. We have come a long way since that advice was common.

    Posted by Jackie C August 11, 10 10:31 PM
  1. Have you talked to your son about it? Not like an interrogation, but just conversationally, what does he like about the dress? Maybe the kid likes shiny stuff and just wants some bling, not specifically a pink tiara. But if he says he likes it because "I'm a girl" then I would listen to the posters who have been there and get the kiddo in for an evaluation.

    And not with the "specialist" who thinks you can cure a transgender kid with manly dad time. That's just old-school dumb.

    FYI, my best friend when I was 8 insisted she WAS a unicorn. (trapped in a girl's body by a curse). She grew up to be an actress, not a unicorn.

    Posted by Kc August 11, 10 11:36 PM
  1. The "expert" isn't or she would know that it may not be a phase. Causing a child to hide who he or she is or trying to "fix" it almost always sends a child into the closet . . . a terrible place to live.

    Posted by Julie Nemecek August 12, 10 07:05 AM
  1. Why did this kid's father go along with buying a princess dress? Perhaps the acorn did not fall far from the tree.

    Posted by Bob August 12, 10 08:16 AM
  1. When I was 4, I would have given anything to wake up in the morning and be a girl. My parents tried all of the psychology thier catholic upbringing could muster. I had to go on fishing trips with dad, play baseball (I quit and refused to go after the first game) and everything else considered masculine. When I was finally old enough to move out and make my own way in the world, I was free to pursue my dreams.

    They had high hopes for me, get married, have kids and bring grandkids to thier house, but it was not to be. Instead they did the wrong thing and disowned me when they learned of my gender change.

    I completed my transformation and made a new life for myself as a woman just happily going out my business. Now many years have passed and my parents are very old and looking to make peace with the child they don't even know before they die. We are strangers now. I don't know them and I don't know if I would want to either. I've been at peace with the world considering myself an orphan.

    It happened to me. Don't let it happen to you.

    Posted by AK August 12, 10 08:24 AM
  1. I am pleasantly surprised by how many of the opinions shared in these comments are in favor of letting the kid be a kid and embracing the possibility that he may be transgendered. It is certainly possible to know that you are in the wrong body at such a young age. I can remember feeling this way from my earliest memory; my parents have told me that I was talking about wanting to be a boy (I was born a girl) from the age I could talk.

    I am 31 and transitioned when I was 25. It was the best thing I could have done for myself and I live a happy, normal life with friends from before and after I transitioned, a happy relationship with my parents and siblings, a girlfriend, a dog, and an awesome job. Being trans is not something that should be considered a bad lot in life, but rather (with the support of friends and family) just another one of life's challenges.

    I encourage the OP and all parents to allow their child to simply be. My parents let me do things that didn't make sense when raising a girl (especially in the 80's!) such as letting me wear boys' bathing suits for a while, letting me try out for boys' sports teams, letting me cut my hair short and generally allowing me to prefer what I preferred. The result is that I have happy memories of my childhood and a wonderful relationship with my parents. My sisters were treated the same way as I was, and are both as feminine as can be. Trust me, as long as you don't push in any particular direction as far as gender goes, the child will figure it out for themselves. You, as a parent, have no control over the outcome, but can control how happy and secure your child feels while they figure it out.

    Posted by Dan August 12, 10 09:09 AM
  1. Up until at least five years old my son loved princesses. He loved to dress up and act out skits with his brother, and he was ALWAYS the role of the girl. When he was going to preschool he wanted a sleeping beauty lunchbox. When I asked if he had another choice he wanted Cinderella. I gently coaxed him into being excited about Winnie the Pooh, but only because of what other kids would say about it. He played with a kitchen set all the time. His favorite present when he turned 4 was a Beauty and Beast tea set. He had pink Sleeping Beauty sunglasses that he wore a lot from 4-6, that I have saved. The only thing he wore or did out of the house was the sunglasses, which is told him might get broken the time he wanted to wear them to school. Again, only because I knew some of those boys would immediately laugh at him and I didn't want him to think he was doing anything wrong by wearing them. He always loved pretty, colorful things.

    He is now about to turn 10 years old. Although he is still very sensitive and creative, and appreciates pretty things, he does NOT want to be a princess, and does NOT choose the girl role when acting anymore, or any girl toys. He prefers to hang out with girls because he is more interested in being creative than playing sports, but he has several boy friends as well. I showed him the Sleeping Beauty sunglasses about a month ago. He kind of chuckled at himself and said, "I can't believe I wore those!". Sure, he could turn out to be gay, but he could also just be intelligent and sensitive like my husband. Either way is fine with me, but my point is that he did all those things and there is no gender questioning whatsoever.

    Posted by mom2boys August 12, 10 09:36 AM
  1. I'm transsexual but who knew what it was in 1950. I know guys who dressed in their sisters clothes and are macho guys not to say they couldn't be transsexual. They may just be hiding their true feelings.I would not dismiss this as a phase just yet give it time.

    Posted by Leslie Crawford August 12, 10 04:24 PM
  1. I am a Trans-Woman(MTF),I was very lucky because I was born in the 70's. At that time people didn't seem to mind that my best friends where girls or that I played double dutch,jacks and hopscotch, plus even "boys" cloths had flowers and butterflies on them.This was a very happy time in my life. Ive always identified as a girl but because there was never a question about my activities, I never felt like an out cast.But when we moved from Little Rock Ark to St. Louis Mo, my life was HELL. This started in 1980 and has not stopped.The times changed and so did people.From 11 on, I was, abused in every sense of the word, puberty, was the worst, suicide and self mutilation where never out of my mind, and bigoted remarks where never far away.. I do have children, one might very well be a transsexual, he is 7 years old and wants female genitalia instead of his .my children do not know that I'm (MTF), because their moms refuse to allow me in their lives.But I hope one day I'll be able to be there to give my children the support they'll need. If I could give any advice to any parents it would be, if your child is 7 or under the worst thing you can do is show any aggravation, disgust or any negative response to what they do or say when it comes to gender,remember its Nature not Nurture. This has nothing to do with what you allow or not allow your child to do. If you push them you will scar them, so you way need to see a gender specialist to help you deal with your emotions. If your child is over 7, and they still express discussed in their genitalia, yearning to to be a different gender then please be supportive and take them to see a gender specialist, remember not all Dr's or counselors are qualified to give advice on gender issues.

    Posted by Trsha Hairingtan August 12, 10 11:08 PM
  1. My perants did very simaler to what this "expert" suggests and I ended up becoming a mans man, joining the Royal Marines Commandos. At the age of 23 it became to much to deal with anymore and I finaly stransitioned and have subsequently being diagnosed as gender disphoric.

    Doing what this expert suggests did turn me into a normal member of society for a short time BUT from a perental point of view it was very detramental to my own mental health an happyness which should surly come first for a perant.


    PLEASE seeks out a gender identity expert to talk to or some one from within the trans community's many charities. Don't do it for your own understanding do it for your son (potentialy daughters) benafit so you don't harm thier development. xxx

    Posted by Abbie August 13, 10 10:35 AM
  1. My son loved sparkly clothes and pretty things up until about 7 or 8. He used to beg to have his nails painted with blue sparkles at age 4. He was best friends with girls up until about the age of 8. We wondered if he had gender identity issues, but didn't discourage him in any way from liking what he liked. At 12, he's comfortable being who he is, has a number of male friends as well as female and seems interested/attracted to members of the opposite sex. So who knows? Could change, but we have no control really over anything but how happy we help to make his childhood.

    Posted by momof2 August 16, 10 10:46 AM
 
33 comments so far...
  1. I've got to think that by drawing attention to it, you make it worse. Don't limit, don't talk about it except in the context of the teasing. Depending on the camp or school program, I might say that princess dresses are toys and not appropriate for camp/school, but maybe you could make some sparkly t-shirts or something. Plain t's and fabric paint are pretty cheap.

    I think it's really common for kids that age to go through a phase where they're obsessed with something. If he was obsessed with superheros, you wouldn't have written in. It's just a little uncomfortable that he's obsessed with something somewhat unusual for his gender.

    While princesses were not my son's obsession, I do have a great photo from a playdate at that age with a female friend in a Snow White costume, a male friend in a Spiderman costume, and my boy in a bridal ensemble. Try to just enjoy it! Hopefully it will pass soon.

    Posted by akmom August 11, 10 07:00 AM
  1. Oh, sure, it's a phase. Mine has lasted 57 years and it began at exactly the same time as the boy's in the story. I have never felt more well adjusted than when I figured out I had gender identity disorder (GID) for lack of a better term. I think we need to be aware of our own deep-seated fears and prejudices about gender identity. Questioning the way your "expert" suggests could send a sensitive child into the closet. I'd suggest the parents see a licensed gender therapist with more experience dealing with the issue. Times are changing, people. We needn't fear difference.

    Posted by Alyson August 11, 10 09:36 AM
  1. Please define "extremely rare" for the prevalence of transgender. Out of 10,000 people, 9,830 or so have gender identities that fully match the sex of their bodies, while 160 or so have gender identities that blend some amount of that which we call 'opposite' to the sex of their bodies. For most the amount of blending is small, and they can live comfortably with the presentation that fits the sex of their bodies. But within that 160-out-of-10,000, a few as 5 to as many as 20 have gender identity that is so intensely 'opposite' that they go to the great lengths necessary to live their lives completely as the gender that doesn't match their birth genitalia. So, yes, most who experiment with cross-gender dress and play will 'grow out' of it. But for some few, it's not experimentation. It IS their gender identity, and attempts to 'help' them 'get over a phase' will harm not help.

    How will a parent know? The child's insistence is vigorous and persistent. A 'phase' that lasts two years and maintains intensity is likely the child's true gender identity. Naturally, as a parent, you will worry about what society will do to such a child. But trying to change the child to prevent suffering such rejection, torment and humiliation at the hands of society will cause more harm to your child.

    If it's a phase he or she grows out of, my congratulations. But if the phase is intense and persistent, help your child become the person they truly are.

    Posted by Hazumu August 11, 10 10:49 AM
  1. My son is 7 and he likes the color pink, loves princesses, Hannah Montana, etc. and gravitates towards girls for friends. Though, it is slowly changing. Unfortunately, he is a product of his environment,spending the majority of his time with his mother, grandmother and aunts. He is bright, very social and gets along with all kids in his class. But, what was cute when he was 4 became less so at 6 and 7. More than a year ago, his mother and I (we do not live together) sought counsel from a specialist. He was optimistic about my son's future but adamant that a radical approach to his behavior had to ensue. And thankfully his situation was not severe! That meant no more girl anything, more time with dad, etc. Oh, and everyone had to be in on the objective; teachers, siblings and relatives. It seems to be working but we still have a ways to go. As we were told by the professional, it takes time. But, the alternative for young children confused about gender is very sobering. It can lead to ridicule, alienation and ultimately suicide if left unresolved. The worst thing you can do is to ignore it.

    Posted by J August 11, 10 10:59 AM
  1. Or the boy is really transgendered. Within the community there seem to be a lot of people who knew from about the age of the boy that something wasn't right and would actively dress as the opposite gender because it felt more right to them, they just might not have known the words for what it was called.

    It could be a phase, or it might not be. If it isn't a phase, there's nothing wrong with it and the mindset that there is something wrong with it needs to be changed. The parents of the boy, if this isn't a phase, should try and be as supportive as possible and look at various ways to help the child, starting with a gender therapist.

    If it is a phase, that's all fine-and-dandy to. Both options are fine-and-dandy and the child shouldn't be restricted.

    Posted by L.C. August 11, 10 11:04 AM
  1. "Hopefully it will pass soon."

    Or maybe it doesn't, so what? Maybe he's the future star of the next "Priscilla Queen of the Desert." Big whoop.

    LW, it's one thing to say "you can't wear your dress up clothes to school," which makes sense to me, but you telling him that he has to arbitrarily limit his time wearing princess dresses is just a variation of what you fear: that kids will make fun of him for wearing princess dresses. They both say "princess dresses are wrong." I would just let him wear his princess dresses and not make a big deal about it.

    This is his journey, you can't shield him from who he is (whoever that is), you can only help him develop the skills he needs to cope.

    Posted by smp August 11, 10 11:12 AM
  1. "One's Gender Identity is invisible to everyone,...except you."

    Marlo Bernier
    Filmmaker
    Los Angeles

    Posted by Marlo Bernier August 11, 10 11:59 AM
  1. Time and patience will tell if this is a phase, but the expert is wrong about the age thing - 4-1/2 is NOT too young to realize you're in the wrong body. Many trans people knew at this age. The expert also seems to be confusing gender identity and sexual orientation. I understand that people want to protect their children from ridicule, but trying to change kids instead of teaching them to live in society ultimately does more harm if the child is transgender.

    Posted by Been There August 11, 10 12:09 PM
  1. Nobody wants their child to be trans but lets face it--some are.

    Limiting the kid's expression teaches shame about one's identity, which can lead to school problems down the road.

    Your best bet is to give your kid tons of love, find supportive community online or in person, and keep walking.

    Posted by Jesse August 11, 10 12:22 PM
  1. But, what was cute when he was 4 became less so at 6 and 7. More than a year ago, his mother and I (we do not live together) sought counsel from a specialist. He was optimistic about my son's future but adamant that a radical approach to his behavior had to ensue. And thankfully his situation was not severe! That meant no more girl anything, more time with dad, etc. Oh, and everyone had to be in on the objective; teachers, siblings and relatives. It seems to be working but we still have a ways to go. - posted by J

    This makes me totally sick to my stomach. You're brainwashing and reprogramming your own child. What's next - "curing" homosexuality? If you don't think this approach is radical, I'm afraid to ask what is.

    Posted by just-cos August 11, 10 12:29 PM
  1. I dont see any problem with just enjoying different kind of things, especially if society say its not "correct" to like them (pink vs blue)

    Posted by Zee August 11, 10 12:30 PM
  1. When my best friend and I were 4, we were going to grow up to be apple trees. We really liked apples. We really liked trees. We liked the idea of touching the sky and having cool leaves and squirrels and birds could live in us and be our pets.

    We both laugh ourselves silly at this now, but it's a memory that perserveres because it was our very first career choice in life.

    Our reasoning went something like this: Grown ups have jobs. Growing leaves and apples is a job. Therefore, when we're grown ups, our jobs will be to be trees and grow leaves and apples.

    The rest mentioned above were just the benefit package we decided on.

    The point? We really thought that it was possible to do this. Trees were alive. People are alive. Sooo, what's the issue here, right?

    People love to assign a lot more to childhood thinking than there really is. Give your boy time. Then see where you are in a few more years when he realizes that girls and boys are things you will always be, barring the help of hormone therapy and a surgeon later in life.

    Posted by Phe August 11, 10 12:47 PM
  1. "That there's an underlying transgender issue here?.. It's very rare -- extremely rare -- but it does happen."

    It's not as rare as you think.

    It used to be that a child who said, "But I'm not a girl- I'm a boy!" was repeatedly told that they were wrong and had all of their feelings and desires invalidated/crushed. Most children expressing incongruence with their birth sex had to wait until early or middle adulthood to transition or otherwise affirm their gender identity.

    As more people learn about what it means to be transgender, more children are able to freely express themselves. More parents are listening to what their child is telling them and looking at appropriate ways to support their child without invalidating their individual sense of self.

    Also, please check the use of the phrase "transgender preference." I don't know a single transgender person who feels their gender identity was a choice.

    So yes- this MAY be a phase. It also may not. The best thing this parent can do is give her child a realistic expectation of the reactions he will receive from the rest of the world and support his decisions around clothing.

    A previous poster was wrong: The worst thing you can do is to *force your child to be someone they are not.* THAT is what leads to depression and suicidal ideation.

    Posted by AP August 11, 10 12:54 PM
  1. Don't write stuff off as "just a phase." It trivializes what your child is going through, and if you're not serious about supporting your child because you expect the phase to end, what happens if it doesn't? Sure, it might be a phase, but treat it as if it's not.

    Gender is a perfomance, a set of interactions. It's something you do. And your son is learning that there are things that he likes to do that are considered gendered behavior, and specifically feminine-gendered. Since he's cis-male (that is, born generally unambiguously biologically male), he's facing ostracization because he's engaging in behaviors gendered feminine, not masculine. That's the issue you're dealing with.

    Have a talk with your son about how people, both men and women, engage in a lot of different behaviors that we consider both masculine and feminine, and how a lot of those assignments are arbitrary. For example, why IS it that, in our society, women can wear skirts, but men can't? It's certainly not because men are incapable of wearing skirts. And talk to him about how some people are uncomfortable when others, like your son, ignore those assignments, and how those people might treat him. Set it up as, "You're not doing anything wrong, and it's sad that people act this way," not, "You've brought this on yourself."

    Ignore advice from people like J. Forcing children, and people in general, to conform to strict forms of masculinity and femininity is inhumane.

    Posted by sabend August 11, 10 01:04 PM
  1. why buy a little boy a princess dress?

    Posted by E.S August 11, 10 01:35 PM
  1. Just out of curiosity, what was the reasoning behind buying the princess costume in the first place? Did the kid ask for it, or were Mom and Dad trying to show how open-minded they are and now they are having second thoughts?

    In general, parents should be careful about doing something they may have a hard time undoing later. Forget that this question is about gender issues--substitute with "get the four year old to stop comfort nursing before kindergarten starts" or "get the seven year old out of the family bed" or "our hourlong bedtime routine involves five stories, three songs, and twelve stuffed animals arranged alphabetically" and the gist of it would be about the same. No exit strategy was in place.

    Posted by di August 11, 10 02:42 PM
  1. Indeed, he might be transgendered at his early age. I, for instance, knew, from the age of 8, that I was a transsexual. It is therefore very important to have him (her) evaluated by a proper specialist as this condition does not go away with time. I, myself, tried three times to deny who I really was until the issue became a matter of life and death and of sanity. I underwent gender reassignment surgery at the age of 44 and have been, for the last 12 yetas, living a productive and happy life.

    Posted by Myriamme Lafond August 11, 10 02:56 PM
  1. The expert didn't address this mother's concern, and to dismiss her thoughts as "biases and fears around sexual orientation" is really unfair! This is a mother who wrote a carefully worded letter, being careful to express that it was she who bought the dresses in the first place.

    Her issue was about the social impact of her son's behavior. Nobody wants to see their child ostracized at school. Bullying is on every parent's radar right now, including the LWs. As a reader, I'd prefer (as would the LW, I'm sure) some appropriate advice on how to handle the challenges this boy is facing socially, and the role of the parent in the response.

    Posted by Sarah B August 11, 10 03:28 PM
  1. I was interested in what NCP had to say until she said this - "A small percentage of boys who like to dress up will be gay; a small percentage of girls who are 'tomboys' will be lesbian" as it relates to this young child's possible transgenderism.

    That's what happens when you ask the advice of a childhood educator rather than a child psychologist. Anyone who know the slightest bit about transgenderism would never associate gender with sexual preference .

    Posted by Been there, done that. August 11, 10 06:26 PM
  1. True transgender is now known to be the way that the brain is hardwired. PET scan research has produced hard data.

    In a nutshell, male brains are influenced by testosterone to pack the brains cells cells during the nine months in the womb. Female brains pack the same number of cells into 10% less space causing major differences in things like spatial vision, etc.

    There REALLY IS a biological reason for the man to not see the carton of milk in the fridge--his corpus callosum is less developed.

    It is unusual but physically possible for a baby to have a male body and a female braincell packing. These are the people who experience true relief when they undergo the hormonal treatments so that the body gender matches the brain gender. The fact that medical research can now prove this cause of transgender should be reassuring.

    And on the subject of dress--plenty of masculine dress in other cultures is what we would call a "skirt" or a "dress". Clothing gender is VERY subjective.

    Posted by Irene August 11, 10 08:21 PM
  1. I feel so very sorry for J's little boy.

    "But, the alternative for young children confused about gender is very sobering. It can lead to ridicule, alienation and ultimately suicide if left unresolved. The worst thing you can do is to ignore it."
    -- No, the worst you can do is fill him with deep self-loathing about who he is, and convince him that his natural tendencies are shameful and disgusting. The worst you can do is to try to crush his little soul right out of him, That, J, is what leads to suicide. I hope your boy finds the help he needs -- because his parents and that "specialist" sure aren't getting it for him.

    Posted by jlen August 11, 10 09:25 PM
  1. There seems to be some confusion here: Kids are NOT little adults. Their thought processes are not the same,and their sense if identity, both socially and emotionally, are not complete yet. Forcing a child to choose an identity or sexuality at this age is just plain wrong. Let the kid be a kid.

    And, yes, if you want to know, I am a transsexual. I believe part of this is because my parents went ballistic when they found me in a nightgown (think Bradshaw's Wonded Child Syndrome).

    Posted by Nancy W. August 11, 10 10:08 PM
  1. Congratulations to the mom for trying to do the right thing. Dad, you are also trying, but you received some bad advice. The coaching you received from the "expert" was classic, not contemporary. We have come a long way since that advice was common.

    Posted by Jackie C August 11, 10 10:31 PM
  1. Have you talked to your son about it? Not like an interrogation, but just conversationally, what does he like about the dress? Maybe the kid likes shiny stuff and just wants some bling, not specifically a pink tiara. But if he says he likes it because "I'm a girl" then I would listen to the posters who have been there and get the kiddo in for an evaluation.

    And not with the "specialist" who thinks you can cure a transgender kid with manly dad time. That's just old-school dumb.

    FYI, my best friend when I was 8 insisted she WAS a unicorn. (trapped in a girl's body by a curse). She grew up to be an actress, not a unicorn.

    Posted by Kc August 11, 10 11:36 PM
  1. The "expert" isn't or she would know that it may not be a phase. Causing a child to hide who he or she is or trying to "fix" it almost always sends a child into the closet . . . a terrible place to live.

    Posted by Julie Nemecek August 12, 10 07:05 AM
  1. Why did this kid's father go along with buying a princess dress? Perhaps the acorn did not fall far from the tree.

    Posted by Bob August 12, 10 08:16 AM
  1. When I was 4, I would have given anything to wake up in the morning and be a girl. My parents tried all of the psychology thier catholic upbringing could muster. I had to go on fishing trips with dad, play baseball (I quit and refused to go after the first game) and everything else considered masculine. When I was finally old enough to move out and make my own way in the world, I was free to pursue my dreams.

    They had high hopes for me, get married, have kids and bring grandkids to thier house, but it was not to be. Instead they did the wrong thing and disowned me when they learned of my gender change.

    I completed my transformation and made a new life for myself as a woman just happily going out my business. Now many years have passed and my parents are very old and looking to make peace with the child they don't even know before they die. We are strangers now. I don't know them and I don't know if I would want to either. I've been at peace with the world considering myself an orphan.

    It happened to me. Don't let it happen to you.

    Posted by AK August 12, 10 08:24 AM
  1. I am pleasantly surprised by how many of the opinions shared in these comments are in favor of letting the kid be a kid and embracing the possibility that he may be transgendered. It is certainly possible to know that you are in the wrong body at such a young age. I can remember feeling this way from my earliest memory; my parents have told me that I was talking about wanting to be a boy (I was born a girl) from the age I could talk.

    I am 31 and transitioned when I was 25. It was the best thing I could have done for myself and I live a happy, normal life with friends from before and after I transitioned, a happy relationship with my parents and siblings, a girlfriend, a dog, and an awesome job. Being trans is not something that should be considered a bad lot in life, but rather (with the support of friends and family) just another one of life's challenges.

    I encourage the OP and all parents to allow their child to simply be. My parents let me do things that didn't make sense when raising a girl (especially in the 80's!) such as letting me wear boys' bathing suits for a while, letting me try out for boys' sports teams, letting me cut my hair short and generally allowing me to prefer what I preferred. The result is that I have happy memories of my childhood and a wonderful relationship with my parents. My sisters were treated the same way as I was, and are both as feminine as can be. Trust me, as long as you don't push in any particular direction as far as gender goes, the child will figure it out for themselves. You, as a parent, have no control over the outcome, but can control how happy and secure your child feels while they figure it out.

    Posted by Dan August 12, 10 09:09 AM
  1. Up until at least five years old my son loved princesses. He loved to dress up and act out skits with his brother, and he was ALWAYS the role of the girl. When he was going to preschool he wanted a sleeping beauty lunchbox. When I asked if he had another choice he wanted Cinderella. I gently coaxed him into being excited about Winnie the Pooh, but only because of what other kids would say about it. He played with a kitchen set all the time. His favorite present when he turned 4 was a Beauty and Beast tea set. He had pink Sleeping Beauty sunglasses that he wore a lot from 4-6, that I have saved. The only thing he wore or did out of the house was the sunglasses, which is told him might get broken the time he wanted to wear them to school. Again, only because I knew some of those boys would immediately laugh at him and I didn't want him to think he was doing anything wrong by wearing them. He always loved pretty, colorful things.

    He is now about to turn 10 years old. Although he is still very sensitive and creative, and appreciates pretty things, he does NOT want to be a princess, and does NOT choose the girl role when acting anymore, or any girl toys. He prefers to hang out with girls because he is more interested in being creative than playing sports, but he has several boy friends as well. I showed him the Sleeping Beauty sunglasses about a month ago. He kind of chuckled at himself and said, "I can't believe I wore those!". Sure, he could turn out to be gay, but he could also just be intelligent and sensitive like my husband. Either way is fine with me, but my point is that he did all those things and there is no gender questioning whatsoever.

    Posted by mom2boys August 12, 10 09:36 AM
  1. I'm transsexual but who knew what it was in 1950. I know guys who dressed in their sisters clothes and are macho guys not to say they couldn't be transsexual. They may just be hiding their true feelings.I would not dismiss this as a phase just yet give it time.

    Posted by Leslie Crawford August 12, 10 04:24 PM
  1. I am a Trans-Woman(MTF),I was very lucky because I was born in the 70's. At that time people didn't seem to mind that my best friends where girls or that I played double dutch,jacks and hopscotch, plus even "boys" cloths had flowers and butterflies on them.This was a very happy time in my life. Ive always identified as a girl but because there was never a question about my activities, I never felt like an out cast.But when we moved from Little Rock Ark to St. Louis Mo, my life was HELL. This started in 1980 and has not stopped.The times changed and so did people.From 11 on, I was, abused in every sense of the word, puberty, was the worst, suicide and self mutilation where never out of my mind, and bigoted remarks where never far away.. I do have children, one might very well be a transsexual, he is 7 years old and wants female genitalia instead of his .my children do not know that I'm (MTF), because their moms refuse to allow me in their lives.But I hope one day I'll be able to be there to give my children the support they'll need. If I could give any advice to any parents it would be, if your child is 7 or under the worst thing you can do is show any aggravation, disgust or any negative response to what they do or say when it comes to gender,remember its Nature not Nurture. This has nothing to do with what you allow or not allow your child to do. If you push them you will scar them, so you way need to see a gender specialist to help you deal with your emotions. If your child is over 7, and they still express discussed in their genitalia, yearning to to be a different gender then please be supportive and take them to see a gender specialist, remember not all Dr's or counselors are qualified to give advice on gender issues.

    Posted by Trsha Hairingtan August 12, 10 11:08 PM
  1. My perants did very simaler to what this "expert" suggests and I ended up becoming a mans man, joining the Royal Marines Commandos. At the age of 23 it became to much to deal with anymore and I finaly stransitioned and have subsequently being diagnosed as gender disphoric.

    Doing what this expert suggests did turn me into a normal member of society for a short time BUT from a perental point of view it was very detramental to my own mental health an happyness which should surly come first for a perant.


    PLEASE seeks out a gender identity expert to talk to or some one from within the trans community's many charities. Don't do it for your own understanding do it for your son (potentialy daughters) benafit so you don't harm thier development. xxx

    Posted by Abbie August 13, 10 10:35 AM
  1. My son loved sparkly clothes and pretty things up until about 7 or 8. He used to beg to have his nails painted with blue sparkles at age 4. He was best friends with girls up until about the age of 8. We wondered if he had gender identity issues, but didn't discourage him in any way from liking what he liked. At 12, he's comfortable being who he is, has a number of male friends as well as female and seems interested/attracted to members of the opposite sex. So who knows? Could change, but we have no control really over anything but how happy we help to make his childhood.

    Posted by momof2 August 16, 10 10:46 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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