Gender Identity and Young Children

I was having coffee with my friend, M, the other night.  We talked about this and that… a meandering conversation the way mothers do when we manage to get out without our kids for a few hours.

One of our many topics was her son A, who is a unique little boy.  He sees the world in his own way.  Which is wonderful, until it isn’t.

M sent me this note today and allowed me to reprint it here, because, quite frankly, I was stumped.  Having a daughter who is very much a girly girl, I’ve never had to explore gender identity.  But what would you do in M’s situation?


Hubby and I are discussing how to support A’s emerging gender identity while still giving him the tools he needs to protect himself from bullying. So far we’ve supported him in whatever choices he’s made but are worried about school starting and the fact that he doesn’t always conform to established norms.
Here’s the background. My middle son A is 4, going on 5. He’s got some mild developmental issues that we’re identifying (sensory, gross-motor), and may be operating slightly younger then his chronological age (maybe late 3/ early 4). He’s an amazing child and has a wonderful sense of self and individually. I love the way he looks at the world.
In my opinion, he has a very healthy gender and self identity. He knows he’s a boy, and that he like some “girl” things. His favorite colour is purple, and he likes pink. He plays babies and kitchen with his little sister, but also monsters and Pokemon with his older brother.
He’s worn his sister’s purple dress to preschool over his clothes, and when told by his peers that boys don’t wear dresses, just matter of factly told them “Sometimes I do.” We went shoe shopping this week, and he left with pink sparkly princess shoes. Which he proudly told everyone he saw about “I’m a boy who wears princess shoes.” He wants the pink and white bike (which he didn’t get cause he doesn’t need a bike). He fought with his sister over the pink t-shirt that my mother picked up at the thrift store. When playing, sometimes he’s the mom, sometimes he’s the dad, sometimes he’s the dad lady, and sometimes he’s a dinosaur. Most days he’s in typical “boy” clothes with bright purple socks, and now his princess shoes.
He’s given his sister a lecture on gender equality when she told him that boys don’t cook. “Sometime Mommy cooks, and sometimes Daddy cooks. Sometimes Daddy cleans, and sometimes Mommy cleans.”
He told me once that when he grows up he wants to be a “girl teacher with purple hair”. I told him that if he still wants that when he’s older I’ll support him.
I love him like he is and wish I could change the world to make it fit him. I don’t want to change him to fit the world. I just hope that he keeps his self confidence and sense of himself.
We’ve talked about it, and don’t care if he’s gay or trans, or just a boy who likes “girl” things. But both of us were heavily influenced by bullying when we were kids and really worry about that too. So far we’ve been erring on the side of, “we’ll support you in what ever you decide” (in 4 year old words). Right now we’re thinking that we’ll talk a little more about how although it’s ok to like girl things, not all his classmates will agree and they may comment or tease. But I worry that he won’t have the emotional maturity to really understand that he’s a little outside the norm. We’re not even sure if he’ll be ready for kindergarden in the fall (outside of any gender discussion).

Any suggestions, resources, tips?

And so, my dear readers… what say you?
Hoping someone out there has some fabulously brilliant ideas, because I am at a loss.

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8 Responses to Gender Identity and Young Children

  • wow, jenn. what a brave friend you have, to give you the ‘go ahead’ to post this very personal story. i have nothing to contribute with the exception of sending light and support to your friend and the family. i RTed out the post, so hopefully some more people will see it and perhaps offer some more than i can. til then… i will keep this family in my thoughts.

    love to you. you are such a good friend.

  • Zwee says:

    I’d say ‘continue with whatever you’ve been doing’.
    He seems to, at such a tender age, to already have the gift of plain logic and plain talk…a rare gift, especially in one so young.
    He sounds like he’s already thought about what he does and why he does it and he seems to already know what he wants to say to opponents or nay-sayers. I wish I had that ability and I’m staring down the barrel of 40 yrs old.
    Sounds like he’ll manage just fine with the run of the mill bullies and may even be too self-actualised to come up as a target for the bigger bullies. If bigger bullies *do* present themselves, though, I wouldn’t start ‘protecting’ him based on your past history with bullies. That would just be foisting your own ‘stuff’ on to him.
    I’d just keep on what you’re doing and deal with any major bullying as it comes up. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how well he manages on his own, especially if he knows he has the love and support of his family.

  • Adrienne says:

    Putting on my School Secretary hat: Talk to the school. Go to the Principal and/or school psychologist, make them aware of the situation. Get their advice. Even, dare I say, have him tested. Not because of his gender choices, but for his developmental needs. You state he is developmentally behind and perhaps he needs to wait a year to enter Kinder. It is very common to do so. It is done all the time with children who were born prematurely to children with special needs, to children who just aren’t maturing at the rate of their peers.
    Putting my Mom hat back on: BRAVO! To you and your husband for being so very accepting and encouraging to your son. Having that strong family support will help greatly in any situation your son faces in his years ahead. Bullying is not an if it is a when, no matter the choices your son makes. It is an unfortunate norm in most schools much to the chagrin of school officials everywhere. But with parents such as yourself your son will have a better understanding of how to deal with it, as he has already shown.
    Adrienne recently posted..Attire

  • Weighing in here because I love your friend’s ability with being so comfortable with her son as he is and who is is. I believe that’s the key, but I might be wrong. I really feel strongly that when WE are OK with different or not the mainstream or unique, our children are. I think trying to get them to change their minds about what they like, who they are or their role in society either gender or otherwise based, is what creates the issues for children, who are mostly comfortable just the way they are at this age and are better than most adults I know at embracing this.

    However, other parents can teach their children that they need to be “the same as” or follow the societal “rules” and “norms”. Parents, in turn set the tone and put the pressure on children to judge other children when they get old enough to notice that they might do things differently to them.

    I teach five year olds currently and have to say when they are playing together, there is very little judement passed amongst their peers. I have two children who have autism and one with other challenges and they are fully accepted by the children even though they behave differently to most of the group. The problem comes in when the parents are around, remarks the parents say to me about how those children might be influencing their precious children for the worse. I think a supportive, tolerant teacher and school environment is so imperative to the process of a child being able to be completely him or herself. I personally accomodate a child where he is at, to the best of my ability and encourage the other children to do the same. It’s the adults who start the process of a child learning to bully, or pick on another, by things that are said at home or that children overhear them saying.

    Being on the same page as parents is key to the child continuing to be comfortable with himself/herself and I think that’s one of the best gifts that your friend’s parents are giving him. There are boys in my class that dress up in the grils stuff, that play the doll’s house, that switch roles with the girls, just as much as their are girls who do the same thing. If you think that the school he’ll be at won’t or can’t be supportive, I’m not sure if an alternative method of education might be a good idea – such as Montessori or Waldorf. Otherwise, I think he’ll be just fine and will adjust beautifully, he sounds like he’s comfortable with himself and that’s the best thing of all.
    Sorry this was so long, but I always felt “different” as a child, I still do and I’ve learned that we learn that from others, not from ourselves. If all children were left alone, especially by parents who have “expectations” that their children very often can’t meet, then we wouldn’t have bullies and children picked on. Alas, that is in the ideal world, but good for this little guy in knowing exactly what he likes and is. He sounds to me like he will do just fine. : )
    Tricia (irishsamom) recently posted..The Gift Of You

  • Deidra23 says:

    That’s such a tough place to be. You want to encourage them to be themselves, but at the same time you do have to encourage a little bit of fiting in with socity’s norms.

    I think, if it was me in that position, i’d probably err on the side of caution. I was bullied all though elementary and junior high just because i was deemed ugly by my peers.

    For me, it would be something along the lines of “It’s okay to wear girl clothes at home, but not at school, church, the mall.. ect.” Really, for me, it’s no different than allowing my kids to run around in dress up clothes or even in their underwear at home, but when we go out, they have to be presentable. My just turned 5 year old adores her dress up clothes, and would wear princess dresses and plastic high heels everywhere if i let her, but i don’t, because that’s not what we wear when we go out.

  • Lisa says:

    Wow, what an inspirational parent your friend is. To support her son in whatever he does when so many others would try to force his round personality into a square hole. Please let her know she is strong and amazing and much supported.

    I don’t have any insight into this situation. I would probably lean towards talking to the school about whether there are any programs in your area about bullying, where her son could learn to stand up for himself and where he can turn if he needs help from grown ups. It is sad that they have to worry about it, that they go into this knowing their son will likely be hurt by the words and actions of others.

    I wish them all the best and hope their son’s personality can continue to grow and he can continue to be happy in his own skin forever.
    Lisa recently posted..The Many Faces of Maya

  • I wish, I WISH I had some fabulous advice. I don’t. I just don’t. I will say that it continuously bugs me that society makes an issue of boys that like pink, but it’s okay when girls like blue. I have an almost 3yo daughter who loves Spiderman, prefers to play with cars (because you know, they go VROOOOM!), Handy Manny tool toys, and her lovey is a Diego doll – NOT Dora, Diego. She gravitates towards sports, loves to play ball, and points out every backhoe and construction crane we pass. She throws a fit at every single dress I put on her and could care less about Strawberry Shortcake (which kills a piece of my soul), but you know what? She’s who she is. And no one cares. But I can only imagine the sideways glances this little boy gets at school and it hurts my heart.

    Like I said, I have nothing as far as advice/assvice is concerned. Only good thoughts and energy and wild amounts of virtual support headed her way. Please keep us posted.

    Lyndsay Cool Legumes recently posted..Ahhh- Spring

  • IMHO (for what it’s worth), 4/5 is really early to be worried about gender identity. What they like this week, can be the complete opposite of what flips thier cookie next week. So for the issue of gender identity, I would let that one play out for at least another year before you get yourself really geared up for it. You seem to have a very accepting frame of mind, so you are 5 steps ahead of most people there.

    As far as bullying goes, I would see what your child’s (potential) school’s policy on bullying is. After that, perhaps some discussions on how to recognize bullying and what to do when it happens. Truly, the odds are that every child will feel bullied by someone at some point, wheather they wear princess shoes or not. Every child should be taught about bullying. The more children are empathetic to others, the less bullying we will have overall.

    Stay strong and keep being the awesome parent you already are.

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