Helping Your Child Through Nonconforming Gender Experiences




One parent writes the PSP Advice List:

“My almost 6-year old daughter has preferred typically "boys" clothes for a few years now, has a short haircut, and mostly only has friends who are boys.  In lots of her pretend play, she likes to be a boy, but she refers to herself as our daughter, as a sister, and has generally been incredibly confident and comfortable in her own skin, just as she is. 

Recently at a new school, kids in her class weren't sure if she was a boy or a girl, and in these first weeks of school, she's not corrected anyone who thinks she's a boy (her teachers have let her answer the question, and she's left it ambivalent) and when I asked her about it, she said that she likes people thinking she's a boy at school, cause it feels good.  From our perspective, it seems she's kind of trying this out, since up until now she has often been the only girl in a group of boys and likes this natural sense of belonging, and she definitely identifies much more with "boy" things than "girl" things (though does some typical "girl" things like play with dolls, etc).  At home, she isn't asking us to treat her as if she's a boy or to do anything differently.

We have always let her express herself the way she wishes and will continue to do so, and my husband and I both are happy to support whatever path she takes in her self expression and gender over time, but I will admit that I don't feel totally certain of the best way to move forward right now at her current age, and particularly with things at school -- I'd love to hear from anyone else who has a kid who has explored different gender expressions in a similar way. 

Thanks for any shared stories or advice!”




Find the three replies, in their entirety below:


Parent 1:


"It can be useful to let gender creative kids know about the range of gender identity and gender expression out there. Gender identity and expression encompasses far more than two genders and the possibility of switching once between them. For example, there are non-binary people, so it's not like the only gender identity out there is "girl all the time" or "boy all the time".

One of the things I hear most commonly from fellow trans and GNC folks about gender is that they didn't know about some aspects of gender, be it transition, binary trans people, non-binary folks, or genderfluidity, when they were younger  and that lack of knowledge and possibility caused  difficulty in their lives.

It could be helpful to discuss some gender basics with your kid in a developmentally appropriate way, since children at that age often have very normative views of gender. For example:

1.  Your body does not determine your gender. How you feel does. We can change things like our clothes, words, and bodies if it helps us fit our gender better.
2. If someone feels they are not the gender they are seen as ("perceived gender") or want to be a different gender, some of the time or all of the time, they can be the gender they want. You can  tell people your gender and have them use words for you that fit. Adults can help you with this. Once you are a teenager or adult, there is medicine that can help your body fit your gender better if you want. 
3. There are people who are not always boys or always girls. There are some people who switch between being a girl or boy (sometimes depending on where they are or who they are with). There are people who are in-between boy and girl. There are people who feel like neither a girl nor a boy.
4. Everyone gets to decide their own gender. You can ask people to use the name, pronouns, or terms that fit you (kid instead of daughter or girl etc). In fact it is a law in NYC that people have to use the pronouns and name that you feel fit you  - how cool is that!

Having conversations about all the possibilities out there can really help your child avoid distress now and in the future. One thing clinicians always say is that doing nothing is not a neutral decision; it can cause harm.

One small point is that you said your child still uses "daughter" and "sister" at home. This may be due to expectations or long history rather than true desire to go by these terms.  One starting point for some families is to actually ask your child what terms fit best and make it clear that you are happy to use or change terms. Some people prefer the familiarity of the assigned gender with people who have known them as such, but a different or better fitting gender with new people (e.g. as you are introducing your child to others).  Just my perspective. Best wishes."


Parent 2:


"Hello! I'd love to share our story with you. My son, now 7, was similar to your daughter. He always wore his hair long and wore mostly pink and purple and rainbow colors and girls' shoes, and loved to dress up in gowns and play princess, and seriously disliked other boys. He would tell me all the time that he wished he were a girl. But never "I AM a girl," which apparently is an important distinction. But oh, how he loved being mistaken for one.

Because my father-in-law was vocal about his disdain for our son's gender expression, I taught him scripts early on, at age 4. I gently mentioned examples of what someone who doesn't know any better might say, and how he could educate them about it. He really took to it. He used his comebacks so confidently, to both peers and to his grandparents. It was glorious to watch. He seemed excited about teaching people.

He had started exhibiting fluid gender expression around 2, so I was always protecting him fiercely from nosy adults. The woman at the shoe store who yanked the pink shoes out of his hands; the woman at the toy store counter who told him he had to pick out a stuffed animal instead of a mermaid doll; the mother and daughter who gawked and burst out laughing at my boy in his beloved tutu and ballet slippers on the first day of his Y class. These moments gave me the opportunity to demonstrate how he should never bend to anyone else's idea of who he should be. But they always left me utterly shaken.

And then he started kindergarten, which was the first time he was in school with his neighborhood friends, and he was a princess for Halloween, wig and all. And his friends laughed when they saw him and he laughed too, and it wasn't mean, just fun. And he looked so beautiful and happy, glowing from within as they all trick-or-treated together. It certainly wasn't his first time dressing up as a female character for Halloween, but it was such a profound moment, because his peers, the ones who really mattered to him, accepted him, treated him exactly the same as always.

And then, toward the end of first grade, something changed. He started relating more to some of the boys instead of finding their behavior wild and annoying, (words he often used to describe them). One day I was walking past the schoolyard during his recess and spotted him wrestling and playing aggressively with a bunch of boys, and he looked so uncharacteristically tough and roguish.

He started caring less than before about the color or style of his clothes, although to this day he still loves to rock pink or purple or metallic shoes from the girls' section, and will staunchly defend his right to do so. And little by little, my darling, delicate little boy transformed into a rough-and-tumble, screeching, fiery-eyed ball of male energy.

He still loves to play with girls (and those are the rare moments when I get to see his feminine side come through), but there's a major gender separation at school these days (cooties!), so he mostly hangs with boys. And he loves it. And he is the wildest of them all.

I do miss my princess boy a little. My son is so unique and lovable in his complexity, and I wonder how much of that old self is still in there. For years I was afraid all the time of the big bad world crushing his gentle spirit. I feel grateful every day that we live here, in the cushy insulation of a liberal, progressive neighborhood. 

As for advice... It sounds like you are treating your child with so much love and respect. She is so lucky to have you and your husband as her parents! I would just ride the wave with her and be there to answer questions and support her, and teach her scripts for when she encounters closed-minded kids (and adults). If she has issues with any kids at school, reach out to the parents and try to arrange a play date. One-on-ones are usually beneficial for kids her age. In first grade my son was made fun of for having painted nails, and I reached out to the girl's mom and the kids had a nail polishing playdate and became great friends.

During the period of time when my son was always wishing he were a girl, my mom would say to me, don't tell him too much. You don't want to give him any ideas. You'll push him into it. As if my being honest and open with him would make him into something he wasn't already. As with many of my parenting choices, I did the opposite of what my mom said. :) I answered all his tough questions honestly, googled things for him that I didn't already know. I introduced him to a transgender girl around his age and explained her journey to him. I told him he could experiment with living as a girl if he wanted. Whenever the conversation turned to this, I would see a glimmer of excitement in his eyes, but then he'd say, nah, I don't want to.

My mom said I was confusing him by even presenting it as an option. To me, there was no other way. I know my kid. I knew what he needed to hear. Maybe he just loved the idea of it and loved to hear me say it out loud, even though it was never going to be his reality. If he was in fact testing me to see how devoted I was to his happiness, then looking back I'm really glad I passed.  

It sounds like you're already giving your daughter lots of space to make her own choices. My advice would be to not shy away from her questions. She may surprise you with a doozy here and there (my son sure did), and if you need a moment to figure out how to answer it, tell her you need time to think about it, do some research, come back to it later.

I also recommend reading blogs and books written by parents about their transgender children. I found that reading their stories really helped me understand my child more. Even though my son took a different path, the early part of the journey felt very much the same.

It sounds like you are doing an amazing job supporting your daughter. I hope reading our story was helpful to you in some way. Take care."


Parent 3:


"Hello parent,

Sounds like you have a special daughter and your story struck a chord with me. I'm a 34 yr old mother in a lesbian marriage and I wanted to share a little experience of my own. As a child, I longed to be a boy - had short hair, rode skateboards, made friends with all the boys, did all the classic tomboy things and was constantly referred to as a "he" and a boy. Sometimes I thought this was totally cool - I liked it. Other times though things would shift and change and I was deeply hurt - hurt because people didn't understand a girl could also be all the things boys could be. And sometimes hurt because people really do pick on gender non-conforming kids, we are massive targets and things that are meant to hurt you often do!

I grew out of wanting to be a tomboy when I was a teenager, I haven't had short hair or ridden a skateboard since I was about 14 and to look at me now you'd never guess that I was such a little tomboy. Being boyish was actually a way of being free for me, it wasn't about actually being a boy. I think with transgenderism being something that we are all very very aware of these days (as we should be!) it's also important to remember that being non-conforming in our gender expression does not always mean transgressing our genders all together. Some kids really do grow out of or grow beyond stages of gender expression.

My best advice to you is to prioritize supporting your kid no matter what because there is no doubt in my mind that she will experience prejudice and bullying at some point and you want to make sure she is ok talking to you about that. I would also encourage you to see her gender and its expression as an evolving thing. There is no "answer" and it will probably change the more she matures and grows into herself. I would also encourage you to help her find inspiration, idols, mentors and references for other people who have fluid or non conforming gender so that she can feel normal and strong in herself. A friend of mine was telling me the other day that her little girl was rejecting all things girlie, and didn't want to wear a t-shirt with ruffled sleeves. Upon hearing this - she showed her daughter pictures of David Bowie wearing ruffled sleeves - a boy - and she brightened and decided the ruffles were in fact fun. David Bowie struck a chord with her and now she wants to know more about him. (The girl is 4 yrs old) I loved this and think being close and looking for things your daughter likes and looking for other people out there who might speak to her in some small way is a great way to help her navigate how she's feeling."


Related reading on PSP:

Gender and Sexuality Resources

Children's books with characters who do not conform to gender stereotypes