FAMILY:

Raising A Boy In Pink

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A Mom Talks About Raising a Gender Non-Conforming Child.  — By Sarah Hoffman

{Part 1 of our 2-part series on Kids and Gender}

“Sundress”

One Thursday morning, my four-year-old son announced, “I’m going to wear a dress to school today.”

I froze. I shouldn’t have been entirely surprised, given Sam’s history on the pink side of the dress-up box, but this was different.

The previous weekend, Sam and I visited his grandma in Malibu, where we wandered into a high-end children’s boutique. Sam had eyed a pink, frilly sundress. “Can I have it?”

I blinked at him. Trying to keep things light, I told Sam the dress was not his size. Blue eyes wide, he asked shyly, “Well, are there dresses in my size?” I paused, trying to decide what to say. “Boys don’t wear dresses” came to mind, but that wasn’t true—Sam had always loved playing princess dress-up. “I’m not going to buy you a $270 dress from this ridiculous store” also came to mind, but that really didn’t address the point—his, or mine. He would be asking the same question about a $7.99 sundress at Target, and I’d still be wondering why my boy wanted to wear one.

Sam started to weep. “I wish I had a pink dress!” he wailed. “But sweetie,” I said, “You have two pink princess dress-up costumes.” He wailed, “But I want one I can wear to school!”

At four, Sam has been expressing his preference for pink for half his life. My husband and I have bought him various things that fall in the sort of odd-but-socially-acceptable range: pink Converse sneakers, pink t-shirts, a hot pink polo shirt. His grandparents bought him a pair of pink light-up Skechers that he adores. The dress-up box at home overflows with pink tulle, lace, and marabou feathers.

But for school, certain things—say, dresses—are on the other side of a line that my husband and I haven’t been willing to cross: one that sits right between eccentric-but-cute and is-that-a-boy-wearing-that? We have tried to find a way for Sam to express himself without inviting ridicule, and we knew that a pink sundress would cross the line. But it was starting to look as though Sam was no longer happy within the confines of our compromise.

I’d wanted to think that this was just a phase for Sam, but I was beginning to understand that it was not. My son wanted to wear a dress—for real, not for dress-up. He wanted to show his school friends his true self. The pink-sundress-wearing self.

I am a woman who rarely puts on heels; I was a kid who preferred overalls to frills. The part of me that thinks outside of the gender box looks at Sam and thinks he should wear whatever makes him feel his best. And yet…I am his mother, and my fiercest urge is to protect him. I know that boys who act like girls get bullied. A dress on a boy feels like an invitation to mockery.

My husband and I didn’t know whether Sam was ready to wear a dress to school—or if we were ready. We wondered if learning to fit in was more important than expressing himself. Yet we knew that steering him toward the masculine was not working, and that he was becoming increasingly resistant to wearing boy clothes. More important, we knew that denying his desire to look the way he wants would quash a part of him and make him unhappy, probably in a more fundamental way than we even understood.

So I bought him a dress, a $10 pink, embroidered sundress from Old Navy. I did not decide if it would be okay for him to wear it to school; I was not ready to decide. I figured he could wear it at home and see how he felt. How we felt.

Sam’s declaration that he would wear the dress to school saved us, in a way, from having to decide; he’d already decided. I warned Sam that he would probably get teased. He was undeterred; clearly, avoiding teasing was a lower priority for Sam than simply being himself. I could see that learning to stand up for his choices, in a relatively safe and supportive environment, was a useful life lesson. And it occurred to me that having confidence—being proud of who he is, even if he’s different—is the best defense against ridicule.

So we coached Sam on what to say to the children at preschool who might tease him. We role-played things he could say back to them. We talked about how much teasing can hurt, but that teasing is wrong. At that morning’s school drop-off, my faith in Sam moved up a notch when he announced to his teacher, “Look at my pretty dress! No one is allowed to make fun of me.”

After school, Sam beamed as he reported that his teachers had said they liked his dress, and the other four-year-olds had said he looked pretty. But the kids in the five-year-old class teased him and told him that “boys can’t wear dresses,” and that he “must not be a boy.”

“What did you say back?” I asked. “I said, ‘Don’t make fun of me! I can be a boy and wear a dress, because it is my choice!’”

I couldn’t have said it better. I asked Sam how he felt about his day in a dress, and he said gleefully, “I want to wear a dress to school again!”

And how did I feel? Well, next week is tie-dye week at school. The class parent in charge of ordering the clothes called to ask if I wanted a t-shirt or a dress for Sam. Touched by her thoughtfulness, I thought I would give Sam the same consideration she did, and I let him decide.

It looks like there will soon be two dresses in Sam’s closet.

— Sarah Hoffman is a mom and freelance writer whose essays on children and gender have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle and on Salon.com. A version of “Sundress” appeared in Cookie Magazine. Sarah blogs about life with gender non-conforming son at www.sarahhoffmanwriter.com and is also the author of the forthcoming book, Pink Boys.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content for parents and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, Ruby’s Studio:  The Feelings Show,” which teaches kids how to identify, express and move through their feelings. We want to be a parenting tool…  for you!

Posted in: Family, Identity, Parental Wisdom, Tough Topics

Comments (35)

  1. Lenny Domangue

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    Reply

  2. Chung Rothery

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    Reply

  3. lynn oliver

    ( I just edited my comment, removing an uneeded comma.)
    I am all for love and care for all children. I feel anything that provides more care, love, attention, and protection is always good however a person chooses to dress.
    I am wondering if what we are seeing is really socially created from a young age. I feel even as early as two years of age, boys and girls are recognizing how different they are being treated. I feel in some very young children intensely feel the contrast between how they are being treated by others around them (parents, teachers, peers, others) and the modeling they are witnessing of persons of opposite gender being treated “sufficiently enough with more kindness, care, love, attention, etc. I feel this may then lead to a feeling of more intense vulnerability for being seen as that gender and so much more desire to take on the appearance of the gender they are perceiving as receiving more protection, love, care, attention, etc. I feel this could make say, boy clothes seem like a target for less love, attention, care, protection, etc., while the girl clothes and appearance would provide more of a sense of protection, love, care, attention, and safety, etc.
    I feel we need to look at this more closely today as a barometer of how society is really treating boys and girls.

    Reply

  4. Sigrid

    I cannot tell you how much I loved this article. My son is 6 and loves everything pink too! He loves princesses, fashion shows, long hair, and high heels. He imagines, sees himself as a girl. He makes us giggle and laugh, he entertains us with his drama and his flair for the humorous. We are blessed to have him in our life. Am I afraid of hurtful words and people heading in his direction? Sometimes. I visualize him surrounded by kindness and meeting people that both support him and that need his light and inspiration.

    Thank you for this article. I feel very alone actually about all of this. It is so lovely to read of other moms supporting and loving their “boys in pink” too!

    Much love and light to you and your darlings!

    Reply

  5. Michael

    You may be raising your son in a bubble where he doesn’t realize that there are social conventions and limits to how he can behave. He may unwittingly be alienating himself and others.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with a boy wearing a dress, but there are consequences. Not saying it will make your son gay or effeminate, just thinking that it may prevent your son from relating to his peers – other boys.

    I don’t think your son is old enough to understand that a male cannot be masculine (according to 90% of the world) in a dress. I know at the end of the day it is just a piece of clothing and it has no real baring on actually being a man or a woman but perception matters.

    In society you will always be judged first on how you look and how you dress. A young boy wearing a dress is cute and we can just chalk it up to that, but as he gets older it will get weirder for him.

    Your son doesn’t understand the true meaning of what he is doing, he’s just playing dress up and all you’re doing is being permissive. If your son was 14-15 and you bought him dresses to wear to school because that is what he wanted then you could give yourself that pat on the back for being a super progressive parent.

    However, by raising a ‘non-gender conforming’ child you are potentially depriving your son of the social and physical skills he needs to interact with other males. If later on he ‘chooses’ that isn’t for him, then that is his decision to make because he’s old enough to understand certain concepts about gender and sexuality. At 4 or 5 he isn’t.

    Reply

  6. A R

    I am so grateful for this article today. We are going through something similar with our almost 4-year-old son. I’m not 100 percent sure if he’s just exploring stuff or is starting to form a genuine preference, but he’s starting to wear what society would consider to be some girly clothes. It started with really, REALLY wanting an Elsa costume from Frozen. I realized it was no joke when we were three months into him asking every day and he started “saving his quarters” so he could have it. Then he fell in love, and I mean FELL IN LOVE with a pink Rapunzel shirt and insists on wearing it all day and night. He wants pink glitter pumas for the fall, too. I finally found the Elsa costume, and was so nervous about giving it to him. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen, but I just feel so protective of him. He wore it to Disneyland last week and he got nothing but compliments (and I as a parent got a lot of “you are doing a great job, mom” compliments as well – but people were so dumbfounded!). I realized that it changed nothing about my little boy to have him in the dress. It was me who was nervous but it wasn’t like he turned into a different person when he put it on.

    The other day, he asked if he could wear a dress to dance class. I also had the freeze moment, because up until now, it’s only been costumes. I’m not sure what to do about it, and he dropped it almost immediately because I didn’t have one, so I don’t know what any of it means or if it’s going to come up again. I know that I sure appreciate reading your article.

    I think the thing I’m worried about is, as of right now, he doesn’t even KNOW that society thinks it’s off for him to wear girl clothes, or pretend to be a girl (he always pretends he’s “Spider Girl,” too). I am dreading the day that some kid or adult says “you can’t wear that/pretend that, you’re a BOY.” I want him to remain blissfully ignorant for as long as possible. But it’s coming, and soon, and I want to be prepared on what to tell him and how he can handle it.

    …and now I’m off to prepare for his bday party this week in which he’s having a Queen Elsa performer and I’m feeling so protective of anyone giving him crap about it.

    Thank you again!

    Reply

  7. Cdeprimio

    As the mother of a 26 year old gender non-conforming daughter who has dressed like a boy since she was 2 or 3 years old, I can tell you that things can work out well for these kids. Parent and family support is the insulation that will protect them when the world is cruel. Another important factor is accepting friends. My daughter was lucky to have several caring and enlightened male friends, some of whom she is still close to today. As many have expressed before, kids are less problematic than adults. Some teachers never figured out what to think about her, and she knew it. Below is the quote from e.e cummings that is the signature on my emails. (She is currently in law school, hoping to go into employment law.)

    To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
    e. e. cummings

    Reply

  8. Dawn Conti-jordan

    Your son will be who he is no matter what. some kids have to wait till they move out on their own. that is sad. because there is NOTHING worse than NOT being yourself.
    He will eventually know if it is enough to remain as is, or to cross the line entirely. If he should cross over some day, I hope you will understand.
    I believe that we all have variants within us. most of us force ourselves to conform on many levels. WHY/ Much mental health issues are about NOT being who we truly are. Sad. Let him be who he is. He will anyway eventually. Bless his heart and yours.

    Reply

  9. Josephine Shaffer

    I love dressing in women’s clothes Pink is my favorite color in dresses, skirts, blouses, socks, swimsuits, purses etc i love being feminine, and lady like.

    Reply

  10. Josephine Shaffer

    I am a guy, and i wear Pink i am a girlygirl

    Reply

  11. juliet

    Awesome! What a great lesson. (:

    Reply

  12. Charles

    I will restrain myself; there are so many myths to rebut on the subject of clothing and gender. However, they’ve largely been disproved, haven’t they? But regarding females only! Everything, and I emphatically mean, absolutely everything, negative that is heard today on the matter of males wearing (allegedly) female clothes, was previously said about females wearing (allegedly) male clothing! Check the record for example in the New York Times, mid second half of 19th century. Women in pants were suffering from “permanent mental hallucination” and needed to be “treated with the usual remedies in use at the best conducted hospitals for the insane” (editorial “A Curious Disease,” May 27, 1876, page 6). If people were as uninformed as to geography as they are about the history of clothing, and as to exactly what causes clothing behavior, people on the East coast wouldn’t know the Pacific ocean existed, and West coast residents wouldn’t know the Atlantic existed. Much of the problem is because we teach psychiatry (the dismal “science”) and its slightly less toxic younger brother, psychology. These people have much to say on dress (“transvestism” was coined in 1910, but the New York Times much earlier spoke of “an attack of dress reform disease,” that of women wanting to wear trousers). The “mental health” (social conformity = absence of illness) movement is composed of the most grossly uninformed persons on the subject of gender and clothes. They “think” that “brain chemistry” causes men to wear pants and plain, drab, nonexpressive clothes all the time. That’s quite a way to peddle neurologically toxic pharmaceuticals, is it not? Ask any “mental health professional,” such as a (“clinically normative”) social worker, how the trouser/skirt division of the sexes came about. Odds are high she’ll start rattling away about brain chemistry, chromosomes and hormones, and it’s all quite the pathetic claptrap nonsense. Both sexes wore draped garments (skirts) in ancient times, outside of the very small population in arctic areas, who always wore trousers out of survival necessity. As man slowly tamed the horse and started using it, it was the best transportation for numberless generations; and armies found they could not compete without horses. Pants were developed to “divide” the legs the way the horse divides the legs, to shield the skin from stiff horse hair!) Can a man be a man, even if he does not ride horseback? In AD 378 the skirted Romans were badly defeated at the Battle of Adrianople, and the Emperor killed, by trousered cavalrymen. By AD 393 Rome decreed exile and property confiscation of all men in trousers, it was politically subversive. The Greeks and Macedonians also thought men in pants as “barbarians.” In AD 867 the Bulgars asked the Pope if they could be Christians, even though they wore trousers! “Pants” comes from Pantalone, the top clown of the medieval Italian Comedy of the Arts; aristocrats held pants ridiculous. But the use of the horse, as an overriding social force, eventually placed most men in pants. Judicial robes, graduation and choir robes/gowns, are remnants of the skirt age for men. Women could not wear pants till factory work in World War 2—an overriding social force—sent 17 million USA women into pants in factory work. Brain chemistry has nearly nothing to do with clothing behavior; however, some men overreact to society’s refusal of clothing choice for men, by going too far, and wearing bras (physiological sex difference). Many men in 2012 wear skirts as men–Fijian cops, Tongans, Tahitians, Samoans, Maoris, Polynesians, Melanesians, Dervishes in over 12 countries, Scots, Albanians, Greeks and more. They wear skirts and present as men—not as women. No one started out saying “women belong in skirts and men in pants;” that was brought about by social forces; but once brought about, the guardians of conformity (psychiatry and religious zealots) try to attribute it to “normal brain chemistry” and “the will of God.” There will always be females who naturally prefer pants, and males who naturally prefer skirts; this is a difference of taste, not a difference in sex roles. We need to stop restricting, regimenting and oppressing men into a one style collective. Facial hair is what God (or if you prefer, nature) intended to differentiate men from women—not pants, and not suits and ties, invented by Beau Brummel, the London alcoholic who died of gluttony in 1840.

    Reply

  13. Michelle King

    Thanks so much for your inspirational story. I am also raising a child in pink. However, although biologically male, prefers to be called she and live as a girl. We had a really tough time crossing the barrier at school, though. Admittedly it was a tough inner city school, but like you, we had hoped for the best. Our child in pink had a really rough day and wet all over the dress, because she was not permitted to use the girl’s restroom. We have since pulled her out of school and are looking for a better fit. It is great to hear that others are having better experiences.

    Reply

  14. Aric

    I am a pink boy and happy to be one. There is one point I’d like to mention that wasn’t said yet.

    About 2 years ago i realized pink was my color. At first i was very scared to wear it around people, so i wore it at home. Then i started to wear just pink socks under jeans. Then pink shirt. And now i have all kinds of pink clothes and other things pink.

    The thing I learned while going thru this process is that wearing pink clothes is a very quick way of weeding out the people that wouldn’t be my friends anyways. It has made my life easier, not harder.

    It feels so nice to have people smile at me knowing who I am. I can accept these smiles because they are enjoying who I am, not some false self. It’s impossible to enjoy a compliment or smile from someone if I am not being myself.

    I truly believe people can sense whether I am being myself or not. When I am not wearing pink, I feel like I am lying to myself and the world. People shy away from me and ignore me. When I wear pink, I feel like myself and I get true and friendly smiles and such from SOME people. I have yet to come across someone that says any negative comments to me for wearing pink.

    Reply

  15. Feminista

    Re: “the first women who took jobs” and “the first girls who wore pants to school.” Women have been working outside the home for millenia: think midwives,wet nurses,housekeepers,healers,farmers,writers,pirates,fishmongers,inn keepers,artists,artisans,etc. Are you referring to women who took non-traditional jobs like printers,carpenters,plumbers? Also goes back many generations,and continues in the 21st century for certain careers and countries.

    I recommend reading some women’s history: U.S.(Born for Liberty by Sara Evans),European,African,Asian,etc.

    Anyway,thanks for a sweet story with a happy ending.

    Best wishes from a second wave feminist

    Reply

  16. Payer en ligne

    Thanks for this love story mom . It is a real life lesson that you are sharing with us ! Thanks again !

    Reply

    • Sarah Hoffman

      I love that you look at it as a love story. I do, too. Thank you.

      Reply

  17. Mitchell

    Super excited to see more of this kind of stuff online.

    Reply

    • Sarah Hoffman

      Yay!

      Reply

  18. Ashley

    This article is so beautiful I just can’t stand it! I think the desire to protect my little bunnies (19 month old b/g twins) is so intense, I would really struggle with how to handle a situation like that. I love that you gave your son the language he could use and then role played. Genius! Good mama, verrrry good mama!!

    Reply

    • Sarah Hoffman

      Oh Ashley, thank you! That warmed my heart.

      Reply

  19. Jamie Strand

    I applaud you mothers and fathers who have the courage to allow your sons to express the femininity they so deeply feel. I can tell you get it and that you know that it probably is not just a “passing phase”. I was one of those sons and while my mother did the best she could do it was a very different time many moons ago. I have since transitioned and I now happily live, work and love as a transgender woman in Atlanta. Please know that you are doing the right thing by listening to your children. They are not just being “willful” or “difficult”. The concept of gender identity is a real thing. It is truly possible for children to be born with male genitals and have a female gender identity and vice versa. Keep on loving!

    Reply

    • Sarah Hoffman

      Thank you, Jamie. I’m so glad to hear you are in a happy place.

      Reply

  20. Mark

    It certainly sounds to me that this perhaps might be Sam’s purpose this time around, to begin paving that way so people could express who they are in any way they like. My motto has always been, for at least as long as I can remember, “Do anything you want, as long as you don’t hurt anybody else in the process”. Sam then is light years ahead of me in that matter.

    That kids have been taught this early, boys don’t do this or that, the same for girls, and that everybody buys into it (and actually increases and defends it) is what amazes me. Yes kids can be really cruel and judgmental, because to them, everything is black and white, and they have little ability to think these things through to arrive at other possibilities.

    But the need to fit in is a strong one, and adults have just as much difficulty with doing what they want, and able to withstand any ridicule or critisism about it. Matybe more for all I know because it also influences their work and paycheck.

    It is somewhat getting better, Sam is pushing it to the next level. He’s strong, he’s sure, and confident, and maybe your role this time was to provide the opportunity for him to do his work in this area of human development. To give him at least the love and support at home, and your influence on the adult world around Sam, so they can see differently, and makes it easier for the next generation of people who more transparently express their true self.

    I’m sure at first that this would be disconcerting, because it is not expected that you’d confront the ego, the fears, all those things that just were beyond your expectations to even consider in the first place. It was a non issue. until it wasn’t. And that you both together rose to that occasion says alot about who you are as people, and that gives me hope.

    Great work Sarah!

    Reply

  21. Eva-Genevieve Scarborough

    What a refreshing article. What refreshing parents and teachers! I thank God for such people who allow and nurture their child to be himself, his way, in his own time. Thank you! Thank you!! Thank you!!!

    This may open you and him up to ridicule from ignorant and fearful people, but even so stand firm in your love and support because it is so very important for us all to see your example!

    Sincerely,
    Eva-Genevieve! Scarborough

    Reply

    • Sarah Hoffman

      It is definitely risky to speak out. We decided early on that Sam would face ridicule no matter what, because his sorts of differences are hard to hide (even if we didn’t let him wear a dress, he would always be the boy who looked longingly at the princess costume in the dress-up corner). Our goal has been to help him be sure of himself and strong enough to stand up for himself. He’s nine now, and this paying off.

      Reply

  22. Michelle F.

    Ok, now I’m a little teary eyed. This touched me so, especially the mother who called to ask if Sam wanted a dress or a t-shirt. Maybe there is hope that the societal trappigs of gender binary are being done away with. As a transgender woman, who at the age of 40 has completed phsycial transition this warms my heart. I remember at the age of 4 (1975) I asked my mom if I could be a pretty ballerina like my friend was. She said (innocently- again 1975), “Oh honey that’s what girls do, boys don’t do that”. Thus began many years of confusion and self angst, depression, obesity, and finally acceptance and happiness. I am blessed now, but what might have been???
    I applaud you and your husband, and especially Sam for being brave and confident in the face of societal pressure. Thank you, I will now go check my mascara.

    Michelle

    Reply

    • Sarah Hoffman

      Michelle, I love your last line 🙂 It is so painful, to think of what could have been. It even will be for Sam, if the world continues to evolve to be a better place. What if he’d had social acceptance as well as family acceptance? That is the world we are working toward, together.

      I am happy that you have found a positive place to be, despite the limits of the time in which you (and I) grew up.

      Reply

  23. Bigeeta Jones

    I’ve heard some stories like this on public radio. I think it shows how much those self-ID as liberal are still pretty conservative regarding certain issues. I think Sarah handled the situation with grace, courage and tons of love. She recognized the extreme importance of letting her son “be free to be”. Very hard, no matter the age of the child. Ironically, here’s one of those articles on gender-bending from the great NPR:

    http://www.npr.org/2011/06/23/137342682/the-end-of-gender.

    Reply

  24. Didi

    Well, I found this article wonderful. A right balance between protecting your child and allowing him to express himself.
    My boy used to dress up as a girl at home when he played with his sister ! He also asked to take dance classes. At first he said he would like to take dance class but was afraid other children will laugh at him. I said to him that he didn’t have to tell about his life to everybody, and that we women fought for so long against “clichés” that the time when dance was for girls and football for boys was over.
    He went to dance class, loved it, ended up telling his best friends and then all his school mates.
    He was confronted to mockery and sentence like “danse classes are for girls only and boys are not allowed”.
    But as we had talked a lot, he ended up saying that there was a time when all the men knew how to dance.
    His dad had a bit of a trouble to come to term with the fact that his son was taking dance classes! But our son is happy so let it be !

    Reply

    • Sarah Hoffman

      It’s so tough for kids to have to stand up to society’s judgments. Sometimes, as parents, we decide that it’s too much, or it’s not safe, and we have to tell our children they can’t do something they want to do. And other times, like the one you describe and the one I wrote about, we can arm our children with the tools they need to stand up for themselves. What they may or may not realize is that they are also standing up to a social bias that is larger than them–and therefore they are changing the world. We shouldn’t look to our young children to do this–it’s our job–but what a happy byproduct of standing up for themselves!

      Reply

  25. Michelle

    Sarah- Bravo! He is so lucky to have you as his mom and you are so lucky to have him as your son. Beautiful.

    Reply

    • Sarah Hoffman

      Thank you, Michelle! I’m honored.

      Reply

  26. Emi

    I totally commend your choice. I have a daughter and in this sense it is so much easier because since “masculinity” is the higher standard, girls wearing “boy” clothes is a lot easier to swallow for society.You son sounds like he did great.. I guess the bottom line is that children will be who they will be and we can either help them feel empowered in that or make them feel bad about who they are. If you did not let him wear it he would feel that you don’t accept him and that might create more harm than if peers don’t accept him. Good for you, although it was clearly hard.

    Reply

    • Sarah Hoffman

      Thank you!

      I’m imagining the first girls who wore pants to school, and the first women who took jobs, and the first African Americans who sat in the front of the bus, and the first gay people who married. What challenges they faced! I hate, in many ways, that my child is having to push society’s boundaries just to be himself, rather than just relaxing into the work that previous generations have done (as I do, as my daughter does). But by doing so, he is paving the way for future boys to be who they are without ridicule. I wish that it was not so hard for him…but given that it is, I could not be a prouder mom.

      Reply

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