Raising our Gender Nonconforming Child: A Q & A
One subject that I had spent very little time considering before having my children was children and gender. Until preschool that is, when we met Alex and his parents Anne and Ray. Alex is a sweet beautiful boy whose preference for princess dresses over trucks was immediately evident. Before I got to know Anne and Ray, I often wondered what it would be like to realize (and come to accept) that your child is gender nonconforming. What was the process of recognition like for them and how have they learned to support Alex’s preferences while keeping him safe from the cruelty of those who are uninformed? I sat down with Anne and she shared with me what their experience has been.
– Julia Storm, Director of Production, The Mother Company
When did you start to suspect that Alex might be different from other boys in his preferences? How did it start to reveal itself?
Around age two to two and half, Alex started to notice characters in stories and shows and he typically gravitated towards the female characters, like Jessie from Toy Story and Rapunzel. At that point, I saw a new side to his personality that was really striking. He really lit up when he played with those toys and talked about those female characters. Over time I could tell it was more than just imaginative play because of the struggle he seemed to have with sharing his excitement with friends. He seemed pretty keenly aware that it would be unexpected for him to like princesses/dresses and that people might not like it.
What was your emotional and intellectual reaction when you realized that Alex was gender nonconforming?
First of all, I had never heard the term “gender nonconforming.” I will admit it. I think, like many parents, we were afraid for him, especially at first. I knew intellectually that there was absolutely nothing wrong with his preference of toys or clothes. I was not confused about that at all. However, I was not sure what my biggest job should be as a parent of such a young child when he was two to three years old. What types of rules or boundaries am I supposed to set so that he is not clueless about the world and unprepared for being teased, bullied or hurt? Where is the line between protecting him and inadvertently rejecting a basic part of who he is? I can believe that gender stereotypes are ridiculous and nonsensical, but if my parenting doesn’t match, then my child will never really know that. So if I think inside “Why does my child have to select a lunchbox that screams BOY if he hates it?” but I lead him to the ‘acceptable’ [gender specific] choices then I’m really telling him that I think that those are the only acceptable choices. Now, I offer him first what he likes, without regard to the gender associated. I can see that he notices and he is happier. It shows and in the last year or so, many of our friends have noticed that he looks happier and more confident. We talk about his feelings and think through different ways to handle tricky situations like a kid saying “Are you a boy or a girl?” Now, we are on the same team and we know it. We’re just brainstorming. We both know that there may be bullies out there but they are not at home. That was where doing research, reading other parents’ stories, and talking to a professional were such helpful steps.
I know when Alex was three he decided to wear his Rapunzel dress to school on Halloween, can you talk about that experience for you as a parent?
We are so fortunate to have been in an open-minded, supportive community. Though he was visibly nervous to walk into preschool in his dress that day and I was terrified. It was the hardest school drop off I have ever done, including the first days of preschool and elementary school. I was most afraid that he would be teased by his friends and that he would internalize what they said quietly and that I wouldn’t know what was said or how to help him process it at such a young age. That someone would say something terrible and that he would believe it. That a parent might say something ugly either to him or in earshot. That said, he was so clear, for the first time I can remember, about what he liked and what he wanted to do. I was so proud of him.
How have you talked with Alex about the subject? How aware is he that he may be different that the average boy? How do you talk to his sister about it?
I used to tiptoe a bit more but that has changed. But he does not always want to talk about it (he is six!). He doesn’t seem so interested in defining himself in terms of gender. So I am open with him about the fact that some people might like the same things that the opposite sex typically likes and some people feel that they truly are the opposite sex (from that assigned at birth). He also knows that there are “rules” about how people should be treated at school and in the world. He has said many times that he worries people will laugh at him for “wearing girl clothes or liking girl colors.” With all of our kids, we are very clear that our family doesn’t think that girls or boys have their own colors like pink or blue. Colors and toys are for everyone. It was funny that when his younger sister turned three she started asking questions about what boys vs girls can and can’t do. I was surprised because we are so open about this topic but I realized that it is such a normal developmental phase she was going through. And in the last year I have talked to her more about the same things I have covered so often with Alex. I expect to do the same with my third child. I think they do need to hear out loud that we believe they are free to explore their own likes and interests and that we don’t assign activities, toys, colors etc to boys or girls, even if some other people do.
What is your opinion on parents making the decision to transition a young child from one gender to another if they are gender fluid?
Assuming (and I do) that the decision came from their child’s persistent and insistent request to be acknowledged as the gender they truly are, I support them a hundred percent. I do think that often people have the false perception that parents are being rash or ‘labeling.’ I do not agree. Time and again, I hear stories of parents who were not looking for or ready for their child’s assertion of their gender identity, or for how serious the issue can be at a young age. Many parents hear their kids saying they wished they were never born “this way” or that they wish they could die and be reborn as the opposite sex. We hear statistics about the suicide rate of forty one percent for gender nonconforming and transgender people, including children. Of course kids will exercise their wonderfully fickle imaginations in all sorts of ways, wanting to be a unicorn or a superhero. But if you really listen to these families, their stories are not silly flights of fancy, they are serious and the consequences of ignoring their child’s needs can be very dire.
Do you handle public and private differently with Alex? Does he?
At this point, I would love nothing more than to have Alex be himself (including the clothes he chooses) wherever he goes, but I follow his lead. As I understand it, not all gender fluid kids are this way, but Alex is cautious at times with his gender expression. With family, close friends, and complete strangers, he will wear more of the clothes he loves. At school, he seems more reluctant. For better or worse, he is keenly aware of being different and does not want to be teased. We have explained to him that there are firm school rules about bullying but he knows that kids may tease or reject him anyway. It’s heartbreaking to think of my little six year old (since he was 3) worrying about people’s ignorance. It’s a hard thing to navigate as a parent too. I want to be a model of safety and acceptance and of reality too. I want to model openness and courage but I cannot know what it is like to walk in his little shoes and I can’t make these public/private decisions for him. Even at this age, it is so personal. The decisions about privacy will be ongoing for him and for our family, especially given the realities of ongoing negative attitudes towards gender fluid kids and the LGBT community, even on a systemic level. What’s most important is how Alex and our family feel and that he knows we love and support him exactly as he is and no matter what lies ahead.
Have you/Alex ever encountered any meanness or bullying by either children or adults? If yes, how did you respond?
So far, thank goodness, he/we have experienced more questions, than outright meanness. Depending on the tone, those can be a little mean. Several times another child has asked me, in front of Alex, why he likes “girl stuff?” I used to try to answer in a way that would help them understand that it was ok both that he liked what he liked and also that they asked. Now, I usually wait to follow his lead. Sometimes he says something like “Because I do, whatever.” Or they may ask, since his hair is long now, “Are you a boy or a girl?” He’ll just say matter of factly, “I’m a boy.” No matter what he says, it’s more about him speaking up for himself. And then we talk about how it felt and I am really more focused on his feelings and his response than the person asking the questions.
Have you reached out to experts in the field or other parents with gender non-conforming children? If so, what has this offered to you in terms of support? Do you feel you need support from this community?
Oh yes, we have definitely reached out. Thankfully, there are online resources and support, professionals with specialties in gender identity, books, groups etc. We found a therapist and have also attended a group for families who have kids who are anywhere from gender fluid/nonconforming to transgender. I think it is helpful to experience and be open to the full spectrum of possibilities. My first introduction into the supports available was from the blog and book, Raising My Rainbow, authored by the fabulous Lori Duron, who parents a gender nonconforming boy and has built an amazing network of parents from her work. Aside from her wonderful blog about her family’s experiences, she helped to launch a site where parents of gender nonconforming kids can meet each other and set up playdates. Within the first week, the site had subscribers from half the states in the US and 6 other countries. So we really aren’t alone! I do really feel that this type of support is vital for kids and parents alike.
Over the past few years how have your feelings around the subject and the idea of being a parent to a gender nonconforming child changed or developed?
I had no idea how much I needed to grow. I think this is a universal thing as a parent, but my child has been like a mirror reflecting back to me insecurities and fears I did not know existed. Seeing that my child is going through something I don’t fully understand makes me feel insecure as a mom. I don’t know what it’s like to walk through the world and think that the way it’s organized (in terms of gender) doesn’t make sense. And every time I have caught myself caring about someone who might be judging, I feel like I’ve gone a hundred steps backwards. Beyond my own insecurities I fear that people may be hateful enough to alienate or hurt my child. As time goes on though, I think the fear is such a smaller, less powerful part of the picture. I have so much more pride and joy than I have fear. I have always felt that Alex is a gift and now I really feel that his gender nonconformity is a gift to me, to our family and anyone privileged enough to know him. I feel much less afraid of the day to day, but my fear for his safety in our evolving world is still there. I don’t think that kind of fear is a bad thing. It is realistic and as long as I am doing something constructive, being honest and advocating for my child, then it is put to good use.
Below is a list of resources for those looking for more information or support on the subject of children and gender fluidity:
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