A worried mother of a three-year-old sent me an email recently, asking for my advice. She was trying to answer the very same question that plagued me when my child was the same age and saying the same things: Is it OK to let such a young child transition to another gender? Or to even let them know that it might be a possibility for them to do so at some point?
I’m guessing this is the same question that keeps you up at night, too, if you have a young child saying they are not the gender you thought they were. I wrote the worried mom back with the advice I wish I’d been given sooner, and she gave me permission to share our emails on my blog. Here you go:
I have a three year old boy and about 6 months ago he told me he wished he was a girl. He has been saying this, very regretfully, ever since. He seems matter of fact and resigned about being a boy, but he is wistful, longing and frequently mentions wanting to be a girl.
There are some things that make me feel this is more than a passing fancy. His favorite characters are all girls. He loves pink and yellow. He always wants to put on his favorite pink skirt. Just today he was excited to try on some stockings.
We are not at a stage where he seems deeply unhappy about this so for now I let him be. He wears his pink skirt when he wants and we continue to watch his favorite female characters. When he tells me about his gender wishes, I say “I know that’s how you feel. But you are a boy and it’s OK to want to wear make up and dresses if you are a boy too,” and he seems momentarily sad but accepting.
I wanted to ask you how you knew that it was time to go to the next level and be more proactive about changing your child’s gender. How can you tell, at 3, when it’s not just a passing fancy but something more serious? In your podcast you mentioned that you battled for one year before making the choice. What does “battling” look like? How is it the same or different from what I’m experiencing? My son will be 4 soon, so I wonder what your advice is about when we start to think about next steps.
In our house we just want our kids to be happy so we will accept our child however he wants to present him or herself. But I wonder where is the line between making life choices for a kid that can be so permanent and potentially damaging when they are so young versus recognizing that they need help to be their authentic selves and giving them the right avenues to do so.
I’d appreciate any advice you have to offer.
– – – – –
First of all, it sound like you are doing a wonderful job of listening to your child and taking him seriously, letting him know that you care about his feelings and needs. That is everything in this!
I suppose my advice, based on my experience, is this: Many of us worry that if we so much as whisper to our children the possibility that they can be another gender, that we will somehow push them to be something they are not. Everything I have witnessed over the past five years, watching my child and dozens like her, has convinced me that this is simply not how it works. If your child really is going to be a boy, then he will be a boy; if she is a transgender girl, then that is who she is. Letting your child know that it is possible – and acceptable to you – for him to identify as a girl, if that is who she is, will not push him (her?) into being something he/she is not. But it will allow your child to fully explore his/her gender without the fear of losing your love and acceptance.
If I could go back in time, I would have told me three-year-old “son” that “he” might be a girl, and that this is called transgender, and that it’s normal and just fine with me. I’d also say that there’s no hurry in figuring this out, and that it’s fine to explore and try things, and change his/her mind, and that no matter what happens, Mom is fine with it and will love him/her no matter what. I’d also explain the idea of nonbinary identity – the idea that some people are a bit of both. I eventually did speak with my four year old about this concept, and she had no problem with the notion that “some people are not really a boy or a girl, but somewhere in between.” If I could go back and do it again, I’d read books to her that presented as many options and possibilities for gender as possible, so that she’d be aware of them and have names for them, and for how she felt and who she might be. Books I’d highly recommend are: My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis, Jacob’s Dress by Sarah Hoffman, I Am Jazz by Jazz Jennings, 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewart, and Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr.
I remember worrying and worrying that I’d somehow “make my child transgender” by simply telling my child about this option. In the end, by not sharing this possibility with her, all I did was cause us both a lot of unnecessary pain. That’s what the “battle” looked like: Her telling me over and over who she was, and me not listening. I am not saying that your child is transgender. Most children who experiment with gender are not. But I do believe, deep in my bones, that nothing we can do or say will cause them to be trans if they are not, nor to prevent them being trans if they are. When I realized this, a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders: We parents are not in charge of this. We can let this go. Your beautiful child knows (or will figure out) who they are, and will tell you. Take a deep breath, keep listening, keep giving unconditional acceptance and love, and consider offering your child more words and concepts for who he/she/they(?) might be. Your child will tell you.
I hope this is helpful to you. Take it easy on yourself. This isn’t easy for any of us.
Warmest wishes and big hugs,