Dear Dr. Meg,
I have a strong-willed, four-year-old boy, who is an only child. He enjoys playing pretend and dress-up, including dressing up in dresses and pretending to be a girl/princess/queen.
I bought a dress specifically for him, and we frame it as just that, a dress for dress-up. It stays with his other dress-up clothes (not hanging in the closet), and he wears it over his regular clothes. His father does not like him wearing it, but I don’t really see much harm in it.
He also likes to wear one of my dresses, my shoes, and my bag and pretends he’s going to work. Sometimes when I am getting ready in the morning, he wants to play with my makeup (specifically my powder brush).
My question is, did I do the right thing getting him a dress and letting him wear it? Primarily he wears this only at home, but I have let him wear it in the car, and once (over his regular pants and shirt) to school on costume day, just like I’ve let him wear his spiderman costume to school. He still is “George the boy” and doesn’t seem to have any real internal conflict. He goes back and forth with boy/girl personality, which I understand is normal at this age.
As transgenderism and gender fluidity become more common, talked about, and understood, questions like this are common. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that your child is transgender simply because he likes to wear dresses from time to time. But in this case, I don’t think transgender identity is what we’re talking about.
Gender and your child
A child’s gender is different from a child’s sex. Sex is what is assigned at birth based on genitalia. Gender is an internal sense of being male, female, neither or both. Many children will identify their own gender by age three. This doesn’t mean they feel they are that gender. They draw these conclusions based on societal clues about what makes a girl a girl and a boy a boy. Many children will explore expressions of their opposite gender. For example, your son likes to try on dresses and play with your makeup. Some girls might like urinating standing up or wearing boy underwear.
All of this is normal and developmental. It’s tempting to jump to conclusions about our children who are expressing a different gender, but if a child is truly transgender, his or her experience will be different.
Signs that your child may be transgender
Children who are transgender don’t say they want to be a different gender. They say they are a different gender. They feel this as deeply as someone who is cisgender (someone whose assigned sex at birth corresponds with their gender identity) feels about their own gender identity.
As developmental and clinical psychologist Diane Ehrensaft explains, transgender children will be insistent, consistent and persistent about their gender dysphoria.
It doesn’t sound like this is what’s happening with your son. As you said, he’s not expressing distress. He simply wants to dress up. My guess is also that since he spends more time with you than your husband, and he’s an only child, he’s simply dressing up as what he sees the most every day: you.
Children who are truly transgender will continue to insist they are a different gender. It won’t be a phase. It won’t pass. If you give them the opportunity to dress and act as that gender, you might see an entirely different side of them open up.
Gender curiosity that is not necessarily transgender behavior
Many if not most children will participate in behaviors of the other gender. These behaviors do not necessarily mean your child is transgender. They simply suggest your child is getting to know the world around him and exploring what he or she likes to do.
Behaviors that suggest gender curiosity rather than transgenderism include:
- Wearing clothes of the opposite sex
- Playing with toys typically associated with the opposite sex
- Saying, “I wish I was a girl” or “I wish I was a boy”
- Dressing up like a character of the opposite sex for Halloween
What should you do?
The one thing you should not do to your child if he or she is expressing gender curiosity or even suggesting they might be transgender is shame them. This will hurt your bond with your child and can deeply wound your child.
You did do the right thing in buying your son a dress. That would be the opposite of shaming him. You’re telling him he is free to express himself rather than trying to explain to such a young child that he should feel embarrassed about expressing himself.
If your husband doesn’t like that your son is dressing up like a girl on occasion, it’s more an issue with your husband than with your son. Ask him to be curious about his response to seeing his son in a dress. Why doesn’t he like it? What is he afraid of? What messages was he taught when he was younger about his masculinity that may have been harmful?
Shaming your child for showing natural curiosity is far more damaging than simply allowing him to wear a dress, which isn’t a damaging behavior.
If you’re worried about how your community or how his school would respond to him in a dress, you could restrict dress-wearing time to weekends or when you’re on vacation. But don’t worry about it too much, especially what others will think. Most likely, their sons are also expressing curiosity about girls’ clothing.
You said he doesn’t seem to have internal conflict. That’s a great thing to be in tune with. Keep watching that. If he starts using language like, “I am a girl” and becomes consistently persistent and insistent on this, then you will want to consider more seriously whether or not your son is transgender.
While I am not a fan of gender reassignment surgery before adulthood, there are numerous resources available for parents of transgender children, including gender therapists. You can find one near you here.
You’re doing a great job with your son. The fact you are in tune with his internal world and allowing him to express himself tells me he is in great hands. Keep doing what you’re doing. Never shame him. Find an environment where he can most safely express himself and watch for any signs of distress.
Gender has never been straightforward, and in the world we’re living in today, it can feel like it’s getting even more complicated. Don’t worry too much about your son, especially at this young age. Let him explore, let him be curious and let him have fun.