Last month you posted about gender identity and suggested as parents, we celebrate our kids and give them space to be who they are. I agree with this, but my five year old daughter has always been a real tomboy and seems more comfortable with her brothers than with the girls in her class and now with all the Caitlin/Bruce Jenner stuff, I’m worried. What if she’s transgender? Or what if she’s not, but we’re so progressive with her that we make her transgender? I feel like I don’t know how to deal with this. Any advice?
Signed, Even More Confused
Dear Even More Confused,
The most important thing I read in your question is how passionately you want to do right by your daughter. She is lucky to have such a loving and concerned mother. The first thing I want you to do is take a nice, slow, deep breath. Parenting is really hard, but we’re going to simplify this one and make your job a whole lot easier.
Now, I want to address one part of your question: “What if we make her transgender?” You do not have the power to do that. In the same way you cannot turn a child’s brown eyes blue or their skin a new and different shade. They are who they are. What you do have the power to do is create a safe environment for them to feel confident and happy about who they are.
Your first job is to celebrate your daughter. You mention she is a tomboy, which for me brings up a picture of her climbing trees, preferring short hair and pants, and maybe being a more physical kid. I suggest you start to describe things in gender neutral ways. Instead of the phrase “Man up” (which I hear a lot), you might say, “Be brave” or “Be accountable.” Instead of saying “He cried like a little girl,” you might say “He got very sad and cried.” If your kids make sweeping gender stereotypes, you can gently challenge them. For example, if they say, “Pink is a girl color” you might respond with, “Yeah, some girls like pink. But I know some boys who like pink a lot, too.”
Be honest with yourself about your gender biases. We often compliment girls on being pretty, kind, and polite and compliment boys on being strong, tough, and athletic. Make an effort to compliment your daughter on her athleticism, her bravery, her strength, and her speed, as well as her beauty, her kindness and her manners. Compliment your boys in the same way. Let go of those biases and make a point with all of your children to highlight their sensitivity, their vulnerability, their intellect, and their power. Instead of often grouping things into “that’s a boy thing” or a “girl thing,” you can focus on individual preferences and characteristics: “That’s a Brian thing,” and “that’s a Jenny thing.”
Allow your daughter to dress as she likes, and wear her hair as she likes. Again, let go of the notion that girls wear dresses and boys wear pants, or that boys have short hair and girls have long hair. Don’t force a dress if she doesn’t like them, even on Grandma’s birthday. Dressing up means nice clothes and clean hair, so what works for the boys should work for her, too. If she says pants are “boy clothes,” I would gently challenge her in this way: “Huh, it seems to you like pants are boy clothes. I know lots of girls and women who like to wear pants. Can pants be for both boys and girls?” At five, kids are trying to make sense of the world, and categorizing things is part of that process. You want to give her the room to experience herself and others with the widest lens possible, and not feel limited with ideas like “Boys play outside and girls play inside” or “Boys wear pants and girls wear dresses.” Her style may change over time, or she may be showing you a preference that will endure. At five, you have many years to see how she grows and changes.
Next, I want you to pay attention to how your daughter talks about herself. I’m going out on a limb, because you didn’t indicate your daughter was giving you any of these kind of clues, but for the sake of covering some of your fears, let’s run through some what-ifs. If she says things like, “I wish I was a boy,” then your job is to get curious. Remain calm and simply say, “Tell me about that.” You may find out she thinks boys have it easier, or get all the good stuff. (I know I’ve wished I was a man, simply to save myself 40 minutes of prep time in the morning). Or you may hear something like, “Because I am a boy” or “Because I feel like a boy.” If she is able to express herself in this way, your job is not to convince her that she’s not, or to decide she needs a new name and identity right then and there. Your job is to create a safe environment for her to explore this sense of herself. Many kids go through phases where they try out different aspects of themselves.
We have worked with quite a few parents who weren’t sure how to respond to a child’s expression of themselves as gender atypical. We love when parents are interested in responding to their kids’ needs in the healthiest ways possible, and we always end up asking them to slow down and let their child lead the pace of exploration. It is not your responsibility to figure out if your child is transgender. Your responsibility is to create an environment where your daughter feels safe enough to explore who she is and be honest with her family about what she learns about herself. As her parent, you are going to help her make sense of herself in the world, but you want it to be her sense of herself, not some version you felt compelled to figure out for her at five. Sending all of your children the message that you love and accept them unconditionally is very important. And be aware that you don’t send the message that non-normative presentations are defects that you would love them in spite of. Saying, “Yep, girl or boy, tall or short, funny or serious, I love all the parts of you” is a very different message than “I would love you no matter what, even if you were transgender.”
In short, love your daughter. Be curious with her. Let your relationship with her be a safe, loving mirror that reflects back your joy and excitement about who she is. I would encourage you to quiet the fear that has risen up from the recent focus on transgender issues. I find when we make decisions from a place of fear, the result is often clumsy and messy. Focus on the abundant love you have for your family, and home in on the opportunities you have to help each of your children confidently explore and embrace who they are.
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.