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Boys, Dresses, and Nail Polish—What’s a Parent to Do?

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Your 4-year-old son tells you that he wants to wear dresses to preschool; should you let him? The New York Times recently weighed in on the issue with the article, “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?” Many parents have had their sons paint their fingernails, pick out pink shirts, or ask for My Little Ponies for Christmas. When this happens, many parents act calm and pretend not to worry that something deeper is brewing beneath the surface. But don’t be fooled, having a son want to act feminine pushes many parents’ buttons. It prompts us to question our son’s sexuality, our own sexuality, our parenting skills, and our social and political views. When it comes to our son wanting to act like a girl, internal fireworks fly.

So when discussing gender identity issues, we need to tread very, very carefully. As hard as it is to separate social and political views from parenting issues, we must. Unfortunately, sexual orientation has become more of a political issue than a personal one, and when that happens, everyone loses. I fear the same is happening with gender identity issues in boys. Opinions are shaped more by political agenda rather than by sound psychology when those who believe that gender confusion is definitely a genetic or hormonal difference, make everyone (including kids) accept this as gospel truth.

The problem is, this never helps parents or the boys who want to wear dresses. When we muddy the issue with social or political agenda, we can’t see the way clear for struggling boys. As a matter of fact, in some political circles, it’s not even OK to say that these boys are “struggling.” We are to say they’re simply acting on natural impulses. Are they? Some are, but many aren’t. They’re just acting like boys. They want to have fun.

One patient of mine wore dresses throughout his preschool and kindergarten years. He ran around his neighborhood in his sister’s dresses, but his mother forbade him from wearing them to school. Some viewed him quizically, but most parents kept their mouths shut. I suppose some parents wondered if he really thought he was a girl.

Several years ago, I saw him for a visit. He was a freshman in college and played hockey for his school. I asked him why he wore dresses in kindergarten. He smile crookedly and said, “Oh. That.” He quieted his voice like someone else was in the room. “See, I hated wearing underwear and putting my sister’s dresses on felt really good.”

Of course. Who would have thought? Certainly not any of the parents watching him run around in purple dresses. Studies show that of the 2-7 % of boys who exhibit feminine behaviors, most don’t go on to believe they are girls. The bottom line is, it is not uncommon for boys to want to act feminine or imitate girls, but it doesn’t mean that they have gender identity issues.

So what becomes of the boys who persist in wanting to be feminine? There are boys who believe that they are girls living in a boy’s body. How does a parent respond to them? First, it is important we not oversimplify the issue by adamantly concluding that the boy really is a girl and the problem is the society who won’t accept him. Allowing a boy to wear dresses to school in first grade because he feels he is a girl sets a boy up for humiliation and bullying. Like it or not, his classmates aren’t ready to be “open” about his issues, and he needs protection. I fear that parents who insist on making their child accepted because it is politically correct to do so only create pain for their kids.

Boys with persistent gender identity issues need help. They need private help from seasoned psychologists and psychiatrists who can help them figure out whether their confusion stems from issues not related to their sexuality. We also oversimplify the problems when we in the medical community insist that gender identity issues stem from “hormonal shifts or genetics.” The truth is, we just don’t know why some boys want to persistently act like girls and until we do know, we need to resist pushing any political agenda and make sure we protect our kids.

What do you think? Does your son want to wear dresses?

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