Hi Dr. Meg,
I have a four-year-old son who only likes to play with girls and also likes to dress up like a princess (in his sister’s dress up clothes). But he also goes crazy and wants to wrestle with me at times, I’m just wondering if this is anything I should worry about in terms of future gender confusion?
Thanks and God bless,
No, your son sounds like a lot of fun and seems to be a boy who is very comfortable in his own skin. Unfortunately, with attention mounting on gender identity issues (i.e. Bruce Jenner), parents and children alike are overly concerned that any sign of masculinity in girls or femininity in boys indicates a serious issue. Here’s what every parent reading this needs to know: 97-99% of children who show signs of either of these have no gender identity issues.
I have a patient who, at 5 years of age, wore his sisters’ dresses around his neighborhood for an entire year (his mother let him wear them only at home, not school). His mother rode this phase out and didn’t make a big deal of it. He became a star hockey player in his teens and when he was twenty-two, I asked him why he wore dresses when he was young. His response was great. He said, “Dr. Meeker, at that age, I hated underwear and running around in dresses felt great!”
Many times we parents over-read our children and their behaviors. This boy’s mother could have dragged him to his doctor and asked for genetic testing and psychological evaluation but fortunately, she didn’t. He eventually grew comfortable wearing underwear and put pants on!
One of my daughters decided when she was 11 that boys had life much better than girls. While I was away on a trip, she convinced her father to take her to a barber and chop off her hair. Then she wanted a border of fighter planes on her bedroom walls so I put one up. In fact, one boy in her class thought that she was male. After a year or so, she decided to give this up. She is now very feminine and getting married soon.
Our culture is so obsessed with sexuality, sexual identity and gender identity issues that we have lost our bearings. The reality is, according to the CDC that less than 3% of the population in the US is homosexual and an even smaller percent is transgender. But advocates for the LGBT community, in their fervor to gain acceptance for them, discuss sexual and gender identity issues over and over. I understand this but I think that we must be very, very careful. The sexuality of a child is beautifully complex and takes years to fully develop. In fact, the best developmental psychologists say that a child’s sexuality isn’t fully developed until he or she is in their early twenties. What this means is that an eleven year old who says that he is gay should be embraced with love, care and caution. He needs time to sort out his sexuality and should never have someone force him to rubber stamp himself.
Concerning gender identity issues, again, these are complex. A very small minority of children live with a sense that they are living in someone else’s body. This is very different from a child who embraces both masculine and feminine characteristics. Children who feel that they are a girl in a boy’s body or vice versa, need serious help, support and love to sort this out. I strongly disagree with those in the medical profession who advocate hormone therapy and surgery for children. Slapping a simple solution on a complex problem can bring irreversible harm to the child.
Here are a few simple rules that parents can follow if a child comes to them and says that they may be gay, bisexual or transgender.
Hear them out. Listen attentively to their thoughts and feelings. Children who feel that they are in one of these groups may feel awkward, unaccepted and psychologically very stressed. So ask them to tell you why they feel that they are in one of these categories.
Don’t overreact. Parents tend to act disappointed or shocked when a child tells them about their orientation. Try very hard not to communicate either of these because this will make the child feel more isolated and he will distance himself further from you. This is the last thing you want to happen because you want to remain your child’s advocate.
Never shame your child. Before a child tells a parent what he thinks about himself, he already knows how his parent feels about it. If a parent strongly disagrees with homosexuality, children know this before they say anything so the last thing you need to do is remind them of your feelings. This only causes kids to feel ashamed and most already do.
Give the child and yourself time to think and breathe. Sometimes parents become frightened and rush to “change” a child. Don’t do this. Here’s what I tell kids in my practice who tell me that they are gay, bisexual or transgender. “OK, tell me why you feel this way.” Then I tell them that I will help them with this. Additionally, I tell then that their sexuality and gender identity is only a part of who they are as a human being and that my job as their advocate is to help them first develop their identity as a wonderful human and then second, to help them sort through their feelings/beliefs about their sexuality over the ensuing years, not months.
Tell them, “No Sex.” I tell LGBT kids that I treat them exactly as I do straight kids. That is, they should not be sexually active. Why? Because according to the CDC, starting sex in your teen years is high-risk stuff. Over 20 million Americans every year contract a new STD and almost half are kids! So, no matter what they feel or who they are attracted to, no sex. Period.
Don’t let conversations become too narrow. Often parents and kids hone in on the sexual or gender identity issue and this dominates the relationship. Don’t let this happen. Because our culture is so eager to rubber stamp our kids with a sexual label, parents, teachers and children do this way too early. DON’T fall into this trap or let this topic dominate your conversations. Regardless what your feelings are about homosexuality and transgender identities, talk about everything – not just these tough issues.
Our children are growing up in a tough world. Most parents won’t have to use the above tools because the reality is, as I said earlier, the overwhelming majority of children grow up to be heterosexual. But if you read the newspapers, watch sitcoms, movies or listen to music, you would come to believe that about 25 % of the population is LGBT. Most children, like your son Paul, simply like to experiment with their feminine and their masculine sides.