Parents Should Let Children Be Their Gender-Nonconforming Selves

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A couple days ago, the New York Times ran a really interesting column by the young-adult-fiction author Lisa Selin Davis headlined “My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s a Tomboy.” Davis writes that, as the headline suggests, her daughter “wears track pants and T-shirts. She has shaggy short hair (the look she requested from the hairdresser was ‘Luke Skywalker in Episode IV’). Most, but not all, of her friends are boys. She is sporty and strong, incredibly sweet, and a girl.” Davis is frustrated by some questions her daughter keeps getting over and over and over: According to Davis, “she is asked by the pediatrician, by her teachers, by people who have known her for many years, if she feels like, or wants to be called, or wants to be, a boy.”

Davis rightfully points out that this comes from a good place. “In many ways, this is wonderful: It shows a much-needed sensitivity to gender nonconformity and transgender issues. It is considerate of adults to ask her — in the beginning.” But on the other hand, “when they continue to question her gender identity — and are skeptical of her response — the message they send is that a girl cannot look and act like her and still be a girl.”

For anyone who has been following the national conversation about gender-dysphoric and genderqueer and trans kids and how to best help them — I’ll just use “gender-questioning kids” for short — this is a fascinating issue. It is very, very common to read articles about gender-questioning kids in which their parents seem very hung up on their kids’ play and appearance preferences, in which they seem to be assuming that a girl who intensely likes “boy things,” or vice versa, couldn’t really be a girl.

I wrote up one such example, from a BBC interview with a gender nonbinary child and their mom, back in September — it was clear from the interview that Mom’s view that her child, a natal female, couldn’t be a girl stemmed from their play and toy choices. “Leo requested Barbies one year, and so we and other members of the family bought these dolls,” the mom told the BBC. “Leo just never got into playing with them, and even up until quite recently, whenever we’ve said, Look, do you want to get rid of these? Leo’s always said, No, I need to own them — I need to have these. And I wonder whether this is where that nonbinary thing is coming out, where Leo … is still struggling, actually, ‘Am I a girl or am I a boy?’ when in fact Leo is not a girl or a boy. Leo is definitely not a girl, Leo is more boy than girl …” In other words, Leo couldn’t decide whether to play with boy toys or girl toys, so Leo probably isn’t a boy or a girl. And is “definitely not a girl.”

That’s an unfortunately common form of parental logic these days, and as Davis suggests it isn’t great for kids. In much the same way we wouldn’t want a trans kid to be asked over and over if really they are their natal sex rather than the sex they identify as — a very common occurrence in big chunks of the country, it should be said — it can’t be great for a cis kid’s emerging sense of self and gender expansiveness to be exposed endlessly to the skepticism about their “real” identity because of their play and dress preferences.

Over the last year, as part of a longer-term story I’m working on, I’ve had some great in-depth conversations with clinicians who work with gender-questioning kids. And one message that has come through again and again is that parents just aren’t great with ambiguity. Oftentimes they arrive at a psychologist’s or psychiatrist’s office wanting to figure out who their kid really “is” as quickly as possible, whereas from the clinician’s point of view that actually isn’t the point: Rather, the point is to get to know their patients, figure out what’s bothering them, and what can be done to alleviate that strain or pain.

A vital part of that process is to understand how much of a child’s distress stems from genuine, physical gender dysphoria, and how much of it stems from the strain of society’s endemic gender-role pressures. Every gender clinician I have ever spoken with has acknowledged that kids, especially younger ones for whom gender is an extremely fluid concept, do sometimes question their gender simply because they are so relentlessly buffeted by certain gender-role expectations. But if they aren’t physically uncomfortable with their bodies — if their bodies themselves aren’t causing them distress — the best bet is for them to be simply helped along in the journey toward realizing that it’s okay to be a boy who is gentle and softspoken or a girl who likes sports. The story is different for kids for whom the distress runs deeper than that, who really don’t feel comfortable in their bodies — some of those kids might eventually come to identify as trans, because what they’re experiencing isn’t just a reaction to gender-role expectations, but rather something that can’t be “fixed” just by expanding their internal gender schemas.

This stuff gets really complicated sometimes, and dysphoria itself can be a difficult thing to untangle fully. Gender clinicians can work with patients for months or even years to help them come to better understand themselves and, in some cases, make the decision to transition. It really isn’t a simple process in the majority of cases, nor should anyone treat it that way.

So overall, it’s really important for parents to understand the vital difference between gendered play and style preferences and gender dysphoria. If a kid is a tomboy or “girly” boy who doesn’t seem to have physical distress with their body, that’s just who they are — and that’s fine! They, like trans kids, deserve every opportunity to grow and explore who they are without parents constantly questioning their identity or implying to them they’re doing something wrong.

It’s understandable how we’ve gotten here, back to a distressingly familiar-feeling terrain where parents are insisting that kids fit into narrow gender roles that correspond with their sex — again, it’s a side effect of the important, noble impulse to support trans kids. But as Davis nicely explains, this shouldn’t be an either/or thing: “I want trans kids to feel free and safe enough to be who they are. I also want adults to have a fluid enough idea of gender roles that a 7-year-old girl can dress like ‘a boy’ and not be asked — by people who know her, not strangers — whether she is one.” Amen.

Parents Should Let Kids Be Their Gender Nonconforming Selves