The Moment I Knew My Son Was Different

(originally published on The Huffington Post)

The year was 2010, and my youngest son was 4. I felt that I shouldn’t have to justify why I thought it was okay for him to wear a princess costume whenever he felt like it. But, I found that I often did, if only to placate the masses. Perhaps, I thought, it could even enlighten someone. I thought if I could get just one person to see what is true, what is healthy, and what is good about harmless self-expression, I would be more at peace.

Coincidentally, around the same time that my son was heavily into princess play and dress-up, there was all this controversy going around about little boys who like to dress up in princess costumes. For example, there was the mother (Sarah Manley, a mom blogger) who allowed her preschool son to dress up like Daphne from Scooby-Doo for Halloween and created all kinds of uproar surrounding her related blog post, “My Son is Gay.” But the first line, if people actually read it, continued the story to say, “…or he’s not. I don’t care. He is still my son. And he is 5. And I am his mother. And if you have a problem with anything mentioned above, I don’t want to know you.” I was fist-bumping her from my sofa as I read those words that rang so true to me.

Before that, though, there was the mom who got tired of others picking on her son who dubbed himself a “Princess Boy” and she decided to write a children’s book about acceptance. We bought the book right away. My son, who’s now 10 years old, still reads it. To date, that book has sold millions upon millions of copies, and its author, (the Princess Boy’s mother) has become an internationally renowned speaker, speaking at schools worldwide, as well as corporations, government groups, universities, and parenting organizations. She is credited with providing thought-provoking perspectives and relevant tools for change, which is exactly what she sought out when she went public with their story. In my mind, that lady – Cheryl Kilodavis – began this very important conversation back in 2009, when I first heard her speak on the Today Show, and realized I was not alone. The timing was perfect. Never in my life was I so happy to find that there were other moms going through the same thing as me.

I didn’t know the correct word for it back in 2009, but I knew my son was different. Since the time he began verbalizing his wants, and engaging in independent play, he was always fascinated with all things poofy, sparkly, and pink. It started out as a fascination with admiring, feeling, and then wearing his older sister’s ballet costumes – for the simple reason he thought they were “pretty.” He never showed the same level of interest in his older brother’s trucks or army men. We all just thought it was a phase.

By age three, not only did he prefer playing princess dress-up to anything else, but further, re-enacting scenes from his favorite movies, such as The Wizard of Oz, or Alice in Wonderland. He always wanted to play the leading lady. We still thought it was a phase he would grow out of, but I knew with a background in psychology that it was best practice not to stifle his creativity. I also refused to tell him, “you can’t; that’s for girls,” because I have always disagreed with gender stereotypes. We let our daughter play with her older brother’s toys equally. Why wouldn’t we extend the same courtesy to our sons? In our house we didn’t have “boy toys” or “girl toys.” We just had toys, and everyone was welcome to play.

There wasn’t anything my husband and I did wrong in our parenting to “cause” this. I mean, of course we made – and continue to make – mistakes. But what I’m alluding to is that we did not inject him at birth with a preference for the color pink. As much as we dislike gender stereotypes, we still did our due diligence in buying him toy trucks and plastic tool sets. Because that’s what society dictates we do. But he was never interested. We wondered why he didn’t play like most boys his age. “Why is he so gentle? Why won’t he ram the fire truck into the wall like his brother did? Why do his eyes glaze over with boredom at the sight of wooden train tracks and trains? Why is he building intricate bird houses and fancy glass slippers out of the Legos instead of spaceships and airplanes?” These were questions my husband and I wondered for a long time.

After much reading, research, and mom blogging, I was steered towards another blog by Lori Duron (Raising my Rainbow), about a mom & dad in California raising a gender creative son, about the same age as my own son. It dawned on me then that the correct term for my son was something I have come to learn much about: “Gender Creative.” It’s not a mental disorder. It’s not dysphoria. There is no confusion or dissatisfaction involved. My son is (at this point) very happy with being a boy and having boy parts. He simply prefers all the things that are marketed to girls.

As he went through 2nd – 4th grade and social interactions became more difficult, we discussed it. Often. During those 3 years, he was exposed to various reading materials, documentaries about transgender or gender non-conforming kids, videos, and even a respected pediatric psychologist. By the beginning of 4th grade, he told us himself that he was gender creative, what I knew all along but never said out loud to him. He said, “I’m just gender creative. I don’t want to be a girl. I just like all girl stuff.” And it really is that simple… And it really is that complicated.

Before he realized it, I remember the day it occurred to me, like a light bulb over my head. It happened one morning when I had all three kids in Target to spend their Christmas gift cards. My daughter, who was six at the time, went to the little girl aisle. She surveyed the newest fashion for Barbies, the pet horses, the miniature cooking gadgets. My oldest son, nearly eight at the time, went right for the little boy aisle. He studied the complex Lego structures, the alien slime, the Star Wars figurines. Naturally, I took my youngest son, then three, to the little boy aisle. As my older two feasted their eyes on fun and exciting new possibilities, my youngest sat down on the cold hard floor, played with the Velcro on his shoes, and seemed completely detached.

I tried showing him everything – all the boy stuff at his level: Jumbo blocks. Matchbox cars. Beginner’s Lego sets. These items evoked not so much as a glance. On a whim, I asked, “Honey, which aisle would you like to look at?” Thrilled that he even had a choice, he stood straight up and led me by the hand to the girl’s aisle containing princess playthings. He made a beeline to an oval, pink, full-sized mirror that lit up, and with the push of a button declared, “You are the fairest one of all!” His response was immediate: “Yes. Mommy, this is it. Please can I have this? It’s the only thing I want!” His eyes were pleading and full of innocence. It was a done deal.

At the time, in a moment’s realization, I thought, “My son is a princess boy. It all makes sense now. Okay, I can get on board with this. I’m just going to not make a big deal of it, and follow his lead.” It took a little bit longer to get my husband and my son’s older siblings on the same page, though. They had already been shaped by society’s mandates for gender stereotypes. But once they got on board with it, they got on full speed ahead.

I find it hard to believe that there are parents who would stifle this innocent creativity in their children. But they do exist, in spades. They have an unfortunate thought process born out of naiveté . They mistakenly believe that by allowing their son to engage in “girly” play, he will effectively “turn gay,” or that he’s confused about his gender identity and on his way to anatomical reassignment surgery. Does wearing a pink tutu make a boy gay? No. What does? Having sexual interest in the same sex. Simply put. And I can assure people that my young son, no matter how wise, is still innocent enough that he’s not sexualizing things at this stage of his life. It’s coming soon, I know. But the bigger question to me is, why is this even a concern? Whether he grows up to be gay/bi/straight/trans/questioning/queer – or whatever – my love is unconditional.

Sometimes people think my son will be bully bait if he gets to “act like a girl.” This ignorant mindset that boys can’t play with girls toys is nothing but sexism, and it doesn’t come from other kids – at least not at age three, or even five, or six. The problem doesn’t seem to happen until they go home and tell their parents what they played.

I learned the hard way that in the world of a little boy’s parents, playing princess dress up (which they both enjoyed doing), was akin to having sexual assault happen on my watch. However, I was watching them the whole time, and at no point did either boy remove his pants or underwear, or touch one another. They wore the princess dresses over their boy clothing. And they had a lot of fun, for hours. They even ate lunch in those dresses, and didn’t take them off until the end of the day. No one was hurt in the process.

My gender creative son is now ten, and over the years I’ve heard it all. Most people seem to have a concern over my son’s safety and emotional well-being; that he’ll get picked on in school. That’s all fine and good, but I can’t guarantee anyone that my son will always be safe physically and emotionally. Nobody can guarantee that for their child. As much as I want to hold him in my arms tightly, forever and ever, and never let go, I can’t guarantee that he won’t one day be riding in a car and get killed in an accident. I can’t guarantee that kids won’t pick on him for any number of reasons – whether it’s his new sparkly pink twinkle toe sneakers, or his choice in reading partners at school on a particular day. Unfortunately, I can’t guarantee any of it.

I feel that not wanting your son to feel free to express himself honestly – by wearing a dress which makes him feel pretty – for fear of his being picked on in school is at best a defense mechanism to hide the adult’s discomfort. What it’s really about is the adult’s unresolved issues with gender stereotypes. It’s about the adult not being comfortable with a boy’s effeminate tendencies. It’s about the adult squirming in his chair when he sees his male child giggling like a girl. It’s about the adult feeling the hair rise on her neck when her son twirls around like a supermodel. And that very adult problem should not be the innocent child’s shame to bear.

It’s about fear, and I’m tired of living in fear. Quite frankly, so is my son, and this is the very reason he’s open and out about exactly who he is, and the reason why I write about it (with his knowledge and permission). This doesn’t make us very popular, because we are letting ourselves be vulnerable enough to be authentic. I think that too many people in this world cannot embrace vulnerability. And to me, living authentically is way more important than fitting in, or living status quo. My family knows other kids will exclude and insult, and it will most likely get worse before it gets better. In light of that, as a parent, it is my duty to make my child feel so loved, so appreciated, so accepted for who he is, so that when he does encounter people who are intolerant of differences, he can hopefully have the inner confidence to combat the insults with something enlightening or educational.

As parents, we should be equipping our children with the self-confidence it takes to be brave enough to express themselves, as long as nobody is getting hurt in the process. Guess what happens when you make your innocent little preschool boy feel shame for playing a natural and normal developmentally appropriate game of dress up? He learns disgrace and embarrassment (which, by the way, are not developmentally appropriate feelings for a preschooler.) Guess what happens when you deny your young son that pretty pink thing he wants to buy with his own birthday money? You have taught him confusion, when he was just a moment ago oblivious to the skewed gender roles of our society.

At my son’s fifth birthday party, one of the gifts he received was a Dorothy costume, complete with ruby slippers. None of his friends thought this was odd at the time. My son had wanted this costume for a year. I saw the glimmer of excitement in his eye after he opened it. But, I watched closely as he became aware that a few adults in the room were chuckling, joking lightly about this gift. As I focused back on my son I saw wisdom beyond his years take over his little face as he gently laid the costume and tissue paper aside. (Later on, when it was just him and his friends playing, they all raided his costume box and traded princess gowns – boys and girls alike – and my son ran around the front yard, rockin’ that Dorothy costume and ruby heels, and he kept it on until bedtime.)

Later that night, though, as my husband was putting him to bed, I cried alone in my bedroom because my child was wise enough to know that some adults are uncomfortable with his choices, even though he is okay with them.

Do you know what it feels like to have to defend your child’s playthings? Do you know how it undermines me when you ask what my child wants for his birthday, and I answer “princess stuff,” and you refuse to let that be the answer? Do you know how much it hurts me to know, because you can’t see past the issues of fear and embarrassment, that you will never truly appreciate the amazingly creative, honest, feeling, thinking, loving, sparkling joy that is my son?

Our job as parents is to help our children love and accept themselves, and take pride in themselves, so that when the insults and harsh blows of life do come, they will know to be strong at their inner core. Even when the teasing or drama wears them down on the outside, they’ll know that at least home and heart are safe havens. My hope is that instead of rolling over and playing dead, they will one day fight back. Fight back for what is right, what is true, what is vulnerable, and what is authentic. Teach them to take pride in their whole being – each harmless quirkiness included. That is our responsibility. Until we equip our children with pride, unconditional love, and freedom, and release our own issues of discomfort or embarrassment, our children will never reveal who they really are.

Charlie's favorite toy aisle

My son, shopping on his favorite aisle.  

Charlie with red slippers

By the end of 3rd grade, this was still his favorite toy aisle.

 

 

 

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