Wonderful 4 Year Old Son Likes Girly Stuff - No Problem! Right?
March 12, 2013 2:32 PM   Subscribe

My wonderful 4-year old son wants lots of girly things. I want nothing more than to support him and help him grow into the person he wants to be. My only question is, is there anything that a loving, responsible, progressive parent should do to protect him from hurt, possible bullying etc.

He wanted his finger nails painted, we did it, he wanted pink tights, we got them for him, he wants hair clips, we plan on getting them for him. He wants all of these things pretty badly - they aren't things he mentioned once and then dropped. It is interesting because it has given me an opportunity to really examine my own feelings on this in a "rubber meets the road" kind of way. Bottomline: I really don't care. I want him to be happy, fulfilled, etc. If that is wearing pink tights and hair clips, more power to him.

But, I am a little bit concerned (and no, I don't think I'm using this just as a cover to really feeling uncomfortable about it myself) about kids making fun of him and eventually bullying him. When all is said and done, I think I ultimately take the position that: he is only 4, he may not even want to do this kind of boundary pushing into the age where he's going to face more bullying, and, even if he does, I know that parents can't really protect their kids completely from that kind of thing. I have ultimately concluded (though I welcome your ideas on this) that the best thing I can do for him is love him completely and support him in whatever expressions of himself he wants to make. When he does encounter mean kids or bullying, I can continue to support him. I'm not naive about the nature of the world - I know he'll face those things, but he's going to learn eventually that there are mean people in the world - at least he'll know he has his parents in his corner.

Ultimately my question is - does this sound right? Any other thoughts on ways to approach this that both support him and, in a loving, constructive way, minimize the pain that may come from his choosing to buck traditional gender confines? (I acknowledge he's only 4 and it is a complicated question of whether he is bucking gender confines or that he simply likes pink things and doesn't have any concept of the gender implications).
posted by stewieandthedude to Human Relations (19 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
My daughter is 4-1/2 and I see plenty of boys her age who like girly things (such as dressing up in princess outfits) or hanging out with girls instead of boys. Their parents just seem to go with the flow, and at this age it doesn't seem (at least as far as I've observed) that there is any teasing from other kids (however, this is a Montessori environment and it seems kids in Montessori do less of those types of negative things). He might change later, and if he doesn't, I presume that some teasing might start to happen. Then you can buy him a great book called The Sissy Duckling to make him feel better about it (or, you could buy the book before any teasing starts to happen).
posted by Dansaman at 2:37 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

It is totally typical for kids to do this. Your son is likely not as much of an outlier as you may think. Just make sure that whatever day care or preschool program he is in doesn't rigidly segregate activities based on gender. You can revisit this question if and when his rejection of traditional gender roles becomes a problem. Don't make it into one!
posted by Wordwoman at 2:44 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

When my boy was 4 he liked the booster seat with flowers all over it and he wanted the pink cup at dinner and he was perfectly happy playing dolls and watching princess movies and all that with his sister.

He got some teasing from kids in his preschool carpool and in that instance we were able to speak up and say that there's nothing wrong with boys liking flowers (and of course there's not). We taught him that other kids might say that things like that are only for girls but that if he liked it that was perfectly fine. So when he did hear that from other kids he spoke up and didn't feel embarrassed or wrong. And he knew not to make fun of other kids in that way too.

He is now 6 and has largely grown out of those preferences. I have no doubt that other kids' perceptions of his preferences had something to do with that but the passage of time did it too. You may find it to be a similarly short phase.
posted by AgentRocket at 2:47 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I said something similar to this once before in a thread on the Blue and got blasted for it, but I still stand by it...

When I was growing up, I did a lot of "nonstandard" things. My parents were pretty much on board with what I did, but I did get told every once in a while that [choice] could be cause to get picked on by the other kids, and occasionally the reason behind it.

A later example, even though I remember even back when I was little: I cut my hair really short in 9th grade, and my dad warned me, hey, if you do that, some of the kids might think you like girls. And I told him I didn't care. And he said "good."

Anyway, what happened is that I went ahead and did what I wanted to do anyway, and got made fun of for a lot of the things I did, but I was prepared for it. I was expecting it, I knew that the people saying mean stuff were morons, and I kept doing my thing regardless.

I think that prepping your kid to know that some people might think X Y or Z about him if he does A B or C, and that he shouldn't be made to feel bad about it because those people are small-minded. Remind him how much you love him, and remind him that the people who love him don't care what he likes or how he looks just so long as he's happy and kind to others.

Honestly, even if your kid were just your run-of-the-mill average kid, and not into pink tights, I think that's a good thing to remind him. People find all sorts of stupid reasons to hate on each other.
posted by phunniemee at 2:49 PM on March 12, 2013 [44 favorites]

Have you heard of the term "pink boys"? If not, it might be a useful idea to google. I'm on my phone but if nobody else posts some more specific resources , I'll try to remember to come back later.
posted by barnone at 2:53 PM on March 12, 2013

I think if you're painting his nails and he's going to school and there isn't already bullying -- or he didn't very suddenly back down from wanting "girly" stuff -- you probably don't have much to worry about.

In terms of future hypothetical bullying, I think that you should let him take the lead on this. The great thing about you enabling him to be the person he wants to be is that it will help him have a stronger sense of himself, which will help him to know the right thing to do further down the line if teasing happens.

When I was in middle school, I developed a sudden obsession with Sci Fi. My parents were not supportive of this -- in fact, they led the charge of "people will make fun of you", "this is geeky", "that's what happens when you talk about Star Trek at school all day", "this isn't really something girls your age are supposed to be into", etc. This made it much, much harder to stand up for myself because the two people who were supposed to have my back the hardest made it known that the bullies were right.

It seems to me that it's a lot easier to be yourself, and stand up for yourself, when you have people standing behind you telling you that you're OK.
posted by Sara C. at 3:18 PM on March 12, 2013 [19 favorites]

I'm not a parent or at all qualified to answer this question but this story from the Moth is wonderful: Oliver's Pink Bicycle.
posted by carolr at 3:23 PM on March 12, 2013

Best answer: If you're interested in checking out current academic research about stuff like this, one of the current terms of art is "gender fluid." There are also some useful papers out there that can help parents find that supportive-but-not-smothering-while-not-jumping-to-conclusions sweet spot, since the support you might give a kid who might be trans someday could be different from how you support a kid who likes dresses and butterflies but strongly identifies as a boy, etc.

One point that I've found helpful is that, according to current surveys, something like 50% of US women self-report having been a tomboy at some point growing up. That most communities would find this unremarkable, but tend to freak out when a boy does the reverse, is a fact that probably contains enough embedded cultural bias to back up a few hundred Gender Studies dissertations.

Feel free to Mefi-mail me if you want to talk more; I have no problem talking about my son but I don't think it's fair to do so on the "public record" when he's not old enough to properly consent.

I will mention one other thing, though -- my wife finally trained me to stop saying "I don't care," which I was using (as you do) to indicate that I'm fully supportive regardless of identity/expression/gender/etc, but which is really easy for a kid to hear as "I don't care about this big important thing you're working through," which isn't true at all.
posted by range at 3:43 PM on March 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I think the most important thing you can do is instill the belief that you love him, he is perfect the way he is, it doesn't matter what anyone thinks, he should be himself, etc. etc. and also that he should be open with you and talk to you about anything that's troubling him (like bullying). Basically, just be there for him. Kids always face teasing at some point. I'd be more concerned about middle school/high school when kids are becoming adults and can be more vicious/deliberate in their mean behavior. If he is gay, I'd keep in mind it's not the same as when you or I were in high school and he will have allies to turn to. Basically, I wouldn't worry too much. Just listen to your son and watch him to see if he shows any signs of being depressed or bullied and then you can worry. You sound like a wonderful parent.
posted by AppleTurnover at 3:50 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Similar to carolr, I don't have practical experience but wanted to share the words of a parent who does: a mother whose son dressed as Scooby-Doo's Daphne for Halloween. I [heart] your attitude about this.
posted by cirocco at 4:40 PM on March 12, 2013

your post was so touching! i have so many feelings!

you're doing it right. i grew up with a gender-non-conforming sibling, and i was also somewhat gender non-conforming in my own way i suppose. the moments our parents had our back were the best -- when they didn't, it was the absolute worst. so it was (1) yessss, these folks love me no matter what! or (2) the heartbreaking anguish of feeling like your "people" are also bullies. those are the two things that i remember most about it.

so if you unequivocally have their back -- you're doing the best you can. i bet your kid will know that, and will undoubtedly remember feeling very loved.
posted by crawfo at 4:50 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

My son is almost 4 and also loves painting his nails and wearing bows to school. I didn't tell him in advance that he might be bullied about it specifically, because I wanted (for better or worse) to portray these things as perfectly normal and not worth remarking upon.

I do, however, always tell him that if people were mean for any reason he can always tell me.

He's told me a few times that other children have said things like "purple is for girls" (or "swords are for boys", when he's fighting imaginary Cybermen.) I always tell him that they're wrong, and purple and swords are for everyone to enjoy. That he's free to tell them they're wrong, and keep wearing purple, or stop wearing purple, but that whatever he chooses I love and support him.

Thank you for loving and supporting your son in this.
posted by blue_and_bronze at 5:19 PM on March 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Also sound out family members (and people who are close enough to be quasi-family) ahead of time. I have relatives who are strongly disagree about gender fluidity in children, and are somewhat homophobic. I don't talk about those aspects with them, and when my kids were younger, I made it clear that my kid dressing in pink or wearing perfume was Fine By Us, End Of Conversation. Be prepared to discover unexpected cruelty and kindness - I would trust my kids to one trash-talking relative because fundamentally, they are kind and only ignorent, but not to another who is polite but so judgmental underneath. You have time with a four year old to find the people who will embrace him.

It is also crucial to be the adults who when something homophobic or sexist is said speaks up. Your kids are listening and watching what you do. When you get casual homophobia or judgement, saying calmly and firmly "That's not true, boys and girls can wear any colour they like. Who they are is much more than just being a boy or girl" sort of thing - your kid hears you. You can't always speak up when say Uncle Bob is ranting at the family dinner and it would be a screaming match, but you can talk to your kids afterwards and explain that Uncle Bob was wrong but you had to decide if talking to him would change his mind or just make everyone unhappy.

He sounds lovely, and I hope your family has a warm and supportive community for him to grow up in and be who he is.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:09 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

http://raisingmyrainbow.com/ might be a good read about this.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 6:37 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

There was another question about this issue recently, to give you a few more responses.
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:25 PM on March 12, 2013

What I would watch out for is making sure you aren't pushing him one way or another. You don't want to "typecast" him, because it is almost guaranteed that his fashion preferences will change. And I remember as a youth being mortified at my elders failing to recognize my changing tastes and getting me things that I no longer liked. Keep introducing him to everything, and let him make his choices.
posted by gjc at 8:02 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's the sneers and potential bullying, not the choices he makes, that merit concern. My parents were of the "don't hit back" persuasion when I was a little kid and I listened, and suffered for it. Your kid has to be willing and able to hit back.

The reason it hurts so much to read this is when I was in first grade my parents were dirt-poor but my mom was really good at sewing. I had a pair of patched jeans with kites all over them. She'd put (as I remember from the work) tens of hours, putting kites and their tails all over my jeans and I loved them, but I came home in tears. "The children laughed at my pretty patches." And I wouldn't wear them any more.

Had my parents been as conscious as I think you are, a better conversation would have gone like this:

"The children laughed at my pretty patches."

"Well, do -they- have pretty patches?"


"Do you think people laugh at what they don't understand?"

"I dunno."

"-I- think people laugh when they don't understand."


"Do you like your pretty patches?"


"Then forget about their laughter. They don't have pretty patches, you do."

Lather, rinse, repeat for a while. I wasn't a confident kid, perhaps yours will succeed where I failed and I hope that happens.
posted by jet_silver at 8:20 PM on March 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone. Really great responses. Can I mark them all as "best"? Viggorlijah, I think the point on sounding out family members and making clear to them that supporting him is the only acceptable position is important. The extended family is generally ok, but I think a little more uncomfortable about it than they would like to admit and it occasionally shows.

Thanks for all the good reading resources from lots of you, I'll definitely check them out. I think overall, this definitely confirms my gut instinct that showing unconditional love/support is the key (of course) and not making a bigger deal of it than it needs be. And, I think phunniemee's point about, if the time comes, prepping him to some extent, but making sure he knows we have his back, is helpful too.

I also appreciate range's comment about not saying "i don't care," since, you're right, that isn't at all what I mean. A helpful push.

We're in Portland, OR and he's at a great pre-school and I'm confident they won't tolerate any bullying now, so I feel good there. Definitely his best friend at school is a girl, although he seems to hang out with both boys and girls.

Anyway, he's great and mostly I want to be there for him as much as I can. Thanks for all your great answers.
posted by stewieandthedude at 8:22 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't presume to tell you what to do, because every kid is so different, but my son loves the girly stuff, too, and here's what we've done.

The PC thing to say is, of course, to encourage him to be out and proud, but there is an enormous difference between being 16 and doing so, or even 10 and doing so, and being 4. My son insists that he won't care if kids are making fun of him for wearing a skirt to school, but developmentally, I don't feel at age 4 he has the strong sense of self yet that he would need to not have the teasing create a negative script in his head. I think some of the commenters hear are a bit naive about the likelihood of teasing going on, especially as he gets older. The biggest harasser of my son for girliness has two mommies!

Our compromise is that we buy him all the girly stuff, are very supportive of that, read him all the fun kid's books on gender nonconformity, etc., and he can play with those things when he has friends over, but until he's 13 he can't wear makeup, etc. to school. He knows why we have this rule (we explained in 4-year-old-ese that while he says it wouldn't bother him, we think it really would bother him to have a bunch of kids teasing him.) Once he hits 13, he can go balls-to-the-wall with whatever girly makeup, clothes, jewelry, etc. he chooses, if he's still interested in it at that point.

Important caveat: if my son seemed to be _transgendered_, that would be a whole different ball of wax, but he insists he is a boy who likes girl things, not a girl. I think we have, rather, a young Eddie Izzard on our hands.

I'm sure I will get reamed for saying the above, but in our case I think it would be horribly wrong to just toss our son out into the world with the misperception that the world is farther along than it is, rather than preparing him for the world as it currently exists.

I will conclude by saying this was not an easy decision for us to come to -- my desire to protect my son (since he is _so_ young -- it'll be a different story when he gets older) came into conflict with my desire to contribute to the dismantling of all this gender crap. I can and do do this in many other areas of my life, but won't ask my four year old to carry this burden for me.
posted by ravioli at 12:59 PM on March 13, 2013

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