My little boy asked me to buy him a dress. I have questions.
September 12, 2017 6:29 PM   Subscribe

My little boy asked me to buy him a dress. I did. Now, I have questions.

My 5 year old son asked me to buy him a dress with a smiley face on it. So, we looked on line and found an adorable little grey dress with a sequined heart-eyes emoji on it that changes to a crying face emoji when you rub the sequins in the opposite direction. It came today, he wore it all through the afternoon and evening, and he loves it and what the emoji part does. He twirled around in it and even complained a little that it didn't twirl enough. He looked great in it and I loved watching him feel himself in a new way wearing this dress.

That said, my son isn't trans. He's always talked about being a boy and says he loves being a boy, and he loves superhero things and trucks and is athletic and physical, and does other stereotypically "boy" things, and he prefers to hang out with other boys. He loves boy underwear and clothes with dinosaurs and volcanoes on them, and things like this. Anyway, we had a short talk about whether or not he wanted to wear clothes people call "girls clothes" rather than what we call "boys clothes", and he says he just wants to wear both because he loves sparkly stuff and boy clothes don't come with sparkly stuff. I and my husband have zero problem with him doing whatever he wants. I am not surprised by this at all; he's always had this quality about him and it's part of what makes him this amazing little being.

But a friend of mine tonight suggested that I have him wear his dress around the house a few times first, "just us", and then introduce it slowly at school - like, perhaps, have a meeting with his teacher and introduce it to his class in a kind of ritualized way. And she told me a story about a family at another school in our neighborhood who had a really awful experience when the school put a "trans" protocol in place with their child when the child had just worn some girl's clothes to school and was not explicitly wanting to be called by a different name or be treated like a girl, i.e., bathrooms, etc.

So now I am curious about what to do. A wrinkle - we happened upon our neighbors this afternoon while coming into our building. They were locked out of their apartment and the kids came upstairs for a little while why they got the door situation sorted. One of the boys is three weeks younger than my son, and my son, who had been excited to try on the dress which I'd told him had arrived, hurriedly put it in a drawer when we got inside and told me he wanted to be private about putting it on and that he didn't want to wear it while he was with this little neighbor boy. So, I know he feels it's a little "different", a boy wearing a dress, or at least didn't feel comfortable yet with just any friend seeing him in it. I told him we'd do whatever he wanted and we did. After the neighbors left, he immediately put on the dress and wore it all the rest of the afternoon and through dinner up until bath time.

I am a little conflicted about on what to do tomorrow if he wants to wear his dress to school. To me, he's just this little kid who wants to enjoy this fun thing. But I know what people are and I do not want to be naive about how even the most progressive people and places can royally fuck over people who march to the beat of their own drummer. He is very emotionally strong and can stick up for himself, but he is also physically quite small and very sensitive. I don't want him to get hurt.

What do you think? He just started kindergarten this past week. I don't know his teacher yet or even the make up of the class. We live in a super progressive neighborhood, but the other school where the "trans issue" occurred is also here. Any thoughts welcome.
posted by TryTheTilapia to Society & Culture (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Does he even want to wear the dress to school? I didn't hear that in your post. I would talk with him first about what he wants.

I'd also consider getting a sparkly t-shirt he could wear to school too. So that the school doesn't start making assumptions about how to handle it, and so you don't have to bring it up as a thing until such time that you want to.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:50 PM on September 12, 2017 [10 favorites]

I think little kids like to dress up and you shouldn't put too much portent upon what your son does at this age. Nor what other people say.

You should do what is comfortable for you and your family.

I know my babysitter asked about my son's eyes, because he wanted to put on make-up like me, and he often arrived at her house with blue bruised eyes. But he was standing next to me when I was getting ready for work, and of course, he wanted to dab some on.

I'd wait on the skirt until you know it's a thing, it could be dress up play, and take it as it comes. You don't have to do it all at once, and you can figure it out later, if he really wants to do it, sure, but don't push it.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:55 PM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

He hasn't asked to wear it; it's just his habit to wear or bring any new thing he really loves with him for a few days after he gets it. My friend's comment just made me start thinking how to approach it with the school, if necessary. And since I don't know his teacher yet, I don't know what to expect from her. I don't even have her email address yet; our curriculum meeting is tomorrow night and I'll be getting all that info from her then.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 6:56 PM on September 12, 2017

If he didn't want to wear it in front of the neighbour boy, he's probably not looking to wear it at school.

But what I would do next is go out and buy the most boyishy-boy-y-boyful clothes you can find and a bedazzler, some ribbon, some tule etc. Make that spiderman costume (or truck t-shirt, or whatever) sparkle. It will give him some of the sparkly look he wants, without being completely feminine in its signalling.

If you bring this up with the school, my concern would be that they would think your kid is trans and that you're in denial. I don't think that's the case, I'm just saying that's how they might read "my kid wants to wear dresses, but I'm sure he's not trans." I'm not sure how you deal with or prevent that exactly.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:58 PM on September 12, 2017 [20 favorites]

I think your friend is well intentioned but don't let that affect you and your family.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:00 PM on September 12, 2017 [16 favorites]

Your friend sounds like she has a very specific agenda, and I would ignore what she wants. Listen to your boy. Do what he wants.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:02 PM on September 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

You're putting very adult ideas into something that's probably very simple, he just wants to play dress up! My five year old has worn his little sister's Frozen dress because he thought it was funny. He asked me to put blush on him and paint his nails because he saw me doing it to myself and it would never occur to me to tell him that anything is just for girls/not for boys. They're only just starting to get their head around gender at that age, i just think this is play. Give him the dress, let him wear it, tell the teacher it's play too if she asks. I doubt the teacher will bat an eye or look to put him in a box at such a young age.
posted by Jubey at 7:03 PM on September 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

Another possibility--inspired by the simultaneous love of both being a boy and wearing a dress--is that your son is exploring whether cross dressing is right for him. It's not uncommon for cross dressers to understand this aspect of their identity at well under 5 years old.
posted by carmicha at 7:03 PM on September 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would follow his lead on whether or not he wants to try wearing it at school. And if he does, maybe take the teacher aside in the morning to have a quick word about keeping a close watch for any signs of bullying or teasing from the other kids. But I would avoid any kind of ritualized introduction to the class or whatever, because that would likely make it a bigger deal than it needs to be, imo. Kids at that age are pretty flexible in their thinking, and the more you can cultivate an attitude of "yeah sure, some boys wear dresses, so what?" *shrug* in his classmates, the better. Maybe a book donation to the class would be a good idea too?

And though the other school may have jumped the gun a bit over that child your friend told you about (I'm so curious about how this went down), I do think it's overall a positive thing that the school had a presumably supportive and gender-affirming protocol ready to go for transgender kids. I've got a trans/non-binary kid in first grade who transitioned socially two years ago and our school seemed to be coming up with policy from scratch for him.

Feel free to memail me if you want to talk more about it.
posted by fancyoats at 7:08 PM on September 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

My son was younger when he went through his sparkly phase, and he never specifically asked for sparkly clothing (plus we didn't have his sister yet, and his care situation didn't have any sparkly-dress-wearing girls at the time.)

That said, I fed his desire for sparkle with sparkly pencil cases, and an extremely glittery Spider-Man lunchbox to keep his action figures in, and other similar accessories. I'm not suggesting you try to do this as a way to prevent your son from having his dress, just that if his underlying desire is "have sparkle in his life" rather than specifically "wear girls' clothing" it might help to scratch the itch. Glitter glue is an excellent art supply, btw.

Speaking of which, does he have an old t shirt with a design on it that you guys could glitter up together? That could be a really fun art project!
posted by telepanda at 7:30 PM on September 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

Thanks all. I appreciate all the answers so far.

As others have mentioned, I do feel this is more about the sparkles themselves and the costume aspect of things; he had a pair of sparkly jellies he wore when he was two that smelled like strawberries that he loooooooooved, which is what I mean by this being a part of who my son is.

As a side note, my own mother was a teacher for 44 years and it's not a simple matter for our educators. I hadn't yet thought about what something as simple as letting a kid be themselves might present his teacher and/or school, and that's why my friend's remarks got my wheels turning.

I'm going to see where we are in the morning. Whatever happens, I'm just really proud of my kid and glad he knows himself and trusts us enough to be himself.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:55 PM on September 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

If he hid the dress from the neighbor kid, I'm guessing he won't want to wear it to school.

And not specifically about the dress, but once kids are in school (in my experience), they aren't supposed to bring stuff from home anyway.

I'd take a deep breath and take this one step at a time. This doesn't sound like a "thing" just yet.
posted by k8t at 7:59 PM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've just been reading Eddie Izzard's memoir and he talks (jokingly but also not) about being an "Action Trans." And when he was growing up, the word for him was transvestite and he's only come to take on the transgender label. But he is (by his account) heterosexual but has "girl days" and "boy days." And he didn't come out as trans until his 20s but he was interested in dresses and makeup by age 5. But he also played football and did lots of stereotypical boy things growing up. I think it would be an interesting read for you.

Don't jump to conclusions, don't let anyone else steer you in a direction. Clothes are for everyone. Sparkles are for everyone. Pink is for everyone. Long hair is for everyone. Makeup and twirling is for everyone. Just keep that in the front of your mind and take it as it comes.
posted by amanda at 8:19 PM on September 12, 2017 [9 favorites]

If you wanted to bring it up with the teacher, it could be to share what you've taught at home. "Hey, so Son just got this great new dress, which we love and he loves. In our house we try to teach that everyone gets to make their own clothing choices, and that boys can wear dresses and girls can wear pants, because all clothes are for everyone and that's what's fair. I'm not expecting any issues, but if it does come up, can I count on you to reinforce that message? Or should I let him know you might say something different?"
posted by samthemander at 8:25 PM on September 12, 2017 [25 favorites]

If he does wear the sparkles to school, pack a backup outfit just in case he decides to change during the day. Make sure he knows he has the option of the backup outfit. Since he packed the sparkles away once the neighbor came over, he might feel bold getting ready in the morning with you but might want to blend into the crowd more once he's actually at school.

I wouldn't make a big deal of it at this point and give him as many options as he wants. He will find his way, and you'll support him. You will all do great.
posted by littlewater at 8:26 PM on September 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also, my daughter has a girl friend at school who looks totally boyish. Short hair, wears the current standard boy clothes. I asked my daughter what her "preferred gender pronoun" was and she said, "she." And then I started to explain what I meant and my 6-1/2 year old first grader rolled her eyes and said, "She likes to dress and look like a boy but she likes 'she' but she doesn't get mad if you say 'he'."

Well, okay then! Looks like the kids have it covered.

I know this varies by area but for kids, many of them are totally getting it. I have a few friends with kids this age who seem more fluid in their presentation but all the parents seem to be doing a good job of just rolling with it. I know there's not a clear road map but I think it's best to keep doing what you are doing. You are a great parent!
posted by amanda at 8:27 PM on September 12, 2017 [25 favorites]

My 5 year old wanted a dress when he was about 4. An Elsa dress in fact. We did almost exactly the same thing as you - went online, he picked out the right one, and was super happy to get it.

Although it was definitely his (he's the only one in the family the right size) it ended up in the dress-up bin in the play room, with the Darth Vader mask and cloak, the firefighter jacket, the cat ears, the robot heads, etc. He would dress up in it and loved to dance around, but he never claimed it as a personal wardrobe thing. I think the changing in and out was part of the fun. Six months later, he had lost all interest. We just gave the dress away in our last toy purge.

He never asked about wearing it outside the house.

There was a boy our local elementary school that regularly wore dresses. The parents said to all who asked, this wasn't our idea, but the boy wanted the dresses so we gave him what he wants, end of discussion.

Thoughts on the morning:

If my kid wanted to wear the dress at school, I might try and take the "screw it" approach and let him wear it. I'd probably obsess and worry and think 15 steps ahead, but outwardly pretend like, whatever, it's a kid in a dress no big deal. Let the school make an issue if they need to make an issue.

If my boy really loved the dress, but declined to wear it outside, and expressed sadness and regret, then i would ask the teacher in an open ended way. My kid loves wearing a dress but is ashamed to do it at school - and that makes us sad. What do you think? Then you can either get insights that may help you, or get warning signals from the teacher and school if there is a culture of intolerance.

Middle ground: Emoji and sequins that change? That sounds like the bomb. If it ends up in the toy category and not the identity-defining category offer to alter it and make it into a T-shirt that he can wear with pants.
posted by sol at 8:32 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

My similar-age son has worn dresses and "girl clothes" (his label) for several years, but like yours, doesn't appear to be trans at all. I had some doubt about his gender identity for a little while due to the persistence of his preference, but he was pretty insistent throughout that he was a boy, he would be upset at being misgendered, etc., so: probably not trans.

I know this situation can be hard as a parent but by far the best thing we ever did was just follow his lead without making any deal of it one way or another. We didn't make any big announcements or even just chat to his teachers or peers. We treated his outfits the same way that you would treat it if your child randomly wanted to dress as Spiderman or whatever: as no big thing, because small children have a fashion mind all their own. If people thought he was a girl, we'd just calmly say, "Actually, he's a boy" and generally we didn't blink an eye no matter what he wanted to wear on any given day.

Pretty early on (around 3 years old) my son decided not to wear girl clothes to school; children do realise quite soon what the norms are and by five years old those norms are very well entrenched. I suspect from the fact that your son hid his dress from the neighbour that he will also not wear a dress to school. I especially don't think that he, at five years old, is going to be taken by surprise by a response to wearing a dress, so if he decides to wear it, it's because he is going in sort of knowing what to expect. (Still a good idea to ask if he's sure and pack a backup, but I'd bet real money that he is not going to do that).

Just recently, after several years of wearing girl clothes when not at school, my son decided to phase out the girl clothes entirely - he just said that he was thinking about it and wanted to try only wearing boys clothes even on non-school days. So that's what he does now, and that choice was also no big deal.

Bottom line, though: don't overthink this. If you're pretty confident he's not trans, mentally put it in your head in the same bin as "likes to wear a cape around town" or "likes to randomly bark at the door like a dog when a stranger knocks on it" or whatever other weird small-child things happen, and treat it no differently from that. If you wouldn't sit down and have chats with teachers or give warnings about those things, then don't do that for this.
posted by forza at 9:45 PM on September 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

Uh...I don't know if I live in a much less progressive area than you all or am just more cynical, but I would strongly advise my son against presenting in a non-mainstream way, especially if he is physically small, especially with unfamiliar classmates and teachers, especially because he is a boy who wants to wear a dress. Unless I knew them all well, I would not trust his classmates not to bully him, possibly quite violently, nor would I trust the staff to protect him from his classmates. (In my less optimistic moments I might not even trust the staff not to lead the bullying.)

The fact that your neighborhood seems "super-progressive" is not a good predictor of how your son's classmates and teachers will respond to his showing up in a dress.

This is an excellent opportunity to talk with him about how safety depends on context, and how the same behaviors might be accepted and even celebrated in one context but strongly stigmatized in another. Although if he hid the dress from his neighbor it sounds like he already understands that, at some level.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:08 PM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Especially if your son decides he doesn't want to wear the dress out, take a look at some of the clothing lines bringing pink/purple/flowers etc to gender neutral or "boy" shaped clothes. This HuffPo article covers a bunch of kids' clothing brands that break down gendered assumptions about what designs go on what type of clothes.
posted by nat at 11:29 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

We live in a progressive area where it's not uncommon for little boys to wear pink sneakers or nail polish, and I've definitely seen boys in dresses. (My son has a few "girls'" shirts because his favorite color is purple and the girls' section is more likely to have shirts with bunnies and cats.) I think the typical parent around here would be fine with whatever gender presentation their kid went with, but the heart of it is "glitter/dolls/trucks are for everyone, not just boys or girls."

The message that some things are gender-specific starts really early, and school is a minefield; I think your kid already has a whiff of that, and the "some people think X but we think Y and we support you" conversation is a good one. Wearing the dress at home at first is a good approach, and it can help for him to have friends whose parents have similar philosophies. Our kid came home one day saying "[Daycare teacher] says boys don't wear nail polish," but then followed it with "But [daycare friend's mom] says boys DO wear nail polish!" and I think having the other mom provide an almost-immediate counterpoint helped a ton.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:25 AM on September 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

By age 5, kids generally have already gone through the "Girls are like this, boys are like this" stage of life, so I doubt your son is confused about what is acceptable in public -- he may not be aware of the larger sociopolitical implications of a man in a dress, but as far as a 5-year-old understands "boys don't wear dresses" is the rule at large, it appears he has a handle on that -- doesn't want to wear it around other people his age, hasn't asked to wear it to school.

The good thing is: that doesn't seem to trouble him, and he feels safe doing what he wants in your own house.

So, I'd just take his lead -- there's no reason to plan ahead for some life-changing decisions that at this point he has made no implications are going to be forthcoming.

I'm a dude, and when I was a kid there was a chunk of time when all I wanted were those crappy cardboard child-sized kitchen replicas, pots, pants, teasets, vacuum cleaners, etc. My parents -- liberal hippies -- didn't discourage me, but often used the "probably too expensive" excuse to me as a reason I might not get them. Then, Christmas came, and my grandparents got me a mother frikin' tea set; it wasn't until later in life, on remembering the day, I realized that the teaset hadn't been wrapped and under the tree, and it was given to me separately from the aunts and uncles shortly before we left. As a little kid, I didn't apply any reasoning behind why, but after I grew up a little I recognized that it was probably because they were giving a boy "girl things" for Christmas -- it struck a balance between getting me what I want but not expressing something outside of society's expectations. I loved the hell out of that cheap, plastic teaset, and I never grew up to be girly in any way. Kids can separate out "boys and girls have different rules in society" and "I like girly stuff" for themselves, so I suggest you not worry about your son until he begins to wrap his personality around the dress or seems distressed by wearing the dress.
posted by AzraelBrown at 4:31 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Have you reached out to any support groups for parents/families of GNC (gender non-conforming) kids?

While this 'may just be a phase' it may not be. It may or may not be indicative of more, or he just likes sparkle (don't we all). Maybe reach out to some GNC groups just to get more actual information, potential support in case this continues to be a Thing, and possibly, find some playmates for your son who also love to sparkle.

As someone who was GNC before there was a word for it, and it ended up being more than 'just a phase', parental/family support and love are far more important than anything else.
posted by RhysPenbras at 5:54 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

One data point: At our school in a socially liberal neighborhood (which is still probably somewhat more traditional than your "super progressive neighborhood"), there was a boy of about 5 or 6 who frequently wore dresses. The other kids noticed and occasionally commented on how it was out of the ordinary, but I never noticed anyone - child or teacher - who teased him or seemed concerned.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:46 AM on September 13, 2017

Thank you all again. I have read with interest all replies and thank you for your perspectives and thoughtful responses.

This morning, it was business as usual around here and he did not ask to wear his dress. He was too busy working on a robot with a light for a heart he made yesterday, and he wore his airbrushed batman tee-shirt and batman crocs to school, as per usual.

Many of you referenced "super-progressive neighborhood" and I'd like to address that for a moment. I understand the context of our existence. We live in a place that is like what many of you have experienced - kids being kids and wearing whatever they want and being sparkly and fabulous and individual, just as they are. But in my super-progressive neighborhood, too, is the tendency to overreach and concern oneself with the appearance of progressiveness without fully understanding or exploring what a value like "promoting gender neutrality" truly is on a practical level. Because, if you don't understand that, you do something innocent like let your child wear his dress to school without thinking things through or preparing him adequately, and then a well-meaning teacher or class parent or administrator jumps the gun and institutes a protocol. Which, though well-intentioned, can become some kind of brand on a kid who is just being a kid, and who you would think could be whatever kid they are in their super-progressive neighborhood. These things are more complicated than that, as many adults understand, and as kids understand in ways they cannot perhaps find words for yet but, as many have also pointed out, take for granted because they do not need to use words like we adults do. They are much smarter than that even though they don't yet know all our stupid adult "rules".

I appreciate all the counsel and compassionate, loving support of this community. I am grateful to continue to find it here.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:19 AM on September 13, 2017 [13 favorites]

I'm late to the thread, but why not get him a caftan? They are basically androgynous sacks.
posted by Carol Anne at 8:08 AM on September 13, 2017

There's a great blog, Raising My Rainbow, by a mother of a boy who eventually sees himself as "gender non-conforming." There's a lot interesting discussion from the kid's perspective, and how one can enjoy dressing up without identifying as a different gender. I really like the comment about making it about clothing choice rather than gender at this point, because that's what it is for your kid. So being really chill about whatever he would like to wear whenever he would like to wear it is good, and you can also help by preparing him with responses to remarks or questions others might have.
posted by LKWorking at 8:09 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Random anecdotes from our self-identifying "sensitive soul" (we said that about him when he was around, and now that's something he calls himself, in addition to a paleontologist who is sometimes a prehistoric animal himself):

* He's six now, and on the young end of his first grade class. He and his younger brother (a tot under 3) like mom's makeup, so they've gone to school and daycare, respectively, with some makeup on. Last year, sensitive soul was wearing more visible colors, and I heard that his classmates were confused at first, but when he said he was a dragon or a dinosaur and roared, they were happy playing along again.

* He's worn one of my wife's dresses around the house, but as of yet hasn't asked about wearing it in public.

* Sensitive soul's first favorite colors were pink and purple. Now he likes all colors (his own words), though most recently he said his favorite color is blue. A co-worker's kid loved his sparkly red shoes, which read as fem to most strangers, and paired with that little boy's more feminine features, strangers often said "what a pretty little girl," which his parents didn't bother correcting, because they're just strangers.

* Our older boy is not into super hero stuff, he's 95% about prehistoric creatures (with 5% other things, depending on what's at hand. His younger brother is often Batman, and has decided that his older brother is Robin, and the little guy likes vehicles a lot. While we support whatever picks their fancies at the moment, we didn't stock their baby cribs with dinosaurs and trucks, they each gravitated towards those things on their own.

* Our boys wore tutus when they visited some friends of ours who have a little girl, who was already wearing a tutu when we got there. Then the little girl picked up sticks and said that they could have a sword fight.

* Another anecdote: a German dad wears a skirt, paints his nails to support his son's interest in doing those things (HuffPo, 2012).

In other words: kids, especially young kids, seem less confined to gender normative clothing and appearances, probably because it doesn't factor for them as it does with older kids and adults. We support our boys, and when our older boy has talked about gender norms related to hair length and clothing, we point out all the counter examples, to show him that things aren't so binary.

Kudos to you for supporting your kid, and I agree with others who say let him dictate when and where he chooses to wear his dress or anything else.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:07 AM on September 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

FWIW, "boys' shirts" with reversible sequins are available:

(Also, you probably didn't even notice that you did this in your original question, but please don't class "dinosaurs and volcanoes" as boys' stuff.)
posted by Perodicticus potto at 9:34 AM on September 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

« Older pet shelter standards?   |   Seeking Melatonin pros and cons Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments