Kids and Gender Identity Conundrum
August 26, 2018 6:36 AM   Subscribe

One genderfluid/questioning kid, one cis-presenting kid, some jockeying for attention, and I don't know how to navigate this. Help!

My 9 1/2 year old child (Kid 1) changed their name two years ago from a more feminine first name to a traditionally masculine middle name. Kid 1 has also intensely preferred boy clothes since age 5 or so, and is unbothered when people assume they are male. In fact, Kid 1 opted to use he/him pronouns for the first time at a week-long day camp this summer. We've talked about which pronouns to use at home & school, and Kid 1 is fine continuing to use she/her for the time being. I don't know where Kid 1's preferences/identity will shake out but I'm keeping as many doors open as I can, trying to keep up.

My almost-7 year old child (Kid 2) has always loved traditionally "girly" things (long hair, fancy dresses, makeup, talks about being in love with boys), but very occasionally says she feels more like a boy than a girl. This is happening more in recent weeks. I want to offer as much space for exploration to Kid 2 as I have offered to Kid 1, but I don't know how to navigate this. Kid 2 is now asking to use a masculine version of her name and he/him pronouns at an outing today, and I strongly suspect it's because I offered that option to Kid 1 within Kid 2's hearing. I'm trying to keep it low-key, and don't want to make anything off-limits for Kid 2.

How do I keep "he/him" from being taboo (and therefore alluring) to Kid 2 without making Kid 1 feel like I'm not taking her stuff seriously? (Kid 1 has not indicated that she feels this way, but it's a concern for me and my partner.)

How do I hold space for Kid 2's exploration & questioning without making her feel like I don't take HER stuff seriously? It feels disingenuous when she wants to wear very feminine clothes and introduce herself as a boy. Do I just let it all go, let her introduce herself however she wants, let it blow over? Do I tell her she's not allowed to use he/him?

Help me! I feel so lost.
posted by lizifer to Human Relations (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would let Kid 2 introduce herself as she likes. In her case, it sounds as if it's probably going to prove to have been a general exploration, not a deep gender identity exploration. But that doesn't really mean it's "disingenuous" in my opinion, it just means that some of the exploration here might also be about other things, like her relationship to her sibling, the limits of her autonomy and so on. Don't make a big thing of it in part because you don't want to support competition over gender identity between kids who are at an age difference to compete, as that wouldn't be great for Kid 1.
posted by nantucket at 6:46 AM on August 26, 2018 [23 favorites]


Do I just let it all go, let her introduce herself however she wants, let it blow over?

This is what I would do because I think it will accomplish the desired outcome no matter what Kid 2’s motivation is. If they are doing it to grab attention, they will not get the desired drama out of it. If they are doing it because that is who they are, you will have supported them.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:46 AM on August 26, 2018 [8 favorites]


Just let them play? Avoid coming across all This Is Very Serious while they're in this interesting exploratory phase of being. It'll likely get fraught and Very Serious once they hit puberty, whatever their genders shake out to be; no need to rush into whoamI angst 'til they rush into it naturally, which is maybe not yet at 9+ and almost certainly years ahead at pushing 7. They can each dress as they like and call themselves what they like at home and when afrolicking with family, where it's safe; what they'll do in school, where it is not quite as safe, they'll work out for themselves with your constant loving support.
posted by Don Pepino at 6:49 AM on August 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


It's a great question, and I think you just continue to love your kids for who they are, and to keep reminding them in small and subtle ways all the ways they're individually so special. Don't make a big deal of it, but continue to point out their unique qualities and it may help them to not glom onto their sibling's identity.

And I would let it play out. Try to think in 20 years--while your 2nd kid may be a bit annoyed and ask, "Why did you let me change my name and pronouns when I clearly was not male?" it's far more likely they'll thank you (or probably not but you know what I mean) for letting them try this without getting all heavy about it.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 7:08 AM on August 26, 2018


I agree that I would let Kid 2 do what they like, assuming they're not being antagonistic about it to Kid 1. Remember that gender fluidity and nonbinary genders are valid, too, and plenty of people wear girly dresses one day and use masculine pronouns another day. Sounds like you're doing great, so just make sure to add nonbinary awareness in there, too!
posted by lazuli at 7:13 AM on August 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


By the way I also think that letting Kid 2 introduce herself as a boy has the added benefit of providing a good lesson for Kid 1, even if your instincts are to "save" fluid gender identity for Kid 1's more seemingly genuine need for it. If Kid 1 protests that "Kid 2 is only saying she's a boy because she's copying me!" the fact that you *don't* prohibit Kid 2 can be expressed as: "Everyone has the right to name their own gender." In the long run this actually helps Kid 1 understand your acceptance of them too.
posted by nantucket at 7:27 AM on August 26, 2018 [25 favorites]


Agreed with all who say to let Kid 2 do what they like, and especially with lazuli's reminder that fluidity is a valid way to experience gender. It's also worth noting that--just like being a tomboy doesn't always correlate to growing up to be a man--dressing/acting in a stereotypically feminine way is not necessarily a sign of "actually" being a girl. It can often be a sign of trying extremely hard to live up to a perceived standard of what is involved in being a girl.

More to the point, there's no way for you to know how either of their genders will shake out, or even if they'll shake out at all! Allowing them to use the pronouns that feel right on any given day is a way of giving them space to explore all kinds of things, and making it clear to them that you'll support them as they figure out who they are. It's also a way of destigmatizing gender non-conformity, by signaling that there's no reason to have rules* surrounding pronouns, because there's no pronoun use that's bad, just as it's not bad to wear "girly" or "masculine" clothes, no matter what kind of body you have.

*Grammatical rules are obviously fine, except when outdated rules of grammar are used as a way to invalidate non-binary identity. That is disingenuous.
posted by dizziest at 7:38 AM on August 26, 2018 [6 favorites]


This has been very helpful, thank you.

Added layer: Kid 1 has requested that if someone refers to her as a boy, I’m to follow suit. Kid 2 is asking me to tell people she’s a boy. I don’t mind how these kids introduce themselves, but when my actions are brought in it starts to feel like I’m steering.

I’m also working hard to deconstruct my own feelings around femininity/girliness (autocorrect wants to change girliness to “godliness” haha). ie Why do I feel it’s more valid for my more masculine kid to change her pronouns?

Kid 2, much younger than she is now, said she felt like a boy. When I said “if you want to buy some different clothes, or boy clothes, we can do that” she said “uh, mom, boys can wear dresses. I’m already dressed like a boy.” So it may be that she’s a thousand miles ahead of me in every respect.
posted by lizifer at 7:42 AM on August 26, 2018 [25 favorites]


I agree with the other comments--let kids introduce themselves however they want and wear whatever they want, and it'll shake itself out, one way or the other, eventually. It feels like there's a bigger issue here, though--that Kid 2 feels like Kid 1 is getting special attention and consideration, and they feel left out. It's probably worth considering if you can find a way to offer Kid 2 more emotional space and consideration. I'd bet that this all feels very unfair to them.
posted by mishafletch at 7:42 AM on August 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


Don't forget to view this from a perspective not of rivalry and bids for attention or competition, but through the lens that Kid2 admires Kid1 and is emulating them because they are an excellent role model. Kid2's actions can be regarded as supportive. "You are not alone in this, and I put my money where my mouth is." - like when the siblings of a kid going through chemo shave their heads and smile proudly at the stares.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:53 AM on August 26, 2018 [16 favorites]


I’m also working hard to deconstruct my own feelings around femininity/girliness (autocorrect wants to change girliness to “godliness” haha). ie Why do I feel it’s more valid for my more masculine kid to change her pronouns?

Ugh, yeah, I feel you on this -- I'm AFAB, present as pretty ultra-femme, but identify as genderqueer. What's helped me the most is having very honest friends who call me out when I act guilty and weird about being femme but not female. I also found it incredibly rewarding going to queer spaces where other femme people identifed as they -- basically, not feeling so alone in....accidentally performing my assigned gender? Let's go with that. I feel like your kids can already help you gently reinforce who you want to be! Which is amazing! (I'm jealous!) I don't know how easy it is for you to spend time in queer spaces with the littles, but if you can arrange that, I think that can also help with that deconstruction as well. I found it hugely helpful to live outside my head with my queerness, and make it more natural that way, if that makes sense.

Good luck, and you're an amazing parent :)
posted by kalimac at 9:23 AM on August 26, 2018 [5 favorites]


Try to think in 20 years--while your 2nd kid may be a bit annoyed and ask, "Why did you let me change my name and pronouns when I clearly was not male?" it's far more likely they'll thank you (or probably not but you know what I mean) for letting them try this without getting all heavy about it.

I apologize for how I wrote this. I meant that this would be your worst case scenario IF your child identified as female as an adult and looked back with embarrassment at this phase in her life.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:33 AM on August 26, 2018


There was a time when my son was young, and his twin sister had started paying attention to fashion, that my son asked if he could wear one of his sister's skirts to school. I told him he could wear a skirt if he wanted, but not his sister's, as that was hers, so we could go out on the weekend to buy him one. He declined, and that was that. If he's wanted to do it, we would have bought a skirt together, and he would have worn it, and that would have been that.

Don't punish it, don't push for it, just let it be what it is -- an exploration -- and they'll find their way, whatever that way is.
posted by davejay at 9:35 AM on August 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


There are AFAB femme presenting people who are all sorts of genders, male, agender, nonbinary, genderqueer. I am one of them. It's is possible kid 2 is too. In any case, I'd respect both kids' requests re pronouns.
posted by azalea_chant at 9:37 AM on August 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


Would it be helpful to define these terms? If one kid says boys can wear dresses, then what is it that "boy" denotes? Can they work towards that without actually needing to change anything?
posted by masquesoporfavor at 10:20 AM on August 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Your six-year-old just solved my age-old Halloween conundrum. I've always wanted to be the devil with a blue dress on, but the gender of the devil had to be male for the thing to work. I wanted to create a supermasculine red devil--with 1980s notions of what "masculine devil" would mean. So it would have bodybuilder muscles and mondo big ram horns and cloven hooves that I imagined stomping around and raising stentorian hoofbeats and cinematic puffs of dust, and a lithe and suggestive snakey tail and a booming bass voice. Just all the excellent trimmings of 80s hypermaleness plus qualities inherent in The Devil, all bursting out of a fantastically glam and superfeminine blue dress. I wanted desperately to do it, but always thought wistfully that I'd have to give the idea to some guy friend of mine. But no! I hereby bequeath it to your child, should she be interested when she's of an age to make such a thing.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:46 AM on August 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


Do what your kids ask you to do regardless of their current gender presentation.

As children, my sibling was very traditionally girly and I was a stereotypical tomboy. We're both genderqueer as adults.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:15 AM on August 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


My almost-7 year old child (Kid 2) has always loved traditionally "girly" things (long hair, fancy dresses, makeup, talks about being in love with boys), but very occasionally says she feels more like a boy than a girl.

...

Kid 2, much younger than she is now, said she felt like a boy. When I said “if you want to buy some different clothes, or boy clothes, we can do that” she said “uh, mom, boys can wear dresses. I’m already dressed like a boy.” So it may be that she’s a thousand miles ahead of me in every respect.


Kid 2 seems to have a pretty good head on their shoulders. There's really no conflict between liking boys and stereotypically "girly" things and having a male (or fluid) gender identity.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 11:26 AM on August 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


It feels disingenuous when she wants to wear very feminine clothes and introduce herself as a boy.

I don't see why, but I also don't see why you're concerned about a child being disingenuous in this way.

to point A. If you had a son (or, better to say, if you believed you had a son) who liked to wear dresses, I'd hope you wouldn't question his gender unless he did. Certainly, no matter what you privately suspected, you wouldn't insist that he be publicly known as a girl because of the way he dressed. Double standards for boys and girls are no more justifiable in this domain than in any other. as I guess your kid already noted.

to point B: suppose this child is a girl pretending to be a boy, because she accurately perceives that being a boy is a high-status identity in general; because boys in her family, in particular, get a particular type of focused attention; because gender is an incomprehensible game to her and one she likes to play; because she's imitating her older sibling; or because, being a child of a particular age and type, "boy" and "girl" are purely symbolic signifiers to her and you, being an adult of another type, don't and can't fully understand what it is that they signify to her. Some combination of that is all very possible. Likely, even. But what is the objection?

what I think I get from your question/comments is that you don't want her to pretend to be a boy if she's not a boy or if she won't be one forever. this is not an obvious point of view or one I understand. but you are right that forbidding boyhood to her while allowing it to boys is only going to prove to her that boyhood is a special privilege and push her to cling to it out of justified resentment even if allegiance to her true self would not otherwise inspire it.

How do I keep "he/him" from being taboo (and therefore alluring) to Kid 2 without making Kid 1 feel like I'm not taking her stuff seriously?

If taking masculinity seriously requires forbidding it to perceived girls, it doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. boyhood has, presumably, something of genuine value or meaning to Kid 1 that doesn't depend on excluding his sister from it. Whether Kid 2 is a boy or a girl who likes to go by "he," they have every right to fuck around with masculinity for as long as they like.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:16 PM on August 26, 2018 [12 favorites]


This discussion has been so incredibly illuminating and allowed me to talk out (and hear clearer viewpoints on) quite a bit of what I was spinning on.

My main concern here, and everywhere, always, is doing right by my children. While I don't want to prevent any exploration, I do feel hamstrung by a Type-A tendency to do this "right". Doing things "right" is results-oriented, and exploration and experimentation are the very definition of process. Gonna sit with these feelings and talk them out in therapy and let my kids do what they're going to do.

For anyone reading this down the road, maybe with similar concerns, no-one should object to kids "fucking around with masculinity" (as queenofbithynia aptly put it) or femininity for that matter.

I'm sad to hear that this came across as me objecting to any version of gender expression from either kid... I have fancied myself fairly enlightened but it looks like I have some work and learning to do. Thanks again for all your thoughtful replies.
posted by lizifer at 3:48 PM on August 26, 2018 [11 favorites]


(binary) trans guy here! First off, I'm so jealous of your kids! They have the language to assert themselves plus support from you! Every kid should get that.

I agree with everyone else to let your kids take the lead here. At ages 9 and 7, there are no legal or medical consequences to gender fluidity, so please, please let them have the unfettered experience of expressing themselves. As Kid 1 gets closer to puberty there should be some Serious Conversations and you should do research into puberty blockers. Not giving your child that option runs the risk of doing him serious harm. But you're not there yet, so let both of them do whatever.

There are two gates that will stop Kid 2 from just following in their sibling's footsteps out of admiration or for attention. First, if Kid 1 elects to have medical intervention, Kid 2 is not likely to take that lightly. Second, when they hit 6th or 7th grade, depending on where you live and the school, there can be serious social consequences to gender non-conformance. Kid 2 will figure out pretty quickly how committed they are to their expression.

The one boundary I'd draw is legal name changes. I can't think of a reason to do that before they get drivers licenses and it's a big pain in the ass. Schools and medical offices should use their preferred names.

If you have questions, feel free to memail me. There's value in talking to other parents of trans kids, but ultimately the only people who can speak to your kids' experience is other trans people.
posted by AFABulous at 8:26 PM on August 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


I have a friend with a fairly unique situation. She has three kids. A pair of boy/girl twins who are older and a youngest, born male. Her youngest seems to be somewhere on the spectrum of gender whereas her older twins seem fairly comfortable in their standard presentation. But younger one likes to borrow from both piles of hand-me-downs, wear their hair long and is very comfortable telling people that they don't mind either pronoun! They are all just letting them explore and it's commendable. Who is the younger one emulating? Are they in the middle because of the two piles of hand-me-downs? Who will they be when they grow up? We can't know just yet.

I totally send my heart out to you, Lizifer, it's a tough line to navigate as a parent and a feminist! There's sibling rivalry, cultural norms, childhood programming, present day evolution of language. I have a good handful of mom-friends who are going through this now (have been navigating this). I had to examine my own feelings with my daughter and about my childhood when I paused to consider how I would raise her if she wanted to present as male. For all my rah-rah, militant feminism, I realized.... this would be a challenge. I actually had to embrace more feminine things because I didn't want my daughter to feel like her expressions of girly-ness were frivolous or wrong just because I had a dim view of femininity. I still find myself walking a line.
posted by amanda at 8:35 AM on August 27, 2018


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