By JAN HOFFMAN
Published: June 10, 2011
A 3 ½-year-old named Harry was playing at home in Los Angeles recently when his father walked in with a Target shopping bag. Inside was a special gift for the little boy: a sparkly princess Barbie doll.
“You could hear the gasp of excitement,” recounted Harry’s mother, Lee. “It just made his whole world.”
A year ago, Harry found Barbies abandoned by his two older sisters. He makes sure they are properly outfitted and worshipped regularly. The girls’ cast-off dress-up clothes have become his go-to outfits. And when he arrives at preschool each morning, he selects a dress from the costume box and wears it through recess, even as he scrambles on the jungle gym.
At first, Harry’s father had a hard time watching his son twirl around in princess wear. But his gift of the Barbie symbolized acceptance; Harry’s joyous gasp indicated that the little boy intuitively understood. “We are following his lead and supporting him for who he wants to be,” said Lee, who, like other parents interviewed for this article, did not want to be fully identified in order to protect their children.
For generations, parents who saw their toddler boys put on tutus or play with dolls would either ignore the behavior as a phase, or reflexively repress it. But in recent years, more parents have chosen the approach taken by Harry’s mother and father. Rather than looking away, they are trying to understand their toddler’s unconventional gender behavior, in order to support it and prepare for what they fear could be a life of challenges.
“Is my 4-year-old gay?” read postings on parenting Web sites that offer strings of advice that can, by turns, be acidly dismissive or thoughtfully engaging.
The dialogue represents a new direction. “Ten years ago, the gender and sexual meaning of young children’s behavior was only discussed by a small handful of developmental psychologists,” said Arlene Istar Lev, a family therapist in Albany. “Children who expressed that were silenced and their parents were ashamed of them: ‘You will not walk out of the house that way.’ ”
Now, Ms. Lev said, “parents want to be supportive and that’s what is new. A generation of parents is developing a philosophy of encouraging their children: ‘Sweetie, let’s talk about this.’ ”
Such support goes beyond embracing preschool fantasy dress-up. Some parents permit sons to wear skirts and daughters to wear camouflage pants, ties and fedoras, much like the oft-photographed Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, 5.
As these children enter elementary school, parents negotiate with administrators about clothing. Janet Ciarrocca, principal of the Learning Community Charter School in Jersey City, whose teachers receive training to support children with gender nonconforming behavior, encourages the individuality of each child. But there are rules. “They all have to wear sneakers to school and participate in gym,” she said. “Little girls can’t wear ballet flats, either. Too slippery.”
Parents may seek like-minded play groups, and even move to communities where they believe their children will be more accepted. Others turn to couples’ counseling, family therapy and parent groups.
It’s impossible to quantify how many families make such choices. But therapists, clinics and organizations such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (pflag.org) report that more parents have been asking about the gender behavior and sexuality of their 4-year-olds.
Their views are seeping into the culture. There are children’s picture books like “My Princess Boy” and “10,000 Dresses,” and books for parents like “Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children.” A growing blog roll includes sites like “Accepting Dad” and “Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Slightly Effeminate, Possibly Gay, Totally Fabulous Son.”
The author of the latter, the wife of a police officer in Orange County, Calif., started the blog after her son, CJ, now 4, wanted to be Snow White for Halloween. Writing as “CJ’s Mom,” her posts celebrate her diva preschooler, whose recent anticipation of a ride on a tramway crumbled when he realized that “aerial” did not refer to Disney’s Little Mermaid.
“I’m getting amazing responses,” CJ’s Mom said. “From families a lot like ours, who we can share experiences with. From gay men who wish an adult had done for them what I’m doing for CJ. I needed to take steps to change his world to try to protect him, without denying him who he was created to be.”
No one has provoked a national conversation about children and gender norms like the retailer J. Crew. In its April catalog, the “Jenna’s Picks” page showed Jenna Lyons, the company’s creative director, playing with her barefoot son, Beckett, 4 ½. The copy read: “Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.”
The blowback on talk shows, which Jon Stewart called “Toemageddon 2011,” was to be expected. The applause, however, signaled a game changer. A Facebook group even announced, in solidarity, “Pink Toenail Polish Day.”
Still, parents with children at the epicenter of these conversations say they make wrenching daily decisions, always calculating how to show unconditional love for their children, while being realistic about protecting them.
Little girls can experiment further along the gender spectrum than boys, but they, too, have socially cordoned boundaries. Elle, a Las Vegas mother, has a 4-year-old daughter who likes to be called “Handsome Prince.” When the girl, who has long blond hair, begged for a Mohawk, Elle quavered.
To pass social muster, Elle presented the haircut as a gesture for charity: to raise money for a children’s hospital, her daughter offered to get a Mohawk. She quickly surpassed her $200 goal.
When the child climbed into the salon chair, she met the hairstylist’s astonished face with an enormous smile. “She couldn’t get him to cut her hair off fast enough,” Elle said.
But when her daughter showed up at preschool with the new ‘do, running to the boys to play basketball, the boys shrank from her. When she tried to play “Unicorns and Bunnies” with the girls, they shunned her, too.
Elle hopes the Mohawk will grow out into a pixie cut before kindergarten starts. But if her daughter continues to be rejected, Elle will switch schools.
“I don’t want my child to wait till she’s 43 to say, ‘Hi, here is who I really am,’ ” Elle said. That was the age when Elle’s own father came out of the closet. “I don’t want her to hide her true self from Daddy and me.”
But what true self are these very young children expressing? A handful of studies have looked mostly at boys who did not conform to gender conventions. The studies’ methodologies and results differ, but there is some indication that, in adulthood, many of those boys describe themselves as gay (rarely transgender). Yet, as one researcher noted, most of the studies’ subjects were children whose parents brought them to clinics for evaluation, making them a self-selecting group.
In general, researchers say, the behavior of very young children may not be a strong predictor of their adult sexual orientation. “Even when the child has extremely gender variant behavior at 4, it doesn’t necessarily mean the child will be gender variant at 10 or 15,” said Dr. Edgardo J. Menvielle, who directs the Gender and Sexuality Psychosocial Programs at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “It’s possible they will remain who they are and they may also change in a variety of ways.”
In other words, parents have to wait, a limbo that many find unbearable. Some rush to aggressive advocacy. Diane Ehrensaft, a therapist in Oakland, Calif., said that a parent might say to her, “ ‘I know my child is transgender and I’m ready to go with hormone blockers.’ ”
Her response? “Whoa, not so fast.”
Challenges for parents increase as children enter elementary school. Tim, an Internet technology manager, allowed his young son, P. J., to grow his hair long and occasionally wear skirts to preschool. When P. J. was ready for first grade, the family decided to move from the Midwest to Jersey City, in part because of its vibrant gay community.
So far, mixed results. P. J.’s hair is still long. He wears pink and purple shirts now, not dresses. When he was 6, he asked: “If Jersey City is so diverse and so understanding, then why does everyone keep calling me a girl?”
By supporting their children’s wish to dress as gender-benders, parents may inadvertently put them at greater risk for taunting. When Harry, the Los Angeles boy whose father gave him a Barbie, was 2, he attended a dress-up birthday party for his sisters’ friend, in costume. One father called him “Little Liberace;” another compared him to an L.A. drag queen. The second-grade brother of CJ, star of the Raising My Rainbow blog, is teased. “The boys say, ‘Why does your brother like girls’ toys, that’s so gay,’ and run from him,” his mother said.
Parents say their job is not to change their children, but to help them withstand cruel comments. A 2010 study by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University that focused mainly on adolescents found strong correlations between positive family attitudes toward their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children and decreased risks of depression, substance abuse and suicide.
As children grow older, many parents define behavior that is fine in private but not in public, to protect them from bullying. Ellen, of Bergen County, N.J., has a 9-year-old son who craves high heels. She told him they are not school shoes, and too expensive to buy to wear around the house. Her compromise: At Payless, with its buy-one-get-a-second-pair-half-price offer, she bought him shoes for school (sneakers) and home (gold-sparkled ballet flats).
While few couples would describe their child-rearing philosophy as consistently unified, raising a child who plays outside the conventional gender box can strain a relationship.
Ed, a natural resource manager in the Southwest, and his wife disagree about their son, 7, who usually plays with girls. To his wife, this is a phase.
“He has said, ‘Mommy doesn’t like me to play with girl things,’ ” Ed said. “But if he wants and deserves something, I don’t want to deny him on the basis of it being gender-inappropriate.”
Like nail polish. The mother does not want the boy to have it. So Ed made an agonized decision. His wife has to go out of town for work soon. When she does, Ed will buy fake nail polish.
Then, he told his son, “We’ll paint your nails and wash them off before you go to school the next day.”