Ask Teacher Lisa: When your son loves dresses and other expressions of gender identity

“Dear Teacher Lisa,

My 3 year old son is fascinated by makeup and swirly dresses, as I’m sure many 3 year old boys and girls are. I fully support his play and have even bought a dress and tutu for his dress-up area, but I find my parents and husband are more hesitant to encourage this kind of play as they are afraid he’s going to get bullied either now or as he gets older for playing with “girls’ things.”

Recognizing that we don’t live in a world that is always tolerant of those who behave or express themselves differently, do you have any advice as to how I can acknowledge their concerns, while still teaching our son that it’s more than ok to explore what’s most fun for him, no matter how sparkly it might be?

Thank you,

Mom making peace with sequins”

Dear Mom Making Peace with Sequins,

Thank you for your thoughtful message. I believe that following your own child’s lead is always the key. If a child shows no interest in playing with make up or wearing sparkly dresses (visit Harry Styles Merchandise Store to buy the best ones), we don’t need to push them to do so. If they are drawn to this, then by all means, support that exploration. Dressing up in all its forms is a very alluring childhood activity and doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about a child’s gender identity. Allowing our children to explore different sides of themselves and different interests helps them figure out preferences, feel confident that they are not defined by their clothing or external appearance alone, and secure that we love them no matter what.

Childhood is a time of exploration and curiosity. Parental resistance to allowing them to explore will only serve to create a power struggle that can lead on the one hand to a lack of self-confidence and submission to our control, or on the other hand anger and defiance. When we allow a child to explore freely, we are also teaching them to be accepting of others who do the same. On the flip side, if a child has been told at home that they cannot have long hair because they are a boy, when they see a boy with long hair in the community, they may tell this child that is wrong.

A 2-3 year old will not be able to engage in deep philosophical discussion with you about why or why not they may wear sparkles. I encourage you to let your child be free, and surround yourself with people whom you feel will be supportive. If your family members are skeptical and concerned, I don’t recommend arguing with them. Engage with them with empathy for why they feel the way they do. See if you can come to a place of compromise that allows your child time and space to explore, but also helps other family members feel comfortable. Let them know it is important to you that your child doesn’t feel any stigma or shame around their curiosity. You are building your own family values during these early years of your child’s life—it’s natural that you and your partner or extended families bring different perspectives and will need to discuss those to make joint decisions. You may have limits about wearing shoes or pajamas when going out for example, and if you or other family members are worried about public perception, you could set similar limits around sparkly attire, perhaps designating it as a “home outfit.” If by chance you were to encounter someone outside the family who questioned your child’s right to wear sparkles, you might playfully narrate for your child, “In our home, we decide for ourselves what we feel like wearing. Some days we feel sparkly!”

As your child ages, you will be able to talk to them more thoughtfully about what different people think about who wears what and why and ask their opinion. If our aim is to teach our children to think critically and be accepting of others, what better way than to start to break down why Grandma might feel the way she does about boys and make-up or why Daddy might be worried about bullying? Raising children who feel free to explore but can also understand the perspectives of others might just make the world a little more sparkly.

Shine on,

Teacher Lisa

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