This article in the NY Times last week about boys and girls dressing up as the opposite gender brings back memories from preschool when a boy we knew would dress up every day in a princess dress and many parents were surprised the parents were so ‘ok with it’. That wasn’t that long ago and things seem to already be changing, Jan Hoffman writes: ‘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.”