Is It Normal? My son wants to wear dresses and I’m scared for him

Is it Normal is the Spinoff Parents advice column. Today Alex Ker from InsideOUT gives advice to a mum of a gender curious little one.

Welcome to the fourth instalment of The Spinoff Parents advice column Is it Normal? curated by Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes. If you don’t know what this column is all about – here’s a good primer.

Real advice (in my humble view) should be non-judgemental, take-it-or-leave-it, actually useful and able to be put into practice (none of this give your kids caviar to help them be adventurous with food bullshit). It should be from someone with experience, maybe even qualifications if that’s appropriate; it should be from someone without an agenda, from someone who genuinely cares about children and parents.

Our columns have so far covered:

Today’s column will be answered by Alex Ker from InsideOUT, a national charity working to give young people of minority sexualities, genders and sex characteristics a sense of safety and belonging in their schools and communities. Alex identifies as an asexual transgender guy who likes books, animal and human rights activism. He is currently studying sociology at Victoria University.

Kia ora Spinoff Parents

Our son loves wearing dresses, putting on nail polish and wearing make up. Sometimes he asks to be called Susie when he’s playing. He gets very upset when we ask him to wear shorts and tee shirts and will cry if we do. So we don’t. But we would like to know how to start a conversation with him about resilience in the face of bullying. We want him to be protected in the outside world as much as he’s protected at home. He is starting school soon and we would love some advice about how to make sure he’s safe from bullying and peer pressure to dress like other kids. We also would like to know how we can find out what this all means – do we need to be asking him about gender at this young age? Or can we just follow his lead and see where it takes us?

Kia ora! First, It’s fantastic that you’re giving your child the space to express themselves, and acknowledge that it isn’t always easy in the outside world where gender and sex are usually viewed as black and white.

It’s a good idea to pick up on your child’s cues and let them take the lead on how they want to express themselves; it sounds like you’re already doing this which is awesome. When talking with your child about the potential challenges they may face in the future, use affirming language and try to communicate that any potential challenges they may face is a reflection of society’s weakness, not your child’s. You might like to come up with responses to questions other children or parents may ask, while trying not assume they will all be inherently negative. Hopefully you will find that children at that age are non-judgemental when it comes to gender expression.

Stay tuned to how others perceive your child’s gender expression. Are people reacting positively? What sort of questions might people ask, and how does your child respond to these questions? These might give you a better idea of what to expect as your child moves further into the world. You could introduce your child to books and games with gender-neutral or transgender characters to start conversations about gender diversity, and for them to potentially see themselves represented in these. If your child wants to have a conversation about gender specifically, then that should be embraced. It’s important to let children explore and play with gender and not make any assumptions about what that means, but to listen if it does mean something significant to them.

In terms of starting school, have a chat to your child’s future teacher or school and ask how they go about fostering a supportive learning environment, not just for gender diverse children but for all types of abilities and identities. There will be other children at the school who express themselves differently, and it’s important that all children learn about diversity, no matter their background. Of course it’s impossible to know how other kids might react, but the best thing you can do is to teach your child about being assertive, standing up for themselves and give them the vocabulary they need to express themselves. Affirm that they’re okay no matter what anyone else says. If their mood or gender presentation changes as a result of starting school, then it would be important to chat to them about that and see if reactions from other people are having an impact on them and what you can do to support them with that.

The most important thing you can do at this stage is continue to create a nurturing space where your child has the space to express themselves, however that may look. Patience is a really useful thing to practise in this situation, as it can take time for people to adjust and for your child to articulate how they feel their gender to be.

If you follow your child’s lead and do think you or your whānau might need further support with their gender then there are a resources that might help:

InsideOUT – advice and referrals

0800 OUTLINE – free phone counselling for LGBTQIA+ people, friends and whānau

Gender Minorities Aotearoa – Help Is My Child Transgender?

NZ Parents of Transgender and Gender Diverse Children Group

Gender Spectrum – Parenting and Family Support

Inclusive Education Guides For Schools – LGBTIQA+

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Thanks Alex! If you’ve been through anything similar, feel free to give some (judgement-free) advice in the Facebook comments. Email me at emily@thespinoff.co.nz with “Is it normal?” in the subject line if you have a question for one of our experts.

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