Carolyn Hax: Don’t try to get a child to conform to gender expectations

Carolyn Hax
Columnist September 27, 2013

Dear Carolyn:

Our granddaughter’s behavior is causing our family a great concern and anxiety. She is 8, attends an all-girls school, is very good in studies and tops in tests. She is very athletic and enjoys taking part in only boys’ sports, such as martial arts. She likes to wear only boys’ clothes and cuts her hair very short like a boy. The only time she wears girls’ clothing is for school, a uniform. Outside of school time, she does not like girls dress. When we take her to buy clothing, she goes straight to the boys’ section.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Our question is whether she has a problem identifying her gender. Is this common with some girls? Will she outgrow the problem and act like a girl? Are we paranoid over something we should not be worrying about? Please point us in a right direction.

Ohio

The “right direction”? Love her.


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

I have a great concern about your great concern and anxiety, which can do her actual harm where her choices simply won’t.

For one thing, I have no answer to “act like a girl.” Do you mean like Tammy Duckworth, Serena Williams, Selena Gomez, Renee Richards, Marissa Mayer, Sally Ride . . . ? Help me here.

Plus, martial arts are not “boys’ sports,” they’re sports, and very short hair is not a boy’s haircut, it’s a haircut, and pants and shirts are “boys’ clothes” only because she’s finding them in the boys’ department; the moment they’re on her body, they’re a girl’s clothes.

That is, assuming your granddaughter identifies female and just likes sportier things. That’s certainly quite common and a strong possibility, the best answer to which is to shut up and love her as is — and let her shop in whatever department she pleases, without hand-wringing or eyebrow-raising or “What about this cute dress . . . ?”

Also possible is that she identifies male and feels as if she’s in the wrong body. That’s far, far less common, and also a much more difficult, anxiety-inducing path for sure, especially for her — “him” would be appropriate then — but also for the family.

If indeed that’s the case, though, that’s an even stronger argument for family to love her fiercely and cease all hand-wringing, eyebrow-raising or skirt-pushing, because (a) forcibly applying pink is not going to work, not one bit, toward changing anyone on the inside, and (b) because early acceptance of a child’s outside-the-mainstream choices could be, no exaggeration, a matter of life or death. The Centers for Disease Control doesn’t quantify the suicide risk for transgender youths, citing a need for more study, but on the National Transgender Discrimination Survey of nearly 6,500 “gender non-conforming” people, a heart-rending 41 percent reported having attempted suicide.

Your granddaughter, just by the odds, is probably not transgender, but acceptance is the only answer regardless. (If she turns out to be an LGBT person, try PFLAG, http://community.pflag.org.) Conveying the message that there’s something wrong with the unchangeable, inside properties of a child risks lasting damage to the child’s self-worth.

Your granddaughter’s gender story is going to write itself the way it wants to no matter what any of you says or does. So, be one of the heroes who banishes expectations and gender assumptions, and instead is loving, kind and supportive of who, and whoever, she is.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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