In Our Gender Diverse Era, Parents Should Practice Humility With Their Kids

Tomboy today means nothing about tomorrow.


In a recent New York Times op-ed, Lisa Selin Davis writes that her daughter, who wears boys’ clothes and has short hair, is definitely not transgender. Davis applauds her daughter’s rejection of traditional feminine style, but wishes that other people would stop thinking the child might be transgender, a curiosity they indicate with regular questions  about her pronouns and gender identity.

On its face, this is a reasonable concern. The movement toward accepting and understanding transgender children shouldn’t narrow the boundaries of how cisgender boys and girls express themselves. Wearing boys’ clothes doesn’t turn a girl into a boy, or vice versa, and all children should have room to experiment with clothes and toys and styles freely rather than feel forced into the limited menu of gender-conforming options only. There’s just one problem: Davis’ kid deserves room to explore and experiment out of the public eye, without mom declaring her gender must be female and then broadcasting it, along with the complicated presentation that leads people to mistake her for male or transgender, to millions of readers.

Let me be clear that I have no way of knowing what this child’s gender identity is, or what it eventually will be. After reading an earlier parenting essay by Davis, however, I do have questions. In the piece for Parenting, Davis wrote: “As she started to announce in ways both subtle and direct that she’s a boy, and ask me questions like ‘Why can’t boys have vaginas and girls have penises?’ the ratio of heartwarming to heart-sinking has shifted.” I’m curious as to why this anecdote didn’t make it into the New York Times piece, and why Davis presents her kid’s gender as definitely and persistently female if these sorts of complicated and complicating questions were present within the last few years of this kid’s history.

Perhaps the people who keep asking whether this child identifies as a boy are doing so at least partly based on the mixed signals the kid is sending out, rather than prejudice borne of too much trans acceptance? Perhaps leaving the question open, rather than writing about it in a way that attempts to foreclose uncertainty might be advisable? In five years, this kid could be an extremely girly girl who is embarrassed to have once been a gender nonconforming tomboy, or a consistent tomboy, or a genderqueer-identified youth, or a trans guy. I don’t know which it will be, but I don’t have confidence that Davis does either.

When I was a child, my mother never wrote an op-ed about my gender for a newspaper. She did, however, express very strong opinions about my gender, and these didn’t quite match how I felt inside. My mother told me, repeatedly, that I had always loved dolls and never liked toy trucks. While it’s absolutely true that I had a favorite doll (Janet, named after my mother, who I took with me everywhere), I can also remember looking longingly and with jealousy at Hot Wheels ramps and big multi-packs of Hot Wheels cars in the toy store, wishing that we had some of those at our house. I never asked my mom for them directly, though, because I thought my mom knew something about me that I didn’t. Much the same thing happened with jewelry when I was a little older. I agreed that I “liked” necklaces and earrings without ever once feeling happy or attractive when I was wearing them. My mother’s myth of my girlness was stronger than I was when I was young, and so I believed in it even when it failed to match up with my true experience. I eventually transitioned to male in my late thirties, and while it’s not my mom’s fault that it took me so long, I can’t help wishing there’d been more room for my gender to be complicated earlier.

What I would ask from parents who don’t know what to make of the changing gender landscape is pretty simple: Don’t assume that your child who deviates from some of the norms of their assigned gender is transgender, but also don’t take their adherence to some of those norms as proof positive that they are cisgender, either. Give your children room to experiment and play without it meaning anything in particular, and without expecting certain behaviors to mean the same thing for every kid. Listen to your children and take them seriously, while understanding that they may change their minds. Let them know that it’s okay to explore, to change. Don’t write op-eds taking a position about what their gender identity definitively is. You might be wrong. They might be wrong, for a time. The marvelous thing about youth is its capacity for creativity, growth, and flux.

Of course, children also need limits, boundaries, and guidelines. I don’t mean to suggest a radically child-centric approach that eschews sensible rules. A kid who is forced to wear clothes they don’t like once in a while will be fine, even if they ultimately turn out to be transgender. Every loving parent gets things wrong sometimes. What I’m suggesting is a little more humility, and more acceptance that as children grow, they tend to do so in directions their parents could never foresee.