Tuesday 12 December 2017

Dear David: 'My eight-year-old son wishes he was a girl. What do I tell him?'

Gender is how we understand ourselves to be male or female
Gender is how we understand ourselves to be male or female
David Coleman

David Coleman

My eight-year-old son told me that he wishes he were a girl. He only likes playing with girl toys, particularly dolls. He loves doing my daughter's make-up. When he was finished, he asked her if she would like to do his.

The other day he asked if he could tell me a secret, and told me that he imagined himself in a red dress, off the shoulder, with long brown hair and brown eyes. I really feel I am out of my depth with how I should handle this.

I don't want to be either dismissive or encouraging. What should I say to him?

DAVID: Your son sounds like he is well able to describe how he is feeling. He also trusts you enough to tell you about the fact that he feels different to the way that everyone expects him to feel.

Gender is how we understand ourselves to be male or female. The vast majority of people have a very clear gender identity that matches their physical sexual characteristics. So boys have testicles and penises and feel like boys. Girls have wombs and ovaries and feel like they are girls.

But there are a small proportion of people whose physical bodies don't fit with their emotional and psychological sense of their gender.

This mismatch used to be termed "gender identity disorder", but that moniker suggested that feeling dissatisfied or uncomfortable with your physical gender is a mental health problem, when, in fact, it isn't.

This feeling of dissatisfaction, that you are in the "wrong" body, is better described as "gender dysphoria". The term dysphoria encapsulates the feelings of anxiety, stress and discontent that can come with feeling different or feeling like you just don't "fit" with your body.

Our society gives very strong gendered messages about what boys "should" do and what they "should" like. It is the same for girls. Sometimes, this is explicit and you may have heard people tell children things like "boys don't cry", or "only girls play with dolls".

Other times, the messages are more subtle or implicit, such as a belief that "boys love sport" (does that mean that girls don't?). Or our understanding that "girls are bitchy" (does that mean that boys aren't mean?).

Your son is already expressing, clearly, how he differs from these cultural and societal expectations of gender. He likes playing with dolls, doing make-up, is interested in dresses and so on.

This strongly suggests to me that he may be part of that small minority of people whose gender identity doesn't fit their outward sexual characteristics. If so, he will probably have quite a lot of emotional struggle over the course of his life.

This is not about his sexuality, and so it is important that you do keep attuned to the fact that this is about his gender.

While he is with you, he may not feel judged negatively for this choices; indeed, it is crucial that he doesn't. However, you can't determine how other people, such as his peers, will react.

It is often that sense of being outside the cultural norms and being "different", and being judged negatively for it, that leads to the dysphoria I described above. It is a hard station to be in the "wrong" body and even harder to be teased or mocked for expressing yourself naturally.

It might be worth exploring, with him, if he has yet had any such sense of being different, or if he has been targeted by others for seeming different. Difficult though it may be, he may, in time, need to develop strategies to protect himself from the small-mindedness of others.

On a practical level, it will really help him to know that you "get" him and that you can understand that he does feel like he is a girl, he just happens to be in a boy's body.

It is more important that he knows that you love him, unconditionally, no matter how he feels about his gender. Your aim is to be neither dismissive nor encouraging, but simply to be accepting.

If he can experience that feeling of total acceptance, from you, it may prove to be very protective for him if he later struggles with the weight of societal pressure that may come to bear, telling him he is wrong to feel the way he feels about his gender.

Time is running out to choose the right school for our eldest boy but we can't decide!

My oldest child will be starting primary school in September. I am torn between sending him to the local school and bringing him to the school I teach in. If he comes to my school, I will be more involved in his life, will know his friends, and won't need childcare! It'll be an all-boys school. If he goes locally, he will be in a small co-ed school (he has a younger sister) and will be more integrated in the community. But we will need childcare to get him to and from school. There are advantages and disadvantages to both and we can't choose. What do you think?

DAVID: Choosing a school can be a very stressful decision to make, since we anticipate the ramifications of the choice stretching out for years ahead. Whatever that choice is, however, it is possible to change in the future if things really don't seem to work out.

So, while this may seem like a life-changing decision, it doesn't have to be imbued with feelings of terror, guilt and/or pressure. As long as you keep in mind to review the decision, after Junior Infants, for example, then you can relax into making as good as a choice as possible without feeling the pressure to have got it "right".

It sounds like there are a few different issues that you are grappling with, within the choice you have. To a certain extent, you may have to prioritise which of the various issues is the "deal-breaker" for you or for your son.

So, for example, one element of the choice is that you have to decide if an all-boys school might suit him more than a mixed school. Does this social milieu seem like the most important fit for your son? Does he have the capacity to mix well, so far, in any environment he finds himself in?

A lot of the research evidence suggests that boys do better, academically, in mixed gender schools. That research is more focused on teenagers in secondary school, however. In my view, a co-educational environment feels more natural.

You also have a choice to become independent of childcare or to continue to rely on it for years to come. Pragmatically, this might be a very serious financial consideration for you.

For example, if finances are tight, then it might be most important to reduce costs and so improve your overall standard of living. If money is less of an issue then the reliance on childcare is also less of an issue.

I do think there are many more benefits to having your child fully integrated in their local community. It means they are likely to be nearby to their friends, facilitating meeting up outside of school.

They are likely to be with their friends playing sports, outside of school too. If you are going for a denominational education, it also means that your children will be making their Communion, for example, with the other children in the parish.

Don't forget that the local school also allows your children to be in the same school in due course and this might be a real support for either or both of them.

The one issue that you haven't alluded to in your query is the quality of the schools, in terms of overall educational experience. This includes the academic focus of the school and the access to additional learning resources, if needed. Bigger schools often have more resources to hand.

But, it also includes the ambiance within a school and the quality of the teachers. Having the same teacher for several years (as is the case, typically, in small schools) can be either a positive or a negative.

You will know about the quality of your own school, but you may have to ask around to get a sense of the atmosphere of the local school.

I'd like the fact that my son and daughter could go to the same school locally. They'll probably continue to school with children that they are in childcare with. But I'd only choose that option if I felt the school itself offered the best quality of education.

But, since the choice is yours, not mine, you need to determine which element of the various factors involved tips the scale for you.


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