My Son Wants to Wear Nail Polish and a Dress—What Do I Do?

kids and gender expression"
kids and gender expression
Source: Philip Boakye / Pexels
Source: Philip Boakye / Pexels

Even though we have made significant progress in terms of understanding and supporting gender identity and fluidity, we still very much live in a society with “male” and “female” roles and expectations. This reality may or may not affect you directly, but when you become a parent, whether you agree or not, societal gender norms will be imposed on your child. But while gender is more of a spectrum rather than binary boxes, society can restrict a child’s free exploration of their gender identity. It is our responsibility as parents to establish open lines of communication to talk about gender identity with our children and avoid gender stereotyping as they explore who they are.        

If a young girl wants to play with monster trucks and not wear dresses, society generally condones this behavior. However, if a young boy wants to play with dolls and wear a dress, society tends to be less accepting of this behavior. This can prove challenging if you have a child who was born male and is expressing gender identity behaviors that are more “female.” As parents, you love your children unconditionally, but what can you do to support your children when they are challenging societal gender norms? 

We reached out to Dr. Tia Kim, PhD, Vice President of Research and Impact at the Committee for Children, to discuss childhood gender exploration. We also interviewed a family, Emily and Andrew, who have a transgender daughter, Zoey, who was born male and now identifies as female with the loving support of her parents. 

Meet the expert
Dr. Tia Kim
PhD and Vice President of Research and Impact at the Committee for Children
Dr. Kim serves on the executive leadership team for the Committee for Children, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to championing the safety and well-being of children through social-emotional learning.

Below, we’re sharing both expert advice and one family’s story to shed light on what gender identity and exploration are and how it manifests in our children. Our hope is to equip parents with the tools and confidence to support their children’s identity paths in an open, accepting, and inclusive manner.


Gender Identity Development in Children

Kids do not develop their gender identities in a uniform timeline. However, Dr. Kim did share some commonalities in terms of gender development.

  • 18-24 months: “Most children are able to recognize and label stereotypical gender groups. However, at this age, they will still have a limited understanding of the implications of various gender labels.”
  • Around ages 5-6 years old: “Children will start to become firmer in their gender preferences and beliefs. This often coincides with their understanding of which behaviors are starting to bring them the most rewards,” which tend to be those more socially acceptable.

As children grow older, their “feelings around gender become more flexible compared to when they were younger and they may be more able to actuate their authentic, inner identity. That identity may or may not coincide with their assigned sex,” Dr. Kim said.

Parents should be aware that even though their child may express a specific gender preference when they are younger, this may change as they grow and develop a stronger understanding of who they are.


What is Gender Identity Exploration?

Dr. Kim wants all parents to know it is completely normal for children to explore their gender identity at any age. According to Dr. Kim, “The issue is that gender stereotypes are reinforced by the environment around us and, often, by parents. Whether intentional or not, parents typically set the stage for gender typing.”

Parents do this in subtle and overt ways like buying pink clothes for girls and buying monster trucks for boys. Parents may coddle girls more if they get hurt and, on the other hand, encourage boys to “shake it off” and to not cry. These actions reinforce gender stereotypes to our children. “It’s our responsibility … to also nurture the growth and preferences of children who are exploring their identities in ways that are not gender stereotypical. No matter how our child identifies, we can always show them acceptance, love, and support,” Dr. Kim said.



Source: Vlada Karpovich | Pexels


One Family Share’s Their Child’s Gender Identity Exploration

I had the honor of interviewing Emily and Andrew, whose daughter, Zoey, was born male and is now almost 6 years old and identifies as female. Emily can now reflect on when her daughter was younger than 5 and can see that Zoey was always “female” inside. But this realization came after a complicated journey for her family that has involved a range of emotions that include fear, acceptance, and empowering feelings of advocacy. 

At around age 3, Zoey began wearing clothes from Emily’s closet, but Andrew and Emily weren’t very concerned with this behavior at that time. When she turned 4 years old, Zoey started to regularly wear a ski hat that had braided tassels on the ear flaps because, according to Emily, this gave Zoey the feeling of having long hair. A year later, Zoey was scheduled to begin preschool at a Catholic school, which had a binary gender dress code Zoey would have to follow. At this same time, Zoey began to display distressing behavior when told she would have to dress in boy clothing to go to this school.

Even though they were terrified of what Zoey’s gender fluidity could mean for her life, Emily and Andrew both knew their daughter was “a girl in her heart and mind.” Unfortunately, the Catholic school refused to accept Zoey’s gender fluidity, and Emily remembers they “were deeply hurt and we were scared that others would do the same thing to us [and reject us].” 

Emily recalls making the choice with Andrew “that our child’s spirit and well-being were far more important than our comfort and our friends/families’ comfort.” They fully supported Zoey, who began using “she/her” pronouns, wearing dresses and hair bows, and embracing long hair. Emily immediately noticed the change in Zoey’s spirit. “She thrived! Her face shined and her spirit was calmer. She needed the life experience of living as a girl for us to know if she was truly transgender,” Emily said. 


…our child’s spirit and well-being were far more important than our comfort and our friends/families’ comfort.


From that point on, Andrew and Emily made it their mission to “come out” to people on behalf of their daughter because of her young age. They’ve now come out to over 400 people and they do it so Zoey has “a fighting chance at a healthy, loving, and authentic life.” To Andrew and Emily, Zoey is fully a girl and they are at peace seeing their daughter happy in her gender identity even though their life can sometimes be more complicated. 


mother and child

Source: Ketut Subiyanto | Pexels


What to Do if Your Child is Expressing an Interest Challenging Gender Norms

“The best way to support a child in expressing themself fully is by taking the time to first understand the variety of terms surrounding gender. A person’s assigned sex at birth, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are all different and separate things and are not dependent on each other,” Dr. Kim said.

The sex assigned to a child at birth may not be the same as their gender identity—the internal sense of feeling male, female, both, or non-binary. At the same time, gender expression “is more about the different behaviors associated in the way we express our gender,” Dr. Kim said. For example, a child who identifies as a boy has a desire to play with dolls, which are typically associated with the female gender. Gender expression and gender identity don’t always coincide. 


A person’s assigned sex at birth, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are all different and separate things and are not dependent on each other.


Dr. Kim advised parents to accept and support their child’s interests no matter who they identify as. “It shows our children that their behaviors are not just accepted but that they are also celebrated—and that being whoever they feel they are and know themselves to be is a wonderful thing,” Dr. Kim said. This is precisely the path Emily and Andrew have taken with their daughter Zoey—they embrace and accept her for who she is.


Ways Parents Can Support Their Child’s Gender Exploration

As parents, we naturally want to protect our children from harm, ridicule, and feeling ostracized. Having a child whose identity and/or behavior is challenging gender norms can cause parents to initially feel panic and dread. Dr. Kim recommended the following ways to support a child’s gender exploration:

  • Validate their identity by reassuring them that you love them, but don’t just expect them to know you love and support them. Make sure you say it out loud to them and often,” Dr. Kim said.
  • Keep the channels of communication open. Keep an open mind when they have questions about gender exploration and identity.
  • Do not try to change, disregard, or invalidate their gender exploration and identity. 
  • Do not tell your child this is “just a phase” because this can do more harm than good. Dr. Kim issued this important reminder: “With this increased stigma and mistreatment, it is possible they may experience more severe mental health issues.” 
  • Advocate for your children and be strong allies in your external communities. One way to do this is by connecting with other families who have gender-diverse children, who can be a valuable support system to your child and your family. Also, “reach out to your child’s school to make them aware of your child’s preferences … [and] to ensure that bullying prevention and gender identity training are taught throughout the school,” said Dr. Kim.



Source: Kelvin França | Pexels


Advice and Lessons Learned from Zoey’s Parents

Emily believes the journey she and her family have gone through “is a transformation for the adults to go through … I learned that adults are scared of transgender individuals due to social programming. Kids today completely understand and accept it.”

Fear can cloud acceptance. On the other hand, Emily and her family have also received “so much praise, love, and support from people who I never thought would support us.” In the process, Emily has had to let go of seeking validation from others and worrying about their judgment and opinions. In many ways, parents learn best by following their child’s lead, which, in turn, may result in parents reevaluating their own beliefs.


In many ways, parents learn best by following their child’s lead, which, in turn, may result in parents reevaluating their own beliefs.


Andrew confessed that he was “carrying around a fear that other fathers would view me as weak and a failure as a male role model—that I have caused [Zoey’s transgender identity] in some way.” He recognized this fear was holding him back. Once he took the brave step to contact his close friends to let them know about Zoey, it gave him more energy and courage to advocate and create awareness for her gender transformation. He believes that “when it comes to our children, we all want to unconditionally love and support them, regardless of what the journey looks like.”

Andrew and Emily want to remind parents how special their children are. They want parents to be their child’s biggest advocate rather than “refusing their requests to be themselves, [which] will make you into their first bully … Let them be themselves fully so they can fulfill whatever purpose they were born to fulfill.”

According to Emily and Andrew, Zoey is just being who she was born to be—she is not trying to make a statement. Emily advised parents to be introspective and reflect on their own gender biases that can cloud their ability to love and accept their child unconditionally. “Suicide rates are far too high in young people and we need to start combatting that by seeing, hearing, and understanding young people so they can get the support they deserve,” Emily said.

This article is dedicated to Zoey and other children like her who so bravely make this world a more inclusive and beautiful place.

5 Ways to Help Children Avoid Gender Stereotypes
Click to Read