Boys Will Be Boys, Even If They Dress Like Girls

Dear Mr. Dad: I came home a little earlier than usual, walked into my bedroom, and saw my 6-year-old son sitting in front of the mirror, wearing one of my short dresses, heels, and applying mascara. He didn’t notice me at first because he was so busy talking to himself in the mirror. But as soon as he did, he scooted past me as fast as he could and went straight to his room. I’m worried and would like to talk with him about this, but he’s been avoiding me for days. What should I do?

A: You say that you’re worried, but you don’t say what, exactly, you’re worried about. If it’s simply that he was wearing your clothes, that’s probably not a big deal. In fact, at your son’s age, it’s a healthy sign. Playing dress-up gives kids a chance to explore what it might feel like to be someone else—even someone of the opposite sex—and that’s a skill that’s important as he learns about empathy.

If you’re worried that he may be gay or have a gender identity disorder, the chances are pretty slim. Pretending to be of the opposite sex is by no means an accurate predictor of anything–especially at your son’s age. To put this in perspective, ask yourself whether you’d be as worried if your son were a girl and you caught her trying on her dad’s clothes. For some reason, we’re generally okay with girls who dress like boys, but boys who dress like girls set off all sorts of alarms. Interestingly, children are often even less tolerant than adults of their peers (especially boys) who don’t wear the clothes they’re “supposed to.”

That said, there are a few behaviors that could be signs of a gender identity disorder. These include using opposite-sex pronouns when referring to one’s self; insisting on always dressing in opposite-sex clothes, even when going to school or elsewhere; being disgusted by one’s own genitals; and genuinely believing that he or she will grow up to be the opposite sex. But these are just indicators, nothing more. My oldest daughter spent a year and a half when she was little wearing boy’s suit and cap every day and demanding to be called Oliver Twist. She eventually grew out of it and has been just fine ever since.

If you’ve noticed more than one of these symptoms, I’d talk it over with your son’s pediatrician. But don’t make a big deal of it in front of your son. Whether you act overjoyed or you cringe in horror, you’ll be telling him that something is wrong, and he may become even more secretive than he already is.

As far as what to do now, set up a special mom-son outing and apologize. The goal is to build (or rebuild) trust; you want him to feel comfortable talking with you about this (and everything else as he gets older). As nonchalantly and non-judgmentally as possible, ask what made him want to dress up in your clothes. Maybe it’s that he likes the clomping sound your heels make. Maybe he just loves you so much that he wants to be just like you. Or maybe he sees how your husband reacts when you get all dolled up and wants Dad to pay as much attention to him as he does to you.

To sum it all up, don’t overreact, be supportive, and make sure your son knows that you’ll love him no matter what he’s wearing—even if it’s not at all flattering.