My Daughter Wants To Look Like a Boy

In this episode: Janet responds to a parent whose daughter decided at 4 years old that she didn’t like herself, chopped her hair short and switched out her wardrobe for boys’ clothes. While this mom has tried not to make a big issue of her daughter’s choices, now that she’s 6 years old she admits, “Deep down it bothers me that she seems to want to look like a boy.” She says she loves her daughter dearly and wants a great relationship with her. “How do I go about accepting who my daughter wants to be?”

Transcript of “My Daughter Wants To Look Like a Boy”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to an email I got from a parent with an almost six-year-old daughter. And this girl decided she wanted to cut her hair short, and has started choosing clothes designed for boys. And this mom says that she realizes accepting who her daughter wants to be is the correct path, but admits that deep down it bothers her. So she struggles.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi Janet, I find your podcast so insightful, as your parenting philosophy really speaks to me. And I love how you give very practical advice that I can implement right away. I know you must get a ton of questions, but I’m struggling to find resources on this particular topic, and someone who I can ask without judgment. My oldest daughter is almost six years old. For the longest time, I wanted to have a little girl, and pictured matching mother/daughter outfits, ballet classes, braiding her hair, et cetera, though I never pushed any of this on her.

The little girl I have today is the opposite of this. When she was almost four years old, she started looking in the mirror while pulling her hair very distraught, and saying she didn’t like herself. This was very worrisome to me. A few months later, she decided she wanted to chop off all her hair, which we allowed her to do. And I realized that getting dressed in the morning was such a struggle because she did not like girl clothes

We let her pick out her own wardrobe from the boy’s section, and she seemed much happier. Wherever we go, people refer to her as a boy, and she claims that it actually bothers her, but she is too shy to correct them. She has told me that she knows she’s a girl, but just likes boy things. So while I do realize that this would be a non-issue for many people, and that letting her be and not making an issue of anything is the correct path. And this is exactly what I’ve tried to do, I have to admit that deep down it bothers me that she seems to want to look like a boy.

And so my question is how do I go about accepting who my daughter wants to be? I love her dearly. She is very sweet and bright, and I want our relationship to be the best it can be as she gets older. I should add that I had a wonderful relationship with my mother, and she passed away shortly after my daughter was born. And I know this affects how this whole situation has triggered my emotions. Any help you can give me is greatly appreciated. Thank you, Janet.”

Okay, so wow, this parent is very evolved in her ability to self-reflect. She understands herself, she is very perceptive. She has all the qualities she needs to have a wonderful relationship with her daughter, the kind of relationship she had with her own mother. And she even really knows the answer here. She knows that the answer is to trust her daughter and let her be.

So, what I want to do is encourage her, and try to help her feel better about trust. So much of what I write about and podcast about involves setting limits, guiding our children’s behavior, while modeling those character traits that we hope to instill in them. But there’s a whole other equally important aspect to parenting, and that’s the trust piece. The first principle of Magda Gerber’s approach is basic trust in the child as an initiator, an explorer, and a self-learner. And this has been my favorite of her principles because, for me, it is where all the joy and wonderful surprises are. Or most of them at least.

This is the part where I get to get out of the driver’s seat and let my child drive, because she knows these roads best. And directing her journey would only thwart her ability to find her way, maybe even permanently. Not only is this important for our children, but it’s wonderfully freeing for us to brave trust. To be able to do this, I think we have to acknowledge, fully own, perhaps grieve sometimes our wishes and hopes and fantasies about who our children will be, and who they are.

I’ve worked with many parents who were disappointed, for example, that their daughters embraced princesses and frilly clothes and girly stuff. They wanted their daughter to be more gender neutral. And those parents have come to me for advice and I’ve tried to help them see that their children are on a journey, and this is just where they are right now.

And yes, there may be indications of deeper feelings and perspectives on life that our children have, feelings about their gender. But we don’t know that yet. All we know is that this is where they are right now, and the best thing we can do, as this parent knows, is to trust that, and embrace it. And encourage it, actually. Giving our children that strength for the journey that they need.

We have so much power over our children in this way. We can help strengthen them in who they are, give them that comfort in their skin, and that relationship with us that is so affirming of them. It’s this opportunity that we have, and again, it does mean being brave and allowing it to be okay that we feel whatever we feel. Fear, disappointment, there’s no shame in that.

I hear from parents that are readers and writers, and they’re disappointed or concerned that their young children don’t seem interested in those types of pursuits. I hear from other parents who are worried that their children aren’t active enough, and they’re very active and their children don’t seem sporty. They don’t want to do those kinds of activities. I hear from other parents who are concerned about their children being too shy, or introverted. As we explore, it often turns out that that parent or the other parent has that kind of temperament as well.

So, these hopes and wishes we have can go all different directions. They can be us wanting be our child to be the opposite of what we are, or wanting our child to be similar to who we are. Those are all interesting things to explore in ourselves, but to ideally then put in their place. That doesn’t mean ignoring them, but it means taking them out of the way of this important relationship, and all these qualities we want to foster in our children, self-confidence, trust in themselves, conviction in their path, that sense of generosity that comes from feeling secure in who we are. We can give children that. We have that power.

So, really this parent is already doing this work. She is observing her child. She is allowing her to make these choices. But it sounds like she’s still suffering inside. And just as we want to encourage our children to feel whatever they’re feeling, I would love to encourage this parent to sit in that, and allow those feelings to have a life. Not to tell herself she shouldn’t feel that way, and it’s wrong, and she really needs to stop. But to just sit and wallow in the disappointment. Cry the tears, be afraid, be sad. Be all of those things. It’s okay.

What that does also is it helps our children to actually be purely on their journey, because sometimes our feelings, if they aren’t resolved in us, or if we’re not really seeing them and dealing with them and allowing them to be, they can kind of bleed out into our child’s awareness in ways that we don’t even realize. Because children, again, are so sensitive and impressionable and open, especially to what we feel and think.

So if, for example, this mother is trying to hold onto feelings that she has, and tells herself she shouldn’t feel those, and try to ignore them and just be unruffled and be okay with things that she really isn’t okay with, her child may know that on some level. And then these interests that they have, or these wishes that they have could sometimes even get into being a pushback on us, and not as purely theirs, a way of resisting something that they feel is not accepted completely by us. So that’s just another reason to take that out of the way by owning it, and allowing ourselves to process it.

This parent says, “Well I do realize that this would be a non-issue for many people, and that letting her be and not making an issue of anything is the correct path. And this is exactly what I’ve tried to do. I have to admit that deep down it bothers me that she seems to want to look like a boy. And so my question is how do I go about accepting who my daughter wants to be?”

Accepting who she wants to be begins with accepting ourselves and how we feel about things. And loving ourselves as we are. Self-acceptance has to proceed or at least coincide with trusting our children. It starts with us, accepting where we are in this journey.

Raising children with trust is not a smooth ride for any of us. There are always going to be bumps. There are always going to be places that we start to doubt or fear, or are disappointed. That’s okay, we keep moving forward.

Parenting is about worrying. And learning and relearning how to let go. Our children know best about learning and being themselves, being who they are. They’ve got this.

It also needs to be okay for her to be bothered by people referring to her as a boy, and for you to acknowledge and allow those feelings. And not try to fix these feelings in any way. This is, again, part of her process, part of her journey.

If children get the sense that we want them to treat those situations differently, then instead of helping them to feel the confidence they need to be able to engage with people that way, it actually makes them feel less capable because, essentially, what we’re saying is what you’re doing isn’t enough, you need to do more. I know this parent doesn’t mean to say that, but that’s how it can come across to a child, which actually isn’t confidence building.

She’s right where she’s supposed to be.

I also love how this mother speaks about the wonderful relationship with her mother, and that she passed away shortly after her daughter was born, and she knows this affects how this whole situation has triggered her. It’s normal to want to replicate a relationship that we’ve lost, and that’s just not possible. So maybe there’s some grief there that this parent still needs to process and allow herself to feel.

I really hope some of this helps.

Also, please check out some of my other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com, they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. Also, both of my books are available on audio at Audible. No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. Just follow the link in the liner notes of this podcast or go to the book section of my website. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also, my exclusive audio series, Sessions. These are six individual recordings of consultations with parents, discussing their specific parenting issues. And these are available by going to sessionsaudio.com. That’s sessions, plural, audio.com. You can read a description of each episode and order them individually, or get them all, about three hours of audio, for just under $20. Sessionsaudio.com.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

4 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi Janet, I’m a longtime reader, a parent (my kid’s almost three), and a trans person with a trans partner. Thank you so much for this kind and caring response. It means a great deal to me to see a respected expert on early childhood encourage parents to let their kids do gender exploration on their own terms. I especially appreciate that you related the mother’s concerns to the concerns of all kinds of parents who have all kinds of dreams for their kids—you’re absolutely right that parents trying to shape their children or imagine futures for their children is the overarching issue here, and gender just happens to be the field it’s playing out on for this particular family.

    “I don’t like people calling me a boy but I’m too shy to correct them” sounds to me like it could be true, or it could be the child saying, “I like people calling me a boy but I think it upsets YOU, Mom, so here’s my excuse for not correcting them.” Kids are so sensitive to their parents’ feelings around this, especially at an age where their peers are absorbing and reflecting gender role information from their families and the culture. Six is not too young to feel anxious about a parent’s opinion of gender non-conformity, and of course loving kids also sometimes want to protect their parents from being upset. This mother really needs to be openly welcoming of all the possibilities, including a child whose feelings around gender fluctuate occasionally or often (that’s not a common narrative of gender experience, but it actually happens to a lot of people, both children and adults). If her child does eventually want to be called a boy, she needs to be ready to hear that and support it.

    I helped put on a My Little Pony–themed party for a friend’s son when he turned six, and I overheard other six-year-olds saying to each other, “It’s weird that he’s a boy who wears pink and likes unicorns.” That was also around the age where teasing and bullying started over his unwillingness to conform to male gender roles, and the boy’s teachers did little to stop it despite school policies explicitly supporting gender non-conforming kids. (This is in a very progressive neighborhood of a major city.) I hope the mother who wrote to you, who is so full of love for her child, can find it in herself to be a stalwart champion who says, “I will take your side against bullies no matter what, and I will fight for you to get to wear your hair and wear your clothes however you want to, and I will make sure you’re called by whatever words feel right to you.” Her child may end up needing such a champion. That’s a big part of why this mother needs to grieve and come to terms with the loss her fantasy so she can help support her child through a sometimes challenging reality.

    Some book recommendations for mom and kid: Introducing Teddy, Red: A Crayon’s Story, Julián Is a Mermaid, Annie’s Plaid Shirt, A House for Everyone, Sparkle Boy, Brontorina. Some are more explicitly about gender and others are about making space for everyone to be who they are. All are appropriate for a six-year-old, and also for a mother who’s trying to be the very best parent for her brave child.

    Lots of love to this family. I hope they take your advice to heart.

    1. Hi Rose! Wow, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and insights, all of which I imagine will be helpful to this family. This thought occurred to me as well: “it could be the child saying, ‘I like people calling me a boy but I think it upsets you, Mom, so here’s my excuse for not correcting them.’” It never ceases to amaze me how aware children are of our feelings, even (or especially) those we try to hide. I share your wish for this child and parent to get all the support they need to continue to flourish.

  2. avatar Aren Stone says:

    Lovely and empathic answer. I’ll just add that it might be helpful to reframe what a boy and what a girl is supposed to look like (and act like). I truly believe that many children, whether they’re grappling with their gender and/or gender expression or not, would be happier if these expectations and ‘supposed tos’ were dropped. I know that’s not easy for some adults. This child is doing such a good job wanting to look like herself. And this mother is doing a good job at the work of being a parent and facing hard questions. Your advice to sit in the present, with all of its discomforts, is wise.

    1. Well said, Aren, and thanks for your kind words.

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