Gender conformity and social difficulties: what would you do?

So say you’re the parent of a little boy who likes to play with dolls and wear dresses. He’s only 4 and he’s already getting teased at school… he comes home miserable every day. You and your co-parent don’t have a problem with gender nonconformity, but you have a big problem with seeing your child unhappy.

Suppose, further, that you have a well-recommended therapist who tells you that they’ve had some success in helping gender non-conforming kids get more comfortable performing their socially-accepted gender. They assure you that they do this not by shaming or belittling the child’s preferences, but by encouraging them to find things that they do enjoy and value that fit within their prescribed gender role. (Note: I don’t know what the standard approach is for treating GIDC. This is my best guess.)

So you have lots of options. You can take your child out of school and either homeschool or find a school where his gender performance is accepted (the latter will be difficult, and might involve moving your entire family.) You can let him tough it out in his current environment and do your best to give him enough love and encouragement at home to balance it out. Or you can take him to therapy. What would you do? And why?

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5 thoughts on “Gender conformity and social difficulties: what would you do?

  1. In the midst of imaginatively placing myself in this scenario, in no variation of it can I see myself taking my child to therapy so that they can get “more comfortable” with a socially acceptable gender role. The way you’ve constructed the scenario, its seems that the goal of taking him to therapy would be mainly a reduction in teasing from other children due to an ability to more closely identify with with more normatively gendered boys. I find this slightly disturbing, but I’m even more disturbed by what I found in my short time poking around looking at GIDC therapies. It seems that one of the goals of treating GIDC has, at least in the very recent past, been to prevent transsexualism. Now, gender non-conformity doesn’t necessarily indicate that one may be trans later in life. But I’d be very, very concerned about the effect of such therapy on my child if he were trans, as “gentle” as the therapy may be. Discomfort with one’s assigned sex often manifests itself in extremely painful ways at very early ages. If a child suffers from the kind of gender dysphoria that leads to a desire for a sex change, I think it’s quite cruel to force normative gender roles on them, teasing or no teasing. As people who are more or less comfortable in our own bodies, we have to be really careful not to underestimate the pain and suffering caused by the sense of being born in the wrong body and assigned the wrong gender roles.

    That being said, if my child was gender-queer rather than trans, I still don’t think it’s right to send him to therapy. As “gentle” as the therapist claims to be, it still socialization into a normative gender role, which the child clearly does not find natural. I’d be very concerned about the underlying messages being sent in therapy sessions… that it’s “better” for him to play war than to play dolls, if he wants to make friends with other boys? I think it would be nearly impossible for him not to get the sense that he’d been doing something wrong by playing in the way that felt most comfortable and natural to him. His preference for “girl things” is clearly quite strong… to be assigned male at birth and still play with girl things/dress as a girl means that he is already resisting profound social pressures. He’s not dressing the way that he sees other boys/men dress. He’s not playing with the toys that he sees other boys playing with. He’s also probably not primarily playing with the toys that grandma gave him for Christmas. To continue to encourage him in the direction of gender normative behavior that he’s already been resisting could be quite damaging. I refuse to believe that the result of such therapy would be positive and affirming. I think it’s much more likely that, well-intentioned as it is, it could cause unnecessary long-term pain and suffering to my child.

    Let’s flip the script for the moment. If I had a child who did (mostly) accept a normative gender role, would I send him to therapy so he could be encouraged to discover girly things that he liked? Probably not. Many parents would consider that pretty silly and even maybe a little mean. This is not to say that I won’t try to encourage my sons to have an appreciation for, and know how to perform, traditionally feminine tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, and child-care. But I wouldn’t send them to therapy. So if my 4 year old who plays with dolls gets sent to therapy while his big brother who plays with trucks doesn’t, what is that going to communicate to my 4 year old? That his behavior is pathological and needs to be corrected. That he’s doing something wrong. That his playing with dolls and dresses doesn’t make mommy completely happy. I would never want to send my child these messages.

    With that said, I’d probably homeschool, for a few years at least. I’d want to spend some time helping my child get comfortable with his identity and build some self-esteem. I want to teach ALL my children what “normative gender roles” look like, but I will also emphasize to them that they are allowed to pick and choose what feels most comfortable to them and discard what is not comfortable. I think it’s important for children to be aware of what is normative without feeling undue pressure to conform to it. Rather, I want them to learn to critically examine norms while choosing who they themselves want to be. I don’t trust a GIDC therapist to teach them this.

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  2. There’s too much context sensitive decision making here to call it based on the above. Exactly how bad is he being treated at school, and are the adults there part of the problem. He’s only 4, but that means his school age classmates are also only 4. I might host some play-date like parties for my kid and some of his classmates (and their parents) to see if some positive by-osmosis style improvements could be made in that direction.
    And absolutely, I would explore what the other school options are, but the choice couldn’t be made without knowing the details: are better schools available in our current geographic location, is moving reasonable, what are the trade-offs. Therapy might be a good idea all around, as it sounds like the little guy is having a rough time, and clearly immediate changes to environment isn’t available in this scenario, but I would be skeptical of the specific form of therapy you’re suggesting, which sounds pretty dodgy to me. I mean, sure, finding things one likes to do is always valuable, but in the context of so that you don’t do those other (what, how does the 4yo interpret it: shameful?) things doesn’t seem like an improvement. Now, not only is he being teased by his peers, but his parents are sanctioning this nonsense. :/ Better to try just being as loving and accepting as possible at home, and try to help him feel strong in the things he loves to do within the context of the environment he’s in, because he’s going to have to be strong to thrive in that environment, or find/make a better environment.

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  3. The answer seems pretty obvious to me – f*ck school! (For many reasons, not just the harmful social environment it creates as in the example above). For whoever hasn’t read “Dumbing Us Down” or “The Underground History of American Education” by award-winning former teacher John Taylor-Gatto, please please familiarize yourself a bit with the true origin, purpose, and effect of modern schooling. As in so many other ways, the state has set things up to remove alternatives and coerce parents as much as they can, but alternatives do still exist. By far the best are unschooling, and free schools – traditional homeschooling is not that different from schools, just exchanging the toxic social environment with an isolating one.

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  4. I agree with the consensus of “therapy is the worst idea” that seems to be developing here. The only therapy I would support for the child is the kind that is going to teach him self-esteem and possibly tactics for dealing with bullying. That’s the real issue here; the kid isn’t doing anything wrong, other kids are bullying him, and the adult figures involved aren’t doing their job.

    I really want to emphasize that last point, because I’m currently working at a school with kids only a little older than the ones in your example. If said school is any kind of place that kids belong, the teachers should not be tolerating bullying. Now, in upper elementary/middle/high school, children can be a bit sneaky, and teachers may have problems catching behavior they can properly penalize, but 4 year olds are different. They are still getting the knack of the whole subtle thing and they are being heavily supervised at all times, hopefully by both a teacher and a teacher’s aide. The academia isn’t really challenging at that age, and what you are teaching them is as much about social skills and following directions as anything academic. Furthermore, kids that age are pretty flexible. They don’t have entrenched biases against gay or trans people. If an adult says “its fine to be a boy who likes pink,” then they will listen. And finally, they are tiny. They can be physically picked up and gently placed in a time out if necessary. If serious, depression causing bullying is going on in your 4 year old’s class, bullying motivated by anything, either the teachers ethics or competence is questionable.

    So my response is; fuck therapy, the kid isn’t doing anything pathological (the recently reissued WPATH standards of care backs me up on this, yay!). Have some meetings with the teacher, and if you aren’t satisfied with how they are handling the situation, take a break to homeschool or change schools. You don’t want that teacher anyways.

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  5. I would avoid therapy as well as I feel it would send the message that what’s happening to him at school is his fault not the fault of the boys who are picking on him. Also it might send the message that even his parents think there’s something wrong with him, when there isn’t. I can’t imagine that would do wonders for his self self esteem.

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