My Advice For Raising A Gender Creative Son

Back in September, I wrote an essay for containing my advice for raising a gender creative boy.   I got wordy – as I tend to do – and the word count of my original essay was edited down.  I get asked (a lot) for my advice and, so, I’m publishing my full essay here now.  If you have advice, please leave a comment below.

My youngest son is six years old and his life is divided into two parts: before Barbie and after Barbie.

During the first two and a half years of his life, C.J. was largely underwhelmed buy the clothes and toys passed down from his older brother.  Nothing seemed to excite him, until he discovered a new Barbie in the back of my closet.  He insisted on opening the box and playing with her.  By his third birthday he could name every Disney Princess and her movie of origin.  Shortly thereafter he started dressing like a girl at home.   When he was old enough to explain himself, he told us that he is a boy who only likes girl things and wants to be treated like a girl.

I wanted information about raising a child like mine – a little boy who was a girl at heart, with a penchant for pink, sparkles and everything fabulous – but couldn’t find any.  I searched for blogs.  Nothing.  I searched popular parenting sites.  Nothing.  I conducted countless, random Google searches.  Nothing.

I complained about the lack of information to my friends.  They all agreed that I couldn’t possibly be the only person cyber-searching and that I should start my own blog.

After months of procrastination, I did it. went live in January 2011. My readers quickly educated me; they are the ones who taught me that my son is gender nonconforming.  That was back when I had no idea what I was doing or what I was writing about.  Now that I know a little more, I try to help the people who contact me with questions or concerns about raising a child who shuns traditional gender norms.

Here are the things that I most often tell them:

Chill out and give it some time.  My husband and I have been there, in that early, panicked rush to figure out what was going on with our son and if he was going through a phase or if his behaviors had some deeper meaning.  The only way to tell if something is a phase is to wait it out and patiently observe it.  If the behaviors go on for an extended period of time your child may be gender nonconforming.  My son has definitely taught me patience.

Search out resources and funnel your energy into getting educated.  Learn the distinct differences between sex, gender and sexuality.  Sex is what’s in your underwear that determines if you are male or female.  Gender is what’s in your brain that tells you if you are male or female.  And sexuality is what’s in your heart that tells you who you are attracted to.  Read Diane Ehrensaft’s Gender Born, Gender Made and my book Raising My Rainbow.  PFLAG and Gender Spectrum are amazing organizations and resources for families like ours.  Support is out there, I promise.

Ask yourself some tough questions and make decisions.   Is your job to love your child or change him?  Is your child free to be who he was created to be?  Is there room for shame in childhood?  Who are you working to make feel comfortable, your child or everyone else?  Will you be his first bully?

This isn’t about you so don’t take it personal.   According to Gender Spectrum, significant gender variance or a transgender identity occurs in as many as one of every 500 births – making it more common than childhood diabetes.  A few months after C.J. found Barbie, I found the following quote: “You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.”  I want my son to live a life.  I have to let him go the way his blood beats.

Gather a stellar supporting cast.  Like any family raising a child with special or unique needs, you’ll benefit from help.  We’d be lost without our family, friends, pediatrician, therapist and child advocate.  Children like C.J. have the highest rate of suicide attempts in the world and are much more likely to suffer from major depressions, substance abuse and unsafe sexual behaviors.  To raise a healthy gender nonconforming child, it’s going to take more than one or two people.

Don’t forget the siblings.  Diane Ehrensaft recently said, “It takes a family to launch a gender nonconforming child, but that’s not necessarily what a sibling wants to do or how they want to spend their time.  Are we asking siblings to step outside their comfort zone and/or do too much?”   Siblings have their own anxieties, confusions and vulnerabilities.  They need empathy and support, too.

Know your child’s rights at school and know that their siblings are a protected as well.   We always expected that C.J. would be bullied and teased for his gender nonconformity, but we didn’t anticipate that his older brother would have to endure it first.  The Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools program has a wealth of information, as does Gender Spectrum.  Get yourself really familiar with Title IX and your state’s safe school laws.

Show your child examples of other kids like him.   We are lucky enough to be a part of a gender nonconforming playgroup.  Every month or so, my son gets to play with a group of boys just like him.  Not everyone is that lucky.  Before we had our playgroup, we read lots of books about kids who are gender nonconforming or different from the norms of society.  Our favorites are The Boy Who Cried Fabulous, A Fire Engine for Ruthie and anything else by Leslea Newman.  We also love My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis and Roland Humphrey is Wearing a What? by Eileen Kiernan-Johnson.   Todd Parr books are great, too.

Enjoy the path less traveled.  You’re not weird, you’re different and if everybody were the same this world would be a very boring place.  Paint nails, braid hair, tap dance, smile big.  We watch everybody stressing out to keep up with the Joneses as our son sketches a dress he wants to sew for himself.  Then he takes a bath with strawberry scented soap and spritzes himself with raspberry-vanilla body spray before putting on his nightgown.

Diane Ehrensaft has said, “Gender creative children are blessed with the ability to hold on to the concept — that we all had one time in our lives — that we were free to be anything we wanted – boy, girl, maybe both.”

Or son continues to hold on to the concept and he has retaught it to us as well.


About raisingmyrainbow is a blog about the adventures in raising a fabulous, gender creative son.
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23 Responses to My Advice For Raising A Gender Creative Son

  1. aneta says:

    I think everybody is a bit non-comforming, here, or there, big time, or in a small way. That’s why I find your parental attitude so touching 🙂 Everybody deserves parents like you, I wish everybody has had them

  2. Ericka says:

    Hello! i have a question:
    whats the difference between gender non conforming and transgender?
    Some days ago I found a video on transgender kids and thought it was very interesting and something I knew nothing about. This is the video:
    I am glad I found out about this because if I ever have a child or know of somewone going through this experience I will be supportive.
    Keep up the good job 🙂

    • Aaren says:

      Gender non-conforming is about gender expression – how someone expresses their gender identity externally like with clothing and such. Someone’s forms of gender expression may or may not fit into stereotypes or gender-specific trends. Transgender is a term people can use to describe themselves if their gender identities don’t “line up” with their identities assigned at birth or sexes assigned at birth. Non-binary people may or may not choose to use transgender to describe themselves too, whatever is most accurate to themselves is most important.
      So, depending on gender expression, someone who identifies as transgender could also be gender non-conforming.
      Please (politely?) correct me if I’m wrong!

  3. Kathie says:

    Thank you for creating this blog. Sharing your own experiences, and how you deal with them, is a great service to help other parents who may be feeling isolated, and confused about how to react toward their own child. Keep up the good work. You are a great mom. God Bless

  4. Bev says:

    I’m reading your book and appreciate your insight…I’ve taught 5-7 year olds for years and it’s always been a concern how to avoid labeling children.
    Years ago I bought LEGOs for a free choice center but noticed how only the boys would choose these and not the girls. So in order to help the girls become future engineers too I purchased a pink tub of “home and garden” items. Then it became an issue where boys shouldn’t pick the pink set….I quickly taught them how both sets could be played with because building is building. I’m happy to report that 20 years later I have removed the stigma of LEGOs being a gender preferred toy as they all can choose it freely. Problem is LEGOs needs to produce more pink sets…..I haven’t been able to replace pieces as they do tend to think only boys like it…..if they’d make it pink they’d remove the boy girl stigma that’s so subtly attached.

  5. Rachel says:

    I love this. There isn’t much information out there. I will be sending this to a friend whose son is learning towards non-conforming for the time being. Thanks!

  6. Glenn says:

    This is a great list. You saved us during that critical time when we first realized our son would be making some unusual choices (dress up time during our first visit to pre-school and he went straight to the tutus, put one on, twirled around, and beamed at me: “Look, Daddy. I’m a princess!”). I didn’t know how to react! Part of me saw that he was being adorable, but part of me worried about what the teachers would think of our parenting. I really needed the reality check that I found in your blog: this is not about me, it’s about him.

    I would just add one thing to the list – be vocal and let him know you love and support him. We let our son know that Daddy and Papa always have his back. Sometimes it’s just the little things. For example, he may get plenty of compliments about his striped shirt or cowboy boots, but when he wears a dress – silence (from some, others are very supportive). So we make a point to compliment his clothing choices equally, regardless of gender category. Loudly. In front of others. We tell him that what matters is that he likes his choices, and we like that his clothes make him feel happy. And sometimes actions speak louder than words. When grandfather made a negative comment about my son’s painted fingernails (we found some non-toxic nail polish for him, so that he would stop using paint or felt markers), I asked my son to help me paint my nails. I had never painted my nails in my life, but I love that my son leads me to try new things (and, by the way, we both looked fabulous).

    • mdaniels4 says:

      That’s the whole point Glenn. If the tutu makes him happy so what? It’s tutu. We make all this stuff up about gender, all the time. Laugh at my cowboy boots but don’t say a word about my tutu. What a bunch of nonsense. I really can’t think of any product beyond a couple of items that are gender specific. Seiriously. Think of them. Just the ones we made them up to be. I wear polish on my toes because it makes me happy. Why I have no idea, but I suspect it’s for the same reason it makes women happy- it looks cool with color. Big deal. I like it and I can take the ribbing if I need too. Mostly I get silence but that doesn’t bother me either. Life is just too darn short. Have fun, hurt no one else and do your thing. It’ll all be over soon enough.

  7. Ally says:

    Just wanted to tell a quick story that makes me think things are slowly but surely getting better. A couple of days ago, my son’s coach told him to “take off that necklace or get of the team, sugar plum”. My son refused and said “don’t call me names” and the coach kicked him out of practice. I was livid. The 2nd coach who was there gave me the lame excuse, “he’s just an old school coach who doesn’t know better”. I spoke to the superintendent, the principal and the counselor and was surprised how seriously they took it and how swiftly they took action. The coach’s initial response was that he calls everyone that and wasn’t insinuating my son was gay. Like that made it okay. The school’s response was zero tolerance and explained that the point was no kid will be treated that way, gay or straight. So one small victory, one old school bully of a coach was dragged against his will into this decade this week! 🙂 And a bigger victory, I saw my once shy, little bit awkward kid stand up for himself and refuse to back down to a big bully and was not the least bit intimidated.

  8. mdaniels4 says:

    Great post, Lori. Very practical and down to earth advice. The funny part to me is that this advice can be utilized for almost everything in life. Not just this one specific situation. Not one of us on this planet doesn’t have their quirks and atypicaless-ness. Some of those quirks are more open and noticeable than others. We all want to live our lives as we think we should want it to be for ourselves, bristle at the thought of anyone else defining for us what they think of how we are to live it, and then turn right around and go out of our way to impose just that on someone else. How odd is that.

    I also think there is a fourth part to the human sexual self that is something else than sex, gender and sexuality. I think that expression could be added to that mix. So I take a look, and see i’m male or female. Then I feel inside that I’m a man or woman. Then I know that i’m straight, bi, or same sex attracted. And finally I express myself to various degrees of the common traits, or rather stereotypically understood behaviors of one, or both of the the sexes. So one, just using a male as an example, looks in the mirror after a shower, and objectively sees he’s anatomically male. Then he thinks he’s a handsome dude. Then he gets ready to go out to meet his date, a girl he has known for quite awhile. To him she is just so attractive, and then decides if today he’ll wear that skirt, or maybe trousers, depending on how he feels, and maybe a bit of mascara to highlight his eyes. Either way, the fellow is so looking forward to their shopping trip, long and personally connecting conversation, then cooking for them for dinner, and then discussing his ideas for a total room decor makeover. A perfect day as he is just free to be himself. The way god made him to be.

  9. Khai says:

    As a genderqueer individual raised in a world where men were definitely men and women were definitely women (here defined as someone who is docile, submissive, and good at homemaking)…

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I really wish my parents had not only been open to the idea of gender non conformity, but had had resources to deal with it when their precious little girl turned out to be, not just a tomboy, but someone who definitely wanted to grow up to be a daddy.

  10. carol says:

    I really do like your blog. You are hardly the first parent to try to be supportive though. The Children’s National Medical Center has had a program for parents of gender non conforming kids since 1999. Keep up the good work – but please don’t claim there was nothing out there before you.

    • Hi Carol, I simply said that I couldn’t find anything when I was looking. Later I did find Children’s National Medical Center and their listserv. When I applied to join, the cost was $199 — which at the time wasn’t doable for us and I had already started this blog. I heard that they used to be free to join. Do you, by any chance, know the current pricing? Thanks! Lori

      • carol says:

        True, there is an interview process and a fee. I think currently $125. The fee can be waived if the family cant afford it. Also there is a yearly weekend camp for the whole family which is a lot of fun. Cheers!

  11. kylieball says:

    Amazingly, we have our very own C.J.! (Cooper James), is now 4 years old, and the youngest sibling of 4. He has three older brothers who all identify strongly as male. One of the loveliest lessons is watching my 6 year old who is definitely a “Man’s man”, now helping our C.J. into his latest fabulously flamboyant sparkly number! One of my strongest pieces of advice is to slow down and realise that this is not a situation that you can control. I was so frantic in the beginning of this journey, that i almost felt we had to have him “diagnosed” and “transitioned” within the year! How wrong could I be. At this point we believe our C.J. too, is gender non-conforming and not transgender. The future is not certain, but we are learning to chill out and go with it. Also, I have learnt to be comfortable to speak with people from all facets of our lives about our journey so far. I find that the more I can do this the less chance they get to make up their own version of events! From our C.J. to yours, and from one loving Mum to another, thank you for being “out there” for all of us in here. Kylie, Mum of 4. Melbourne, VIC, Australia. x

  12. kylieball says:

    We have our own little C.J. too! (Cooper James) is 4. My biggest lesson to learn so far, is that although we know he is gender non-conforming, we still need to sit back and let him be happy with that. When we began the journey, I felt desperate to “diagnose” him and began “transitioning” him in my mind as a transgender child, but we are some way off knowing where this might take our C.J. I am learning to hold back on trying to control that which cannot be controlled! Also, education and understanding is definitely the key. I now feel confident talking to people of all facets of our lives about our unique little fabulous frock fancier. The more they hear from me, the less able they are to make up their own version of events. Thanks for being “out there” for all of us in here! Kylie, Mother of 4, Melbourne, VIC, Australia.

  13. LiberalMom says:

    You always say the right things at the right time! We just went to our first therapy session today (only hubby+myself), and I am immediately going to e-mail this to my hubby, and print this off for our new therapist. Cross your fingers:-)

  14. Carrie Pratt says:

    I would love to meet you one day!!!!!!!! Actually, I would love to have a friend like you!!!! 🙂 We most def think the same way!!!! You should all be very, very proud of yourself. You have millions of supporters!!!! Keep it up!!

  15. I wish there’d been a blog like this when I was raising my son, who’s now sixteen. He’s six feet tall, growing his purple hair long and (so far) identifies as “questioning” as well as considering himself “mostly female on the inside but male on the outside” and wants to be called he/him. Your blog brings back some memories.

    Also, is there an update at all on the washroom incident(s)?

  16. ChelseaT says:

    Your posts are always so wonderful. Positive, but practical.

  17. CoeurDeux says:

    Would you please add the book “The Transgender Child” by Pepper and Brill? It was the book that gave me my foundation back, and reassured me that we weren’t alone. Also, I adore the Genderbread person. I have it printed up and pass it out to anyone who asks about my child.
    Sam Killerman also wrote a book about gender.

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