My nine-year-old son recently begged me to go shopping and it wasn’t to buy Legos at his usual favorite toy store. Armed with $40 saved from birthday gifts, my inquisitive child instead wanted to go to Ricky’s, a chain of beauty and make up stores to purchase—ay mi madre—a wig. Admittedly, I was confused, alarmed, and yes, even scared. My little boy wanted a peluca? I breathed in deeply and counted to 10 as a torrent of questions rushed through my mind: What does this really mean—boys aren’t supposed to want wigs. He should want cars, trucks, video games and lots of ‘boy stuff’ not gender bending hairpieces! What is his father going to think? My mother? My family? His friends? Is this a sign of his sexual inclinations? My heart sank deeper.
Here I am, a progressive modern mother of two boys being wigged out by my young child’s innocent request. Being a new kind of mami with an open heart and mind, I felt a little guilty about my reaction. My fears were about how others would react. Ultimately, I don’t want people making fun of him. I don’t want him ridiculed. My motherly instinct kicked in—I wanted to protect him, even from his choices.
Read Related: Gender Confusion: When Body & Mind Don’t Coincide
According to Dr. Juan Carlos Dumas, a New York based mental health counselor and gender and sexuality expert who works with 200 young children on a weekly basis at a headstart program, that is exactly the kind of things a parent should be thinking or asking when their child wants to play or dress in ways that are outside of the gender appropriate norm. (Yes, there are inherently boy and girl toys and expressions, or as Dr. Dumas put it: “We have two million years of evolutionary biology!”)
“What happens on many occasions when children choose colors, toys or clothing is that they are mimicking what they see on television, home or their immediate surrounding and environment,” Dr. Dumas explained.
His advice to mamis: relax! “No pasó nada,” he emphasized. Then begin to ask your child questions. Was it something they saw on television, a film, or a book? According to Dr. Dumas, “these choices are their way of exploring the world.” These things are a way that a young child articulates his or her curiosities, and ultimately, these are a sign of a highly active and creative imagination. Giving them freedom to make choices in a safe space without judging them good or bad, “enhances their self esteem and self worth,” said the clinical psychopathologist.
However, he cautioned that this freedom to explore does have its limits and parents need to be aware where to draw the line. “You don’t want to encourage your child to make choices that will get him bullied, hurt, or ridiculed,” he said. What you let him wear, or do “all depends on the family and the environment where this child is being raised.” He added: “If your 7-year-old boy wants to walk around with a purse in San Francisco or Chelsea, he will not be ridiculed. In Utah, he may get pummeled,” he said. “In an ideal world where adults are caring, open minded, and cautious, almost everything is okay. Not in our society, and we have to accept what is.”
Above all, explained the gender and sexuality expert, it’s most important to keep your child safe and out of harm’s way and being ridiculed is far more dangerous in the long run for his/her healthy development than changing his mind about his choice of toys or clothing. “A young child’s Achilles Heel is his attention span,” he explained. “Use that to divert his or her attention,” advises the Long Island University psychology professor. The doctor did warn not to go too far with the limitations that you do place on our kid’s ability to dream. Whether conscious or not, the gender roles we pass on to our girls and boys are crucial. And if we are not careful we could be limiting their development or training them to be violent. More than gender bending toys and behaviors, which are harmless he said, parents must be careful not to expose kids to violent television shows and video games, lest you want your boy to show aggressive behavior in his youth.
LATINOS AND GENDER IDENTITY
What it means to be a girl or a boy is strictly defined in Latino homes, and in many homes these gender roles are very severe. Boys are raised very differently than girls and stats back this up—from sports to careers. USA Today recently reported that about 36% percent of Hispanic sophomore girls participated in Interscholastic sports compared with 52 % of non-Hispanic girls. The data indicated that income level was not the issue, as Hispanic girls from high-income homes also lag behind non-Hispanic girls. The participation rate of Hispanic boys is 50 % compared to 57 % for non-Hispanic boys. Studies show that girls who don’t participate in sports have more chances of getting pregnant during their teen years, dropping out of school, or suffering from obesity.
Career choices also illustrate a point. Until just two decades ago, there were no female Justices on the Supreme Court, and certainly, no Latina justices. Today we have Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan at the Sacred Table of Nine. The strictly male job was blown wide open for females and Latinas! We have to encourage our children—boys and girls—to dream and explore without limitations. To see themselves in places where—because of gender, ethnicity, culture, religion, or nationality—no one like them has been before. It’s important to not shortchange our children’s natural gifts by making them fit neatly into our rigorous personal or cultural views of how a girl or boy should behave and what things they should like.
Dr. Dumas’ advice on gender expression pertains to children who are pre-adolescent and whose hormonal changes and sexuality is not yet fully expressed. If a child continues to make choices that are not socially within their gender norm and a parent is curious about their child’s sexuality, they can check in with their pediatrician.
As for my tween and his desire to buy a wig, I did what every mother should do when a child breaks out of the norm and communicates in a very unique way—I asked my boy why he wanted a wig. His answer: “Because it’s cool!” And because we live in a large and sophisticated and tolerant community where the spectrum of self-expression is pretty wide, my child and I rode our bikes to the store and went wig shopping with gusto. He tried on several wigs and chose two unisex gems—a rock and roll orange Mohawk that looked like a cross between Gene Simmons of Kiss fame and Carrot Top called Loca, and Blue Dreams, a halo of vibrant blue curls, which resembled Diana Ross’ afro, circa 1974. He wore Loca out of the store. I learned a lot more than just about wigs that evening, mainly about gender and the expectations and burden we can potentially or unknowingly place on our Latin boys (and girls) when it comes to gender expression. My son’s desire for a wig had nothing to do with his sexuality. He simply wanted to transform himself into a character. Have fun. Pretend play. It was artistic and I allowed him to express himself without casting judgment. Today, the cool wigs sit untouched in his room. He has moved on to his beloved Justice League champions where he has a solid mix of males and female super heroes!
Tips to keep in mind when a child breaks out of the gender norm:
- Don’t panic, don’t judge, and don’t ridicule your child’s choices. Instead play reporter and ask why? Try to get to the root of the request; many times young children are inspired by a ‘copy cat’ behavior.
- Let your child explore, but with limits. You may not want to let your son wear a dress if you live in a community with intolerance for alternative lifestyles.
- Remember that a child enters puberty (usually at 11 or 12) is when he/she expresses more clearly his or her sexual orientation with more clarity.
- Don’t expose young children to violent video games, TV shows, and music. Studies have shown that exposure to these multiplies the potential for aggressive behavior as young adults.