When My 5 Year Old Boy Asked to Wear a Dress to the School Disco…
My son has only just started school. He is our first child to go to school, and we are anxious parents, hopeful that he’ll feel confident, enjoy learning, make friends, and fit in.
Our son has long hair that he’s very attached to. People often mistake him for a girl when we’re out. We’ve encouraged him to get a haircut, but he loves his hair.
Our son loves the things boys love, like being rough on the trampoline, play hunting, play fighting, building, and toilet jokes. He also loves getting dressed up and looking pretty. He and his younger sister get dressed up and play ‘grandma’s’, then prance around in oversized shoes calling me ‘young sir’ instead of daddy.
Three weeks in to school, it’s the school disco. I’m excited. I loved the school disco when I was a kid, and I can’t wait to go dancing with my boy. The morning of the disco he tells me he wants to wear a dress. I think he’s joking and say fine, calling his bluff. After school I realize he isn’t joking. Our five year old boy wants to wear a dress to his first school disco.
How we did respond
My first instinct was to avoid confrontation. If he senses a ‘no’ from me, he’ll dig his heels in. Really though, I’m just buying time while my partner and I try to figure out where we stand.
Neither of us was expecting this. Our son is shy, and desperately wants to make friends, but finds it difficult. We thought instinct would kick in and he’d try to fit in with the boys once he started school… not the girls.
True, he looks wonderful in a dress, and clearly enjoys feeling pretty. We’ve always encouraged him to express himself in whatever way he chooses, but suddenly I’m not so sure he knows what he’s getting himself into.
My palms are sweaty, and my heart is racing, but I try to look calm and collected on the outside. I gently explain to him that he looks wonderful in a dress, and he can certainly dress up any time he likes at home or at a friend’s place, but that at school he needs to dress in boys clothes.
He wants to know why, and I’m honest. The boys will tease you, and it might be harder to make friends. He asks if I will wear a dress as well. I tell him... truthfully... that I’m too shy.
In the end we compromise. He wears a nice shirt and some tights, with one of mummy’s pretty necklaces. He looks amazing and we have a great time at the dance.
What the research says
Raisingchildren.net.au outline the difference between sex and gender, with sex being the biological category, and gender being the social category. They highlight that most children identify strongly with one gender by ages 2-3, but that the gender they choose is not always the same as their biological sex.
Malpas (2011) has widely researched gender non-conformity in children, and advocates for a stance of ‘Both/And’, characterized by protection and acceptance, adaption, and nurturing. Malpas acknowledges that every society is different, and that parents must hold the tension between nurturing their child’s singularity, and mediating their child’s wish with the social reality.
Malpas also highlights that most parents are now fully aware that gender is a fluid social construct. She states that the parents who contact her are mainly concern with the wellbeing of their child, rather than disapproval of non-conformity.
In cases where the child is very clear about their gender, it may not be possible to sit on the fence. Raisingchildren.net.au recommend that in those cases, pro-active measures should be taken to help the child express their gender at home and in social settings, such as school.
In cases where gender is more ambiguous, however, it is advised to support the child’s preferences, while ensuring they do not make decisions that will lead to social exclusion. The child will grow to make their own choices as they reach early adolescence, and more options are available to delay puberty at that point if needed (Malpas, 2011). All of this is far easier in a society or community where gender fluidity has already been normalized.
How we should have responded
After reading the research, I’m fairly happy with how my partner and I managed the dress issue. I feel that we were able to validate his desire to look feminine and beautiful, without subjecting him to social suicide this early on in his journey at our conservative local school.
We have agreed that if he continues expressing the desire to wear a dress, then we will talk with the school, and do some further research into how we can best support him to feel comfortable and confident in himself.
Raisingchildren.net.au (n.d). Gender identity, gender diversity and gender dysphoria: children and teenagers. Retrieved from https://raisingchildren.net.au/pre-teens/development/pre-teens-gender-diversity-and-gender-dysphoria/gender-identity
Malpas, J. (2011). Between Pink and Blue: A multi-dimensional family approach to gender nonconforming children and their families. Family Process, 50(4), 453-470.
Author: The personal story in this blog was submitted by a member of the Parent Village community. Research and editing by Parent Village.