Why I let my son dress like a girl for five years…and why for his sake I put a stop to it
Lorraine Candy, editor of Elle, had to put a stop to her son's 'girlish' instincts
As a toddler, my son Henry used to sleep in a nightie, after I gave up on trying to wrestle him into pyjamas. Later, he took to calling himself Stephanie, Jean, Olive or, most frequently, Miss Argentina.
His favourite game was wearing his elder sisters’ sequin party dresses while running his imaginary boutique ‘Slinx’ or greeting customers in his hairdressing salon ‘Slapchicks’ (God knows where he got that name from).
Once, aged three, his penchant for dressing as a girl even landed us in A&E, where a patient doctor had to remove Barbie’s earring from inside Henry’s ear canal.
‘Which one is it’ asked the doctor, meaning which ear. ‘The pink one with gold round the outside,’ he replied.
Visitors to our house assumed I had three girls because he rarely wore boys’ clothing at home. He said he preferred to wear something ‘more comfortable’: dresses, skirts, tights or princess costumes.
At first I let him get on with it, because it seemed to make him happy. My husband rolled his eyes at the sight of his chubby, short-haired boy squeezed into a tutu. ‘He’s just in touch with his feminine side,’ I told him.
But essentially we were in agreement
—‘banning’ anything in the early years is the route to rebellion later.
So we let him dress as he pleased, and indulge his ‘feminine’ side.
his love of all things girly started to colour other aspects of Henry’s
life too. He refused to go to football club because he didn’t like the
uniforms, despite my explanation that even the girls wore the club’s
outfit. ‘Shorts are for boys,’ he would protest.
Beck Laxton made headlines last week after revealing her son 'Sasha' has been raised 'gender neutral'
You may assume, from all this, that I’d be in favour of what has been termed ‘gender neutral parenting’ — raising a child as neither boy nor girl, but giving it free rein to express itself in whatever way he or she chooses.
That was the approach taken by Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper. They’re the couple who made headlines last week for raising their five-year-old son, Sasha, as ‘gender neutral’. Like me, they allowed their little boy to dress in girls’ clothes and play with girls’ toys.
But unlike me, it seems Sasha’s parents’ ‘experiment’ formed part of their wider ideology, using it to examine whether ‘boy/girl’ stereotyping could be bypassed altogether.
I know, from my own experience, that some children do not conform to the conventional behaviour expected of their gender anyway. But I know also that there came a time when I had to put a stop to my boy’s ‘girlish’ instincts. I knew it was my duty as a parent to make it stop — for reasons I will come to later.
Little angel Unlike Lorraine's son, five-year-old Sasha is being raised as 'gender neutral'
So where had my Henry’s love of girls’ clothes come from To start with, my husband and I found it hard to understand. I turned to parenting books, they indicated that it was probably because Henry worshipped his two older sisters (now aged eight and nine) and wanted to be ‘in their club’.
Apparently, all children need to ‘belong’; they crave positive recognition as they develop between the ages of three and seven. They seek the approval of their peer group to make them feel secure so they can develop with confidence.
Before he started school, Henry’s sisters were his peer group. Dressing like them was his way into their world, where he felt safe. They wore nighties, so he wanted one too.
When he was a toddler, this was fine. Other toddlers pay no heed to what fellow miniatures wear. But older children do. When Henry was four, I noticed that the older children of some of my friends would laugh at his feminine attire.
I couldn’t bear to watch him run off red-faced to change. Of course, he didn’t fully understand why people laughed at him. But I did. And I began realise how, as he grew older, his cross-dressing would become a habit which enabled others to hurt him. I had to stop that happening.
My husband and I decided to wait until Henry’s fifth birthday in November to break the news to him that there would be no more sequins, no more Slapchicks or Miss Argentina. We tried building up to it gently, mentioning it every now and then so he would know what was coming.
Then one night last November, we packed away his nightie and the dresses for good. ‘From now on, you need to wear boys’ clothes and sleep in boys’ pyjamas,’ I told him.
He was mildly upset but not unduly worried. He didn’t fully understand why he could no longer dress in the clothes he loved, but since starting school in September, he had become more aware of the difference between boys and girls anyway.
‘Can I still do it on special occasions’ he asked. We said he could — but he hasn’t asked since.
The fact he had a new baby sister helped. ‘These are Mabel’s things now,’ we told him.
Actually, it was me who grieved most. I was sad to say goodbye to the alter ego he’d created (and accessorised so stylishly) with such joy. I think my husband was relieved — and Henry’s two older sisters were pleased that he’d stop ferreting through their jewellery boxes.
Some may see my decision as pandering to convention. But I didn’t make this decision because I was scared of what the future holds for a boy happy in his feminine skin or because I believe cross-dressing is wrong. Remember, I work in fashion.
No, I made this decision because although I truly wish fashion’s liberal and inclusive attitude extended to all other industries, it just doesn’t. Allowing my son to continue down his feminine path would only incur ridicule and hurt.
A video of Sasha Laxton talking about how 'silly' it is to have girls' and boys' colours was put on You Tube by his mother
This is what confuses me about parents like Sasha’s. He has been hailed as an experiment in breaking stereotypes, but who would want to expose their child to possible derision for the sake of their political beliefs
Yet, they are by no means alone. Last year, the US parents of a five-year-old boy called Dyson wrote a book called My Princess Boy and appeared on live TV with him in a ballet outfit.
He was to be the poster boy for a radical change in gender thinking, they said — as he sat there supremely uninterested in the discussion. Meanwhile in Canada, another five-year-old called Storm is being raised gender neutral. In Sweden they have two-year-old Pop, while one Swedish nursery has instigated a ‘gender neutral’ policy referring to the children as ‘friends’ rather than him or her.
Of course, a more open-minded attitude to gender can be a positive thing — whether in childhood, to counteract Disney’s ridiculous glorification of Cinderella (a world where blondes are good, brunettes are bad and falling in love makes everything better), or in adulthood, to help challenge the ‘gender gap’ between male and female rates of pay in the workplace.
I would happily ban all those wretched pink-frilled dolls that fill the shelves of supermarkets across the land, mini ironing boards and kitchen utensils (who wants to be a indoctrinated into domestic drudgery that early, boy or girl).
Perhaps if there were gender- neutral schools in every borough then Sasha, Dyson, Storm and Pop would be welcome trailblazers for a new way of thinking. But in the real world, schools separate boys and girls for many sensible reasons.
It’s a huge responsibility for children as young as five to be expected to change this thinking. And a little arrogant of parents, who don’t work in the field of child care or child psychology to assume they can do this through a lone child.
But perhaps the most important point is that many of these attempts to unburden children from the constraints of gender are misguided. Dressing up is what pre-schoolers do. You may think your toddler is striking a blow for feminism or his future right to wear women’s clothing in public but he’s not — he’s just playing a game.
You may think you are giving him the rare freedom of ignoring society’s expectations of his gender but actually he’s just thinking: ‘Whoa, sequins! They look cool’.
No child expert has advocated this as a resolution to gender stereotyping and its consequent inequalities. While they say it’s unlikely to be damaging (as long as the child is not forced to dress a certain way), it probably won’t have the effect these parents desire either.
But we should also remember that in today’s world of rapid, global information, these images of Sasha and all those YouTube videos of Dyson will live for some time. They’ll be there for all to see whether these boys like it or not. They have had no choice in the matter — is that really fair
Wouldn’t it be better for parents to encourage schools and nurseries to talk more about gender and how it affects their charges as they grow rather than to put such a burden on very young children.
And perhaps more importantly, parents like Sasha’s should remember these precious early years belong to their children, not to them.
Lorraine Candy is editor-in-chief of British Elle magazine.