It may be helpful for you as a parent to know that it is normal for some boys to like “dressing up” and role-playing as a girl up until around 4 years of age. They do this as part of imaginative play at this stage. However, it is not as common for boys older than that to continue doing so, or to want to exclusively dress up as a girl, or say they want to be a girl.
It tends to be more typical for a boy around age six to prefer to play with other boys and say things like, “I hate girls” or “Girls are gross/weird.” It is part of their healthy development as boys at this age.
If a boy aged 5 and older keeps wishing to be girl, dresses up as a girl in secret, and have a strong preference to play with girls instead of boys, it may be worth exploring further if he may be experiencing gender confusion.
Having said that, you may not need to talk to your child about all these concerns at this time. You can understand more from your child about his or her classmate by asking questions like, “Oh, that’s interesting. Do you know why he keeps saying that he’s a girl? Did he say it as a joke? When he said that he’s a girl, how did that make you feel?”
You can explain that when someone is “gay,” it means they are attracted to someone of the same sex as them. This is different from wanting to become someone of the opposite sex.
Help your child to process any thoughts or confusion he or she may be experiencing and take this opportunity to explain the differences between boys and girls: what makes a boy a boy and what makes a girl a girl? A simple and clear way to start is to talk about the differences in male and female genitalia.
Parents play an important role in guiding their kids to navigate healthy friendships. Ask your child at a later time about this classmate and check in with how he or she is feeling about the situation. See what your child says and coach him or her on how to respond as new information comes up.
In addition to processing with your child their thoughts and emotions about their classmate, you can explore more with him/her about homosexuality and gender confusion.
Explain to them that when a man says he is “gay” or when a woman says she is “lesbian”, they usually mean they experience romantic and/or sexual attraction toward the same sex.
You can take this moment to explain your family’s values regarding homosexuality and teach your child that, regardless of what we believe about their behaviour and choices, gay and lesbian people deserved to be treated with respect.
If your child thinks his/her friend may be gay, you can share that while some teenagers can experience same-sex attraction, that may not always mean they will go on to identify as “gay” or “lesbian”.
Having such attractions is different from gender confusion, in which a person identifies as or desires to become the opposite sex. Build on previous conversations about the differences between male and female with your child, and explain to them that it is our physical bodies and sex organs, among other things, that make us male or female, not our feelings about ourselves.
There may be a whole host of reasons behind why someone feels they are of the opposite sex, but rather than affirm them in becoming who they are not, offering support could mean encouraging them to seek professional help to examine and address their feelings of gender confusion.
Listen out to see if your child may be telling you about him or herself. Sometimes, when our kids are unsure how we would respond to something, they may test our reaction by telling us through what happened to “their friend”. This is not always the case, so we would not want to jump to conclusions, but we also cannot rule out this possibility, especially if you have already noticed certain signs in their lives that cause you concern.
However, asking your child directly about it—“Are you talking about yourself?”—may be too confrontational. Be assuring in an indirect way instead. You can say something like, “I wonder if your classmate’s parents know about this. I hope that they will tell him that they love him still, no matter what. I know that’s what Daddy and Mummy would do.” Then leave it to your child to decide when or whether he or she is ready to share experiences with you, if indeed what was brought up affects him or her personally.
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Check out the Talk about Sex series for more essential conversations with your children.