Parenting Advice ColumnSubject: 3-year-old boy wants to wear dresses
My 3-year-old son, soon to be 4, is obsessed with wearing dresses. He has been interested in dresses since he could talk. We are an open-minded family. We do not spank and have a family bed. At first, I thought he just wanted to be like his older sister and I. But now he wants to wear them all the time. It is very painful for him to be denied this. His crying when refused his wish to wear a dress is sincere and breaks my heart. I am a stay-at-home mom. I would like to hear from you. I do not want to hurt, or interfere with my son's true identity. Please help.
Thank you for visiting our Natural Child Project site and for sending in this interesting and challenging question.
While your son's behavior would probably worry any parent, my first piece of advice is not to jump to conclusions. There is a philosophical tool called "Occam's Razor" which urges us to select the simplest solution to a problem. In this circumstance, such a tool is very relevant.
When a child shows a preference that seems to imply some sort of sexual aberration according to our cultural values, the danger is that we may inadvertently cause the very thing we fear if we react with anxiety, however understandable that may be. As I'm sure you know, children can pick up on anxious feelings even when they are not expressed directly.
Instead of demonstrating anything to do with sexuality or gender roles, your son may have something much more simple in mind. He may find dresses more comfortable than the pants he has worn. Perhaps his pants are too tight? Is the fabric uncomfortable? Does he get a skin rash when wearing certain fabrics? Does he find it easier to use the potty when wearing a dress? And so on.
Or his behavior may have more to do with expressing resistance in general. Has the family gone through some stressful times recently, that he had no control over? Has his sister started school this month? Or are there other kinds of circumstances that have made him feel a bit helpless? This may simply be his way of establishing some control where he can. Perhaps if some attention is given to minimizing frustration in other areas, that may be helpful. I'm glad to hear that you are not punishing, as that would certainly escalate the situation.
Your comment about his relationship to his sister and to you showed great insight. If you are a single mother, or if you have a partner who is gone most of the day, your son may simply be frustrated that he is being asked not to model the two persons he spends the most time with. If he could have more time with his father or another male, he may begin to recognize why he is being asked to dress differently from you and his sister.
I asked a colleague, Denise Green, for suggestions, and she asked if you might find a compromise, such as a kilt or other ethnic type of dress. She makes an interesting point here, because skirts and robes are worn by men in many different world cultures, and your son is young enough to still have some flexibility in dress codes. It's the culture that is strange, after all: girls can wear pants, but boys can't wear dresses. Perhaps your son is simply ahead of his time, or perhaps, like many other children, he likes wearing costumes as a way to understand what it's like to be a different person. Have you looked into acting classes, where he could wear many different types of clothing in a socially accepted way?
Denise also offers this advice: "The only thing I would suggest that you didn't include, would be that she (and her partner if she has one) might want to do some serious talking about how far she/they feel comfortable allowing their son to indulge a counter-cultural dress style. In order to deal with this without sending mixed messages to the child, it will be important for the parents to find a solution that is not too far outside either of their "comfort zones". Depending on the family, that could be anything from allowing their son free rein, to allowing dresses at home but requiring pants in public, to getting a kilt or something similar, to requiring pants but doing a lot of listening, comforting and allowing him to have his feelings of anger and disappointment. I think, especially in a situation like this where there is no clear-cut answer, that it's more important for the parents to be clear and empathic than to choose a particular course of action."
Please write again if needed.
JanParenting Advice Column