Is your little girl pretending to be a boy? I remember THOSE days! My daughter pretended to be a boy for two years when she was younger.
When I say “pretended to be a boy” my daughter didn’t just pretend to be a King or a fireman. She decided she was a boy called Aiden, and insisted we all address her as such. All day, every day. For more than 18 months.
To be honest, at the time, I didn’t think Flea’s behaviour was worrying. This was ten years ago and trans rights were something few of us had heard of, and we certainly weren’t talking openly about gender identity and fluid genders. But also, deep down, I always felt that cross-gender play like this was just a form of imaginative play for my daughter.
If your child is pretending to a boy or a girl, then it’s of course possible that your child might have some form of issue around gender identity. But I think it’s important to recognise that most of the time that’s not the case. It is very common and a normal part of development for children to explore the differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ and try out different roles.
Pretending to be a boy
One of the reasons I was relaxed about Flea’s gender play was simple – I did the same when I was a kid.
When I was seven, my Mum left my Dad and took us all to Ibiza for an extended holiday. You can’t blame her – my Dad was a scout leader so poor Mum had dealt with jamboree and damp tents in random fields for 17 years by that point.
A lot of things happened on that trip. I fell out of a tree and was treated in a Spanish clinic where a nurse poured iodine over my stomach while my brother sniggered: “Oh, this is gonna hurt sooooo much” (he was soooo right). Also, we learned to ride, and dive, and we even bunked down with some 20-something football supporters when we lost our hotel room temporarily.
But all anyone ever remembers is: “Hey, wasn’t that the trip where Sally pretended she was a boy called Steve?”
It’s true. We stayed at a resort where I told all the other children that I was called Steve.
I didn’t necessarily want to be a boy in the sense of being transgender. I just wanted to be cooler and seen as just as capable as the other kids. Growing up with older brothers, in my head, this meant I wanted to be a boy.
My daughter wants to be a boy
When my daughter Flea was three and a half years old, she decided she was a boy called Aiden. At first, I presumed it was just a phase – but then she started correcting me every time I forgot to call her Aiden, and she would get tearful if I called her a good girl. “But Mummy, I am definitely a boy!”
For almost 18 months, Flea was definitely a boy called Aiden.
Her t-shirts were adorned with robots and pirates, she would only wear boys’ shoes, and her favourite toys were knights, pirates and monsters. Occasionally, she would weep with disappointment when she woke up in the morning and realised she hadn’t grown the necessary ‘boy’ anatomy. Her school uniform was the only skirt she would consent to wear. She refused to wear pink and would occasionally consent to yellow on the basis that “boys AND girls wear yellow, don’t they Mummy?”
She would introduce herself to children at pre-school as “Aiden” and the letters on her bedroom door spelled out her boy name, not her real name. It was ALL THE TIME.
Why I didn’t worry about it (not a bit)
I wrote an article about Flea’s pretend play and cross-gender play habits for an online parenting website where I was overwhelmed by the comments. I thought it was just a story about my creative, imaginative daughter.
Most of the commenters didn’t agree. Actually, many of those comments were critical of me for not acknowledging that my daughter was obviously confused about her gender, and very probably was/is transgender. I should be more sensitive to this, and provide appropriate support, they said.
Except, I really, really didn’t think my daughter was transgender.
Flea associated dinosaurs and castles and monsters with boys. She associated being adventurous and getting dirty and being brave and physically fearless with being a boy. As much I might have tried to drill gender equality into my daughter, society told her something different.
And so she invented a persona where she could wear the things she wanted, play the games she wanted and get the toys she wanted – by being a boy. A health visitor also told me that this type of play can often be a way of creating an imaginary friend, especially for only children. Flea had effectively turned herself into a boy called Aiden because she wanted to play with him, or like him.
Could my child be transgender?
If your little girl is pretending to be a boy, one of two things are true.
- First, your child is gender non-conforming and may grow up to choose to live with a different gender identity than the one assigned at birth.
- Or, they’re indulging in normal cross-gender play and will continue to develop within their assigned gender identity very happily.
The question I’d ask is – when your child is three, or four, or five, does the question of which of these things is true change the way you treat your child?
The fact that I didn’t think Flea was transgender didn’t change the way I responded to her. If she wanted to be called a good boy, or didn’t want to wear clothes with a “girl” label, and wanted to be called Aiden at pre-school, then I had no issue with that.
If she turned out to be pretending, that would be fine. And if she turned out to be having issues with her identity, that would be fine, too. Either way, she was a happy, healthy child and I accepted and loved the person she was. Isn’t that how we all feel?
What I think is important is how we respond to cross-gender play and expressions of a different identity. In our family, we tried to be observant and kind. So I watched and could see that pretending to be a boy made Flea happy, and she didn’t seem to be suffering any significant distress about being a girl, apart from the odd tearful moment.
So we just went along with her wishes. “Okay, if you’d like to be Aiden today, I’ll call you Aiden.”
We found other people rarely question these things. Half the Mums in our small town would ask after my little boy (Flea insisted on being called Aiden at various activity clubs and groups). And even Flea’s cousin would accept Aiden/Flea as the same person without a second thought. I remember once they were playing and he came into the kitchen to ask for snacks:
“Sally, can me and Flea have some biscuits?”
“Sure, help yourselves.”
“AIDEN, your Mummy said yes!”
It really was just a phase
My daughter is now almost 16 and is perfectly settled and happy with her gender identity. Her early desire to be a boy was NOTHING to do with gender confusion or being transgender. It was imaginative play. Actually, it’s pretty common for kids to do this, and between 85% and 90% of boys who pretend to be girls, or girls who pretend to be boys won’t grow up with any gender identify confusion.
When people told me my child was transgender, I didn’t agree or disagree. I would just say it was far too young to have that conversation, and for now she was just a happy child. I still think the best thing parents can do in this situation is treat children with kindness and respect, and give them space and time to figure it out for themselves.
Flea’s desire to be a boy lasted almost two years. One day, she decided she wasn’t a boy called Aiden. She was a dog. Called Sizzles. I remember vividly taking “Sizzles” to a doctor’s appointment where she crouched down on all fours and pretended to eat foot from a bowl in a magazine on the floor. When the doctor examined her tummy, Sizzles put her tongue out and panted. She regularly got into scraps with our actual dog over who got to sleep in the dog bed.
Like I said, she was a happy, creative child with a vivid imagination.