“Declan, lift up your dress, you’ll slip on the tafetta.”
“Declan, stop fidgeting, the nail polish will smudge.”
As the mother of two boys, I thought that I’d never have to worry about Polly Pockets or learning how to French braid. But soon after my son Declan turned two, he ran up to me with a hopeful look on his face and said, “I want to dress up as a ballerina!”
It was inevitable; since we moved in with my sister, Declan’s constant playmates are his cousins Erika, six, and Hilary, four. They’re not just girls, they’re girly-girls: Cinderella-loving, skirt-wearing, icky-bug-hating princesses. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Declan has always been quirky. Soon after his younger brother was born, Declan hiked up his shirt and tried to breast-feed a baby doll. Just before he turned two, he started wearing socks on his hands; this evolved into a love of wearing gloves, which in turn became a love of wearing one glove (note to friends: enough with the Michael Jackson jokes). I don’t even get embarrassed any more when we have guests over and Declan runs through the house naked, shouting, “Look at my penis!” So when he wanted to be a ballerina, I figured it was just par for the course. That first night, Declan ended up in a white leotard and black tights, and he and his cousins put on a marvelous ballet. But then at some point girly outfits just became his regular clothes.
Declan’s certainly not the first little boy to find comfort in crinoline; it seems that everyone knows someone with a little boy who likes to play dress-up (mostly those with a big sis who likes to do the same). One friend introduced me to Tema, whose four-and-a-half-year-old When I showed Declan a shoe catalog that came in the mail, he picked out the white Mary Janes with giant purple flowers. son Adin began dressing up in his big sister’s princess outfits when he was three. She took it in stride. “[We] thought it was incredibly cute and funny and wonderful that he was being interactive with his big sister,” she says. “We think it’s a natural phase of childhood and do not feel the need to discourage it.” Adin’s dress-up interests changed as he grew up, and now he is as likely to dress as Scooby Doo or a Power Ranger as a princess.
Whether because of his closeness with his girly cousins or due to some inner aesthetic, Declan has always shown a preference for the pretty. When I showed Declan a shoe catalog that came in the mail, he picked out the white Mary Janes with giant purple flowers. When I took him to buy sheets for his big boy bed, he picked out a pink set. And there’s no place he’d rather be than by my side in the kitchen, helping decorate sugar cookies.
I’ve wondered if this means Declan is gay or will be a cross-dresser when he gets older, or if he will come out down the road as transgendered. But experts say probably not. “Some boys will be more interested than others in dressing up as feminine characters,” says Dr. Robert Lindeman, a pediatrician in Natick, Massachusetts, when I ask. “This does not mean that they suffer from gender confusion.”
According to Dr. Lindeman, Declan isn’t expressing his innate sexuality when he puts on his cousin’s Tinkerbell costume, he is simply playing with facts. “Little boys in the preschool years are starting to learn about gender differences,” he explains. “To them, the differences are merely facts. When children ‘cross-dress,’ they are merely having fun with this new fact they’ve learned. If their parents laugh, it reinforces their sense that they’re being funny.”
And at our house, we do laugh. A little boy in a fuschia off-the-shoulder ball gown is funny. Everyone looks when Declan descends the staircase holding up the edge of his dress so he doesn’t trip. He loves to be the center of attention. (His most oft-used phrase these days is, “Mommy, look!”) And when Declan is dressed as Snow White, everyone is looking.
Which is fine for now. Declan still doesn’t have any real friends, and the girls he plays with (his cousins and their friends) love to help him get dolled up. But I hope he’ll have friends soon. What will the other boys think of the pink ruffles?
Dr. Lindeman tells me I’ve got plenty of time before peer pressure hits. “This occurs much later than most parents think,” he says, “often not until age eight or nine.” Until then, it’s okay to set some boundaries on dress-up. “Most parents have decided that children should attend kindergarten in gender-appropriate clothes,” explains Dr. Lindeman. “There are things a child can do at home that he shouldn’t do at school, like put his hand down his pants or pick his nose at the table.” Or wear a purple flowered tutu over striped fleece footy pajamas.
According to Dr. Lindeman, “the greater danger is from causing the children to become frightened of their game without knowing why they should be frightened.”
Declan in drag has become a fairly frequent occurrence in our house, and we try not to draw too In Declan’s mind, he’s not dressing like a girl; he’s just wearing clothes he likes. much attention to it or even talk about it; after all, if we make a big deal of it, Declan will come to think of it as a big deal. But one day his cousin Erika teased him: “You’re dressed like a girl!” Declan replied indignantly, “No, I’m not!” This inspired the following conversation over dinner (when he was wearing the aforementioned fuschia off-the-shoulder ball gown):
My sister, Amy: Declan, what are you dressed as?
Declan: A ballerina.
Amy: But not a girl ballerina?
In Declan’s mind, he’s not dressing like a girl; he’s just wearing clothes he likes. What could possibly be wrong with that?
That’s the philosophy Tema has maintained through two years of her son playing dress-up. “We encourage his creativity and love that he feels good doing it,” she says. And her husband, Doug? “He certainly gets a good laugh out of his sturdy son wearing a pink princess dress.”
When a little boy dresses like a little girl, “he is merely having fun,” says Dr. Lindeman. “I recommend that parents try to have fun, too.”
Fun with a boy in a dress? I can do that. When Declan puts on his tutu and starts pirouetting, I put on the classical music and grab my video camera. I can’t wait to play it at his wedding (even if on the big day, he’s still the one in the dress).