FELIX WAS JUST three days old when he started cross-dressing.
“I carried him out of the hospital in a candy-coloured coat handed down from his sister Ella,” says his mother Louisa. “The nurses thought it was hilarious, but my husband was mortified. I’d always been really laid-back about Ella’s clothes but I was amazed how early the ‘blue for boys’ stereotype kicked in with Felix.”
It’s true that when it comes to dressing our sons, we don’t need Trinny and Susannah to tell us what not to wear. Boys don’t wear pink or anything with bows, pretty buttons or glitter. But try telling that to Felix, who, since he was out of nappies, has been delving into his mother’s wardrobe and cross-dressing for England.
“It started with the dressing-up box but pretty soon progressed to more grown-up things,” says Louisa. “Now he has an old silk shift of mine that is too long and drags along the floor, and a Barbie nightdress. He also loves wearing bracelets and wraps a yellow towel around his head and dramatically swishes his blonde ‘princess hair’.”
According to Professor Melissa Hines, gender and child development expert at City University, Felix’s behaviour is not uncommon. “There’s no reason for parents to be alarmed if their son is dressing up as an occasional part of play,” she says. “In fact, this kind of role play is actually a normal and healthy part of growing up and helps your child develop his sense of self.” Felix is not alone in his penchant for wanting to occasionally switch his Bob the Builder sweatshirt for something, well, a little more glamorous. Experts believe that most preschool boys experiment by trying on girls’ clothing at least once during these early years. It’s a natural part of toddler curiosity to explore and experiment. And even if your son doesn’t dress up with Felix’s obvious flair, you may well have discovered him rummaging through the dressing-up box and selecting a skirt, or you may have a prized photo of him teetering around in high heels, a fetching floppy hat and a fluffy feather boa.
Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, author of Self-Esteem For Boys agrees. “Children develop gender awareness around the age of two and learn that they are a boy or a girl. But, really, they have no clue what it means,” she says. “They certainly don’t understand that boys can’t wear frilly things or are supposed to act in a special boy way.”
A report published by the Centre for Language in Primary Education in 1999 entitled Boys And Reading also found that cross-dressing could have surprising educational benefits. The researchers discovered that pursuing ‘girly’ imaginative play that centres on roles and relationships, rather than the purely physical action which tends to predominate for boys, helps develop an important understanding of stories and can improve reading and language skills. In short, a little gender bending could actually help close the literacy gap between girls and boys.
But toddlers are not driven by lessons in empathy or developmental goals. So why do they do it? “Wearing a dress can be very liberating after being restricted by trousers,” says Hartley-Brewer. “Swirling about in a skirt can be just as enjoyable for boys as it is for girls.”
Whatever their motives, Hines suggests that the main problem of cross-dressing lies in parents’ reactions to the behaviour rather than the behaviour itself. “Boys
are often expected and encouraged to conform to gender stereotypes more frequently than girls, and from a much earlier age,” she explains. “If they start doing girly things their parents can get very upset.” Although it’s seen as perfectly acceptable for a girl to dress up as a cowboy, it can be rather worrying if your little boy enjoys dressing as a nurse or playing in the Wendy house.
Understanding your child’s behaviour is one matter, but expecting other people to play catch-up can be quite a challenge, particularly when society seems to equate blurred wardrobes with sexuality. Caroline, mother of four-year-old Sam, recalls a recent trip to her parents’ home when she was accused of “encouraging her son to be gay” by allowing him to arrive dressed in khaki combats, a pink tutu and artful smudges of her best Shiseido blusher.
There’s no evidence to suggest a link between young boys dressing up as girls, and sexuality. “If parents react in a way that makes the child feel there is mileage in dressing up, they are more likely to do it,” says child psychologist Dr Richard Woolfson. “It can turn what was essentially a passing phase into a bigger issue.” Likewise, telling your son he is not allowed to wear a dress or making
him feel ashamed about his behaviour can lead to a feeling of anxiety, potentially turning something that started out as a bit of fun into a more serious problem.
So how should we react to a boy who demonstrates
a preference for donning dresses? Should we smile sweetly and tell him he looks lovely? The key is to get the right balance between allowing him to express himself and ensuring he has an understanding of conventional behaviour. Encourage other forms of play so that the cross-dressing is given a smaller focus in your child’s day. Suggest, for example, that you go outside and kick a ball around or sit down and build something with play bricks. “Switch his attention to something he likes doing rather than just looking on anxiously,” says Woolfson. “You’ll be amazed how quickly he’ll drop the dress if you draw his attention to another equally interesting distraction.”
Professor Joan Freeman, a development psychologist from Middlesex Hospital also advises parents to “praise the convention.” In other words, accept the dresses but applaud the football shirt. It’s certainly a tactic that has worked for Caroline and Sam. “I try telling him that only girls wear make-up and if he does insist on putting on a dress, I’ll say, ‘That looks nice but it’s definitely going to get in the way when you want to get on your bike’.”
Tackling what to do if your son insists on leaving the house in his girly get-up can be tricky. “I don’t want to put pressure on him to stop dressing up, but I also
don’t want him to be picked on,” explains Caroline. Try introducing a rule that says he can wear what he likes in the house but has to take his dress off when he goes out.
Ultimately, experts agree that cross-dressing among young boys has a natural life span, and, if dealt with appropriately, will run its course by the time he starts school and peer pressure to conform to traditional boyish roles kicks in. “If your son continues to cross-dress after primary school, then his behaviour may have a different significance and you should think about seeking advice from an expert,” advises Woolfson. “But the number of boys who enjoy wearing dresses aged nine is significantly less than those who enjoy doing it at age four.” Therefore the answer, it seems, is to enjoy your little boy’s peacock phase while it lasts.
- Self-Esteem For Boys: 100 Tips For Raising Happy And Confident Children by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, Vermilion, £6.99. Advice about how to manage boys’ behaviour in a way that promotes self-esteem.
Raising Boys: Why Boys Are Different And How To Help Them Become Happy And Well-Balanced Men, by Steve Biddulph, HarperCollins, £7.99.