Gender expression*, and in particular masculine gender expression, is a culturally sensitive topic. In the United States, we are moving towards a generally more accepting view of nontraditional masculinity and femininity, but there are still rules about what is expected from boys or girls. What does it mean if they cross those gender boundaries? It means simply that they cross those boundaries. It can be an exploration of their own gender, it can mean they are questioning their gender or sexual identity, or it can mean that they have older siblings that they are copying. Crossing the gender lines can mean a lot or it can mean nothing at all. Cross-dressing is very common in young children, and to them, clothes are just what they see adults wearing. They don’t understand gender, yet.
Expressions of masculinity and femininity are arbitrary rules that are made up by society, not genetically or biologically pre-disposed rules about how to exist. One hundred years ago boys wore pink and girls wore blue; this illustrates how gender roles are something that are naturally changing throughout time, and not following those rules can be as common as women wearing pants instead of skirts. However, this may feel disruptive to you or your family, based on your own understanding of what makes boys different from girls. It can feel a little alienating to have someone in your family act “differently,” but it is a very normal thing for people to cross gender boundaries. We do it all the time.
This is not to dismiss those that are not comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth. Going against gender norms can also be a way of declaring something about one’s sexuality or sexual identity. If your child is insisting they are not a boy or they are not a girl, listen to them. Their experience is important, and your support shows them they can trust you with their truth. Their understanding of their sex or gender may be different than yours. It may hold steady for years, or it may change on occasion. This does not mean that they are faking it. It simply means that they are learning about themselves and their role in the world. It is not mental illness, and it does not require a “fix” or a change. If you are struggling to understand their sexuality, it may be useful to find someone to talk to about how to help them become more confident human beings who feel supported by you and other close family members, regardless of their sexual identities or gender expression.
*Gender expression is how one shows the world that they are a boy, girl, androgynous, gender fluid, etc. by how they dress, act, or present themselves.