Many kids who stretch or defy gender norms are doing just that, even if part of the stretching includes changing how they talk about their gender. Some will “settle” into* more typical gender dressing and behaviors, some will forever be “tomboyish” girls or “sensitive” boys, and some will be transgender. How can you tell the difference? We want do the right parental things: protect kids from preventable harm, prepare them for unavoidable difficulties, support development of noble character, and love them wholly. But how we do those things depends partly on which group we expect the kid to end up in.
Jean Malpas, director of the Ackerman Institute’s Gender and Family Project, offered an elegantly useful explanation in an interview today on NPR’s “Morning Edition,”
Just about all kids explore gender and gender roles, but what’s different, psychologically, for children who come to the conclusion that they’re not comfortable with their biological sex?
Yes, gender fluidity and exploration of gender roles is a normal phase of child development. What’s different for transgender children is that they experience a profound distress about the gender that was assigned to them based on their biological sex. So, we call that gender dysphoria.
And that distress is what we call persistent, consistent and insistent. It’s persistent over time. It’s not something that just shows up for a few weeks and goes away. It’s consistent in different contexts and relationships. And it’s also very insistent. They are very, very passionate about it. It’s not something that they take lightly or that is going to go away again in a few weeks. It is really core to who they are.
* I almost wrote “settle for more typical gender dressing and behaviors.” Surely to some, the settling feels like a choice or need to stop spending the energy required to answer the offensive questions, ignore the hurtful comments and establish credibility in the face of first-impression judgments. This makes me sad to think about. If more of us comfortably cis-gendered people pushed the norm limits once in awhile, would that mean we all had to “settle for” our roles a little less?