Sunday, August 19, 2012

The "Middle" Child

Believe it or not, fellow counseling geeks, this is not going to be a post relating to Adlerian counseling theory and birth order.  Rather, today's topic is gender.

A few months ago I wrote about transgender children in schools.  We have seen a lot of representations of the struggles of transgender adults through the mass media over the years, but now we are also seeing how children who have been identified as transgender grow-up within their schools, their families, and their communities.  They face difficult decisions about hormones, dress, religion, surgeries, socialization, and family relationships.  We, as school counselors, will often be looked to within our buildings and school districts to help pave the way for these students, coordinating with teachers, parents, and administration in order to develop environments that are supportive and conducive to learning.  This is important because, as I have written about in the past, there is significant bullying in elementary schools that extends to all children who act outside of what are seen as "traditional" gender norms, regardless of whether or not they currently or in the future will identify as gay or straight, male or female.

Sexual orientation is a construct that tends to become more fully-focused around puberty, although many gay and lesbian adolescents and adults will, upon reflection, realize they have always known, or have at least understood from an early age that there was something different about them.  Gender, however, is something that tends to be solidified at a much earlier age--or is it?  Fading are the days where we thought of gender as black and white--male or female.  Rather, gender, like sexual orientation, is now being viewed more as also being along a continuum, with people feeling male and/or female to varying degrees.

This is being reflected in our elementary schools.  Last weekend an article ran in the New York Times entitled What's So Bad About A Boy Who Wants To Wear A Dress?  The article discusses the changing tide of allowing kids to express their gender preferences more openly in their lives, such as boys who wear dresses to school.  The children discussed in this article, though, are reflective of children in the "middle" of gender--they identify as boys, as males, but yet like to wear dresses and pink sparkles.  They fit neither into the "traditional" male camp, but nor are they "transgender":

"Many parents and clinicians now reject corrective therapy, making this the first generation to allow boys to openly play and dress (to varying degrees) in ways previously restricted to girls—to exist in what one psychologist called 'that middle space' between traditional boyhood and traditional girlhood. These parents have drawn courage from a burgeoning Internet community of like-minded folk whose sons identify as boys but wear tiaras and tote unicorn backpacks. Even transgender people preserve the traditional binary gender division: born in one and belonging in the other. But the parents of boys in that middle space argue that gender is a spectrum rather than two opposing categories, neither of which any real man or woman precisely fits." (source:
In the past, as the article states, it was often recommended that the parents of children who exhibited characteristics outside of their traditional gender remove all non-traditional gender materials (clothes, toys, even friends) from their child's life, thus "encouraging" them to conform to the traditional gender model.  However, as we are now seeing, families are finding that trying to push their children into a gender box is not for them, and they are working with other parents and with schools and communities to create safe and supportive spaces for their children to express themselves and their many facets of gender.  In general, we like to be able to "label" people, to categorize them.  Oftentimes people want to know if children who do not fit into a specific mold with regards to gender are gay?  Transgender?  Does he want to be a girl?  While studies and statistics are limited, it appears at this time that some of these "middle" children will eventually identify as gay, a few as transgender, and many will eventually consider themselves heterosexual males. (source: We have to become more at ease living within the gray areas and allowing kids to explore and express the many complex facets of themselves--this includes gender.

About a year-and-a-half ago I heard an interview with the mother of a son who enjoys wearing pink, dresses, and sparkles.  She speaks very candidly about her journey through this process as a mother, and in fact has written a children's picture book entitled My Princess Boy which discusses acceptance of a 4-year old boy who just happens to enjoy dressing up in traditionally girls' clothing and playing "princess."  Her son fits into this "middle" category in that he very clearly states that he is a boy, but he simply enjoys and is passionate about the color pink, tutus, and dresses.  Both her website and her Facebook page  detail the journey that the whole family has taken with her son.  As she often shares, it is often her "princess boy" who teaches them about tolerance and acceptance.  His entire family--his mother, his father, and his older brother--support him.  This was a Facebook status a few months ago:

"My Princess Boy's brother is a true champion. At soccer practice, a couple of players were pointing and laughing at my princess boy because he was in a tutu. My older son (the champion) said, 'its not cool to laugh at my brother.' One kid replied, 'but he's in a dress dude'. Dkobe said, 'So what. If you ever saw him pick out a dress or a pink top, you would see how happy it makes him'. On the way home, my Princess Boy thanked his champion and said, 'I'm giving you a secret  key to the fun world. It's full of pink and purple butterflies.'" (source:
It is not all roses and flowers for these middle children, however.  There can often be struggles with peers and even adults. As the New York Times article discusses, one boy lost his friend when the other boy came over for a play date and saw there were dolls all over the floor.  This boy has not had a play date since. (source:  The boy from My Princess Boy faces comments like the one quoted above, but also from the general public, such as the time he wanted to buy a toy that one might identify as traditionally a "girl's" but was told by another child that he couldn't buy it as he was a boy.  It should be noted his brother stepped in here, as well. (source:

As school counselors, we will deal directly with these situations when they come into the classroom.  Teachers, students, and parents will look to us for guidance and reassurance.  For instance, at the blog He Sparkles, a mother is struggling with her son starting traditional school on a full-time basis next year (he was previously split between home school and traditional school).  He prefers wearing pink and sparkles, and was able to do this with khaki pants on the two days each week he attended a traditional school last year.  Next year, he is attending a school full-time with a uniform policy that says he was to wear a blue or white polo shirt--no pink.  This rule is consistent for both boys and girls.  However, he has chosen a khaki romper with a skirt to wear on the bottom versus the khaki pants listed under the "boys" choices for the school uniform.  His mother is optimistic about how the school will react, but is also trying to anticipate what will happen if there are problems. (source:

Something similar happened with one of the children discussed in the New York Times article.  One of the boys, "Alex," enjoyed wearing dresses, but as he began kindergarten he wore pants and shirts, as his parents were concerned about bullying from other children with regards to the dresses.  Colors, sparkles, jewelry, etc., they left up to him as a way to express himself.  He wore hot-pink socks to school one day and was teased by one of the other students.  His teacher chose to respond in this way:

"During circle time, she mentioned male friends who wore nail polish and earrings. Mrs. C. told them that when she was younger, she liked wearing boys’ sneakers. Did that make her a boy? Did the children think she shouldn’t have been allowed to wear them? Did they think it would have been O.K. to laugh at her? They shook their heads no. Then she told them that long ago, girls weren’t allowed to wear pants, and a couple of the children went wide-eyed. “I said: ‘Can you imagine not being able to wear pants when you wanted to? If you really wanted to wear them and someone told you that you couldn’t do that just because you were a girl? That would be awful!’ ” After that, the comments in the classroom about Alex’s appearance pretty much stopped." (source:
How would you react to these situations if this was your school?  What could you do to help lay a smooth transition for these students, their teachers, administration, and classmates?  

  • I would highly recommend looking at the Ready, Set, Respect! curriculum over at GLSEN, as well as the Welcoming Schools curriculum from the Human Rights Campaign for guidance lessons on tolerance and acceptance for elementary school students.  
  • Additionally, the book, My Princess Boy, could be a great biblio-lesson for young students about accepting all students who may exhibit non-traditional gender characteristics, both male and female.  
  • Further, always go back to your best practices of developing relationships with families and teachers so that you can better help to facilitate understanding when the need arises.  

Our mission is to remove barriers to academic success--by helping your school community develop tolerance and acceptance, you are enabling young children to focus on what's most important--their learning.

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