Dear Carolyn: Our granddaughter’s behavior is causing our family a great concern and anxiety. She is 8, attends an all-girls school, is very good in studies and tops in tests. She is very athletic and enjoys taking part in only boys’ sports, such as martial arts. She likes to wear only boys’ clothes and cuts her hair very short like a boy. The only time she wears girls’ clothing is for school, a uniform. Outside of school time she does not like girls’ dress. When we take her to buy clothing, she goes straight to the boys’ section.
Our question is whether she has a problem identifying her gender. Is this common with some girls? Will she outgrow the problem and act like a girl? Are we paranoid over something we should not be worrying about? Please point us in a right direction.
A: The “right direction”? Love her.
I have a great concern about your great concern and anxiety, which can do her actual harm where her choices simply won’t. For one thing, I have no answer to “act like a girl.” Do you mean like Tammy Duckworth, Serena Williams, Sally Ride … ?
Plus, martial arts are not “boys’ sports,” they’re sports, and very short hair is not a boy’s haircut, it’s a haircut, and pants and shirts are “boys’ clothes” only because she’s finding them in the boys’ department; the moment they’re on her body, they’re a girl’s clothes.
That is, assuming your granddaughter identifies female and just likes sportier things. That’s certainly quite common and a strong possibility, the best answer to which is to shut up and love her as-is – and let her shop in whatever department she pleases, without hand-wringing or eyebrow-raising or “What about this cute dress … ?”
Also possible is that she identifies male and feels as if she’s in the wrong body. That’s far, far less common, and also a much more difficult, anxiety-inducing path for sure, especially for her – “him” would be appropriate then – but also for the family.
If indeed that’s the case, though, that’s an even stronger argument for family to love her fiercely and cease all hand-wringing, eyebrow-raising or skirt-pushing, because (a) forcibly applying pink is not going to work, not one bit, toward changing anyone on the inside, and (b) because early acceptance of a child’s outside-the-mainstream choices could be, no exaggeration, a matter of life and death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t quantify the suicide risk for transgender youth, citing a need for more study, but on the National Transgender Discrimination Survey of nearly 6,500 “gender nonconforming” people, a heartrending 41 percent reported having attempted suicide.
Your granddaughter is probably not transgender, but acceptance is the only answer regardless. Your granddaughter’s gender story is going to write itself the way it wants to no matter what any of you says or does.