Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Hey everybody, thanks so much, Dr. Emily Upshur for joining us today. Today we’re going to be answering another listener question. So this listener wrote in, hi Dr. Bren, what is normal developmental curiosity around different genders? In preschoolers, my son is showing interest in learning about the human body and recently started to say I’m a girl during play. He also noticed the girls in his class had painted fingernails, and when I was trimming his nails, he said, I want my nails painted. I feel this is purely out of natural curiosity about the opposite gender. Is there anything I should know about three to four year olds and learning about genders? So I thought this was a great question to answer or at the very least to discuss because really the reality is I feel like gender is a very hot button topic these days. And so parents can start to feel almost like there’s a lot of pressure. They’re walking a bit on a tightrope every time it comes up because they don’t want to say the wrong thing, wrong thing, but it’s hard. It’s really blurry in these early years. So maybe we want to talk about starting out with just understanding the developmental trajectory of how kids start to play with and understand their gender. What do you think?

Dr. Emily (02:07):

I mean, think so This child is three to four years old. I mean, I think that their play, as we know is how they learn and how they sort of internalize wider meetings of things. And so I would say this, I mean, this is very developmentally appropriate. There’s a tremendous amount of play, dress up play in all different ways, not just around genders. I’d like to be a cat today. I want to be a dog that definitely is super normative in this age range is in fact not normative. It’s healthy. It’s exactly what we would want to see kids doing at this age. So I think where it, what this parent might be wondering, the thing that makes it harder for us all as parents is right, okay, so you want to dress as a dog at home. Great. And what happens if you want to go to school and how does that work? Or this listener asked about nail painting. And so I think it’s actually more our worries as parents about what the environment will do, less worry about our child and their sort of playful experimentation and trying different things on for size, but how will they be interpreted by the outside world? And that sort of colors our comfort with this play, if that makes sense.

Dr. Sarah (03:36):

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. I think, and just as a general framework when you have a question like this as a parent, is to sort of run it through that filter, what is my fear here? Is my fear that I might do something or allow something or not allow something that might interfere with my child’s just natural developmental curiosity and I want to know more about it so I can sort of be mindful of that. Or is my fear that people are going to judge my kid or me or say something that my kid then has to navigate or have to hold that I don’t want them to have to experience even something as simple as a very innocent, and again, also developmentally an age appropriate comment from a peer in the class, why are your nails painted green?


It could feel we as parents could project onto that a sense of possible hurt or a hard thing to have to handle. Truthfully, I think three and four year olds ask each other questions like that all the time no matter what. And it’s not like we might be projecting onto some meaning onto that that may not actually be there. But there you could just as easily be afraid that someone like the clerk at the grocery store might be like, Hey, what’s up with your nails? And then the kid has to navigate that, which is I think what we ultimately a lot of times is the driver and wanting to protect our kids against having to do and experience that which is valid. I think it’s very valid, but it’s worth checking in I think first with ourselves. What is my big fear here? And let that guide me at least a little bit to start.

Dr. Emily (05:24):

And I think also maybe having a little bit of a, I always call this our best parenting versus our most anxious parenting. It’s like in the grocery store, when my child’s having a meltdown, do I stick a lollipop in their mouth and do my, I have to get through this moment or do I stop and don’t care that the cans getting knocked off the shelf and I kneel down and I talk to my kid in that moment and I do what I think I would do if nobody else was around. And I think this is one of those moments as a parent where you have to decide, am I going to put my kid out into the world in this way that I feel okay about or that I don’t have a concern necessarily within our home or within a safe community or within safe people about any negative feedback or pushback, or do I steal myself for what that might do or what might happen with that? And I think there’s no right or wrong answer. I think you could do either way, frankly. Right. I just think it’s about having a little bit of a slowing down, having a mindful roadmap for like, okay, so this is how door A will go and this is how door B will go and this is how we’ll handle it, regroup, revisit, and handle it when we are together at home.

Dr. Sarah (06:46):

Right, because I think we can’t snowplow all of the possible hurdles for our kids, regardless of this particular issue of kid. If my boy wants to wear a skirt to school at three or four developmentally, I don’t think that means a whole lot other than they’re trying something on and it’s fun for them. But I also think it’s appropriate to have some boundaries around it, not because, again, because we’re trying to control or stifle exploration, but also because we don’t wear our doggy costume or our pajamas to school either. There are some practical limitations to the things that kids might want to be playing with at certain times. And that’s, again, I don’t think that that’s an attack on their exploration of their gender. I think it’s about practicality. Sometimes I think it’s a little bit different when you have older kids who this is moving outside of the realm of play and it’s becoming more about a choice, something they want to experiment with a little bit more.


And that doesn’t again, necessarily mean anything about their gender, but it’s a little bit more, they’re pushing up against some sort of cultural expectation in a more conscious and deliberate way, and that’s where they’re working through right now. And that brings up a whole nother set of considerations and how do we support a kid to do that in a way that feels comfortable to them, authentic to them, but safe, I think we get into a little bit more the fears that we project onto the situation as parents feel a little more realistic in that situation. If you’ve got a 10-year-old who’s asking about wearing a dress to school versus if you have a three-year-old. So again, developmental considerations are really important for context here. But yeah, what do you think?

Dr. Emily (08:49):

Yeah, I mean, I couldn’t agree more. Just to touch back on your other, something you said really resonated with me, which I say to clients all the time, which is you can still have family rules. We don’t wear our bathing suit to school. That’s just not something that happens. So I do think you can have some boundaries just on your family values. We don’t wear dress up costumes to school. We wear a jacket every day. Those are okay things to do. But to go back to your most recent point about age, I think that’s also really important, that mindfulness and conscious choice piece. But I also want to keep in for parents who are like, I think it’s okay to talk through that with your kid, your older kid, your 10-year-old who wants to wear a dress to school. You might say, how do you think that’ll go?


Right, that’s cool with us, but I just want to make sure that you’re sort of eyes wide open and have a good sense of how you think it might go. What you’re hoping. It could be both unconscious and conscious, but bringing a little bit of that to awareness and mindfulness I think is really important. And the other point I wanted to make is just also as a parent to say, this doesn’t have to mean identity. I think there’s a difference between my 10-year-old wants to wear a dress to school and I’m not really sure what that’s about, and next month that’s over or next year that’s over. So I think there’s also, we’re quick to jump to identity development. What does that mean for my gender identity? What does that mean for my sexual identity? Those aren’t necessarily what is happening in these moments either. So I think just slowing ourselves down and being able to explore those things in the moment is my, is the other thing I would just throw into the ring there.

Dr. Sarah (10:44):

Totally. And it’s not lost on me that we have to have these conversations more when it comes up to, my son wants to wear a dress or my son wants to have his nails painted and it doesn’t happen as explicitly when my daughter wants to wear pants or my daughter wants to cut her hair short. And we’re probably dealing with similar things, but we live in a society that has slightly more rules whether we like it or not, whether it’s intentional or not, whether they align with our values or not. There are these sort of implicit expectations that are still kind of crystallized in a lot. They’re these relics, but they’re crystallized in a lot of our social norms in a way that it makes it more, there’s a bit more of a spotlight on a male child who wants to play with princess dresses and paint their nails or wear a tiara to school.


Then a girl who wants to wear a firetruck costume to school or really is into a male superhero and wants to wear dress up like that, whatever. We’re still talking about this sort of amorphous, genderless play. But we as parents also have to contend with the fact that when our daughters want to play in that space, they don’t get as much, it doesn’t feel as treacherous. And when our sons want to, we have more anxiety around that because I just feel like it’s worth naming. I don’t know if there’s anything really to do about it. And I’m not passing judgment on it. It’s just something that is real.

Dr. Emily (12:31):

I mean, I definitely think that there’s different weight on different things or different, I like the word spotlight. I think that was a good description. And I think again, I think that’s something you just have to straightforward, kind of play out with your kid or even within your family. What do you guys think of these things and what do you think of that it’s different for boys dressing up like this and girls, what are your thoughts about it? And again, I think the curiosity angle takes a lot of the anxiety. It makes you feel less backed into the corner unless as a parent that you have to have all the answers. You’re sort of collaborating with your child and creating a family value system and family openness to these conversations that I think is actually more important than knowing exactly what to do in each of these moments. Knowing exactly whether you should let your kid wear that tiara or cut their hair or do all those things. I think it’s much more important that we think through what does this mean to you and what do you think about and how do you feel about that? That’s sort of where I would land on it rather than having to make ruled judgments on each of these discrete events.

Dr. Sarah (13:44):

I think that’s a really great way to think about this, right? And it gives you so much more agency as a parent to not have an answer to say, that’s an interesting wish. Let’s play that out. Versus, no, we don’t do that. Or only girls do that, or only boys do that. It doesn’t really help. It’s like whack-a-mole. You’ll just have to deal with that question in another place another time versus being like, Ooh, what an interesting idea. Let’s peel the onion a little bit sometimes. Also, another thing to think about is a lot of times for kids their play when they’re playing out these little sort of roles and experimenting with different types of identities, sometimes just playing it out for you, it scratches that itch. So honestly, sometimes if a kid is like, I want to wear, wear this thing to school that maybe it’s like, I want to wear this princess costume to school.


You could go route of like, well, we don’t wear our costumes to school. You could. That’d be very reasonable. You could also say, oh, and what do you want to do? What will you be when you wear this princess costume to school? Play out the fantasy with them in the moment. You’re not necessarily saying, okay, we’re going to do these things or we’re not going to do. That’s not the point. They might not actually be asking, can I do this? And what is the plan and what’s the executables? They might just be like, this is my wish. And so we can play with their wish in the moment too, and then perhaps the conversation just moves on to something else and we play with that. It doesn’t have to be a decision that needs to be made either.

Dr. Emily (15:33):

Yeah, I like that. I also think they could be testing us and what we think about it when they throw these things out. It’s a little bit of a phishing sometimes, even if that’s unconscious.

Dr. Sarah (15:47):

And I would imagine you might see that with slightly older kids who have gotten some sort of feedback from their environment that this is taboo in some way. Even if what they’re doing is not, but if they’ve received some message that this behavior is taboo, then they might want to test it out. Is this taboo? If I do it over here, how are you going to respond if I bring it up here? It’s almost like when we have a big reaction to something, then they have to kind of play with that more. And it might not be that we’re having that strong reaction. It might’ve been like one of some other thing where they got this impression. Maybe they even felt a little shame about something that they did. They received something from somewhere and now they’re kind of having to revisit it and revisit it and revisit it. That I think happens as well. So if you notice that and you feel like it has that flavor of like, are you going to tell me no about this? Are you going to tell me no about this? Where are the edges? That would be a real good indication to me to almost just explore the taboo with them. It seems like you’re thinking a lot about this. What do you think might happen if you did that? What question are we trying to answer for them that they’re not able to ask directly?

Dr. Emily (17:02):

I agree, and I do think that can happen younger than you might think though. So I do think that those, we get messages from a very young age. So I think, again, like we were saying throughout, approach with curiosity, explore the idea. Don’t shut it down. Find out what the meaning is or try to explore what the meaning is. Figure out your family values around these things. Figure out what door you want to take the sort of bring it all out into the world door or the keep it at home door and then regroup, and you’ll have plenty of chances to do this multiple times. You don’t have to nail it the first time. You’re going to have plenty of chances to do this and try different of our approaches each of these times and see how they feel and see which fits best for you and your family.

Dr. Sarah (17:51):

Love it. Well, I’m glad that this mom sent this in. Keep sending us in your questions. We love them and we will talk to you soon.

Dr. Emily (17:58):


Dr. Sarah (18:02):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

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183. BTS: What is the best way to allow my preschooler to play with gender norms?