Is it OK for a boy to wear a dress? Gender fluid children.

Document created by Stavros Valenti on Oct 19, 2015
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This was originally posted on August 13, 2012.

Students have a lot to say about gender, until it comes time to define it.  What makes someone a boy or girl, man or woman?  If behavior and not just biology is part of gender, what about children whose behavior is gender-nonconforming? No one would be too surprised by a 5-year-old girl who insists on wearing only jeans and playing with superheroes.  But what about a 5-year-old boy who insists on wearing a dresses and “drawing gowns for his 36 Barbies and designing them for himself or his dolls, using fabric, ribbon, and rubber bands”? (Padawer, 2012)

Ruth Padawer of the New York Times recently published an article on “Gender-nonconforming boys” (she also uses the term “gender-fluid”) that could serve well as an introduction to the topic of gender and sex in a human development or an introductory psychology class.  Although good data in this area is lacking, research suggest that between 2 and 7 percent of boys under the age of 12 regularly display cross-gender behaviors, and perhaps more than 50% (but not 100%) of these boys will grow up to be gay men, and a smaller proportion will eventually live as heterosexual or transgender men. Padawer (2012) describes the day-to-day activities of several gender-fluid boys, as well as the thoughts and anxieties of their parents as they struggle with competing views on how best to parent their children (e.g., Should we only allow our son to wear dresses at home? Should we ‘educate’ his peers and their parents so our son will be accepted, in dresses, at school? Should we administer puberty-blocking hormones to our child to give everyone more time to think and plan?).

A great way to begin week or lecture on “gender and development” would be to assign this article to the class, and then discuss one more specific cases of boys who don’t conform to gender stereotypes in their activities and clothing, and what this says about one of the most important social categories that may not be quite so categorical.


Padawer, R. (2012 August 12). What’s wrong with a boy who wears a dress? A new approach to parenting gender-fluid children. The New York Times Magazine. (Published online, 9 August 2012,