Is 5 Too Young To Understand Gender?

I hear a lot about my trans son that he’s too young to know about gender. Maybe if he were older, it would make sense. But at this age, he just can’t understand these things.

But isn’t that precisely the reason WHY it seems so obvious that a child would know about this if only they were experiencing it first hand?

I consider myself a pretty progressive person and even I was taken back by my son’s exclamations of being a boy on the inside. It shook me to the core. I was fearful of his future, scared I had no idea what to do in this situation and it gave me just another worry about how I could fuck my kids up unintentionally just because there is no handbook for this parenting thing.

My son was never exposed to anyone that is trans on any level he would be aware of. Gender identity is not something we openly discussed in our home until it became something he was wrestling with. 

I think this contributed to my son’s confusion in the beginning because for him, he was feeling very different and couldn’t quite figure out why.

The words he used to explain how he was feeling to me included “mom, did you know in your heart that you’re a girl? Because in my heart…. I feel like a BOY”. And, “mom can God make mistakes? Because I think God made me a girl and he was WRONG.”

He used to ask me questions before expressing he is trans that applied to textbook gender stereotypes. I would be painting my nails and he would come up to me and ask, “hey mom, can boys paint their nails too?” And at the time I never really considered any of these questions could have a deeper meaning. 

I always just assumed it was general curiosity about the differences between boys and girls. I would just remind him that boys can do girl things and girls can do boy things. You don’t have to act or be a certain way because you are a girl.

Looking back, these situations speak even more to the fact that his feelings are VERY real. Because if he was hearing me at all, the message was always that you don’t have to be a boy to do BOY things. Yet, he still felt the urge to change himself. To BE someone else.

Research shows that during development children start to become aware of gender around 18 months to 2 years. This means they recognize that boys and girls are different. Physically they look different.

According to this research supported article in The Conversation,

In infancy, children will start to show a preference for gender specific toys. “Trucks are for boys” “Dolls are for girls”.

By the age of three kids will point out gender stereotypes and verbalize them. They can also associate with their own gender.

And by 4 most kids have a sense of and are comfortable with THEIR gender.

So at the age of 5, a child should most definitely be able to comfortably identify as either a boy or a girl (according to research). But what if they don’t?

What if your child is questioning their gender?

If a child is not sure, not comfortable they may express their gender confusion in different ways. Some kids experience gender dysphoria which is flagged by distress. They feel locked in a body that doesn’t belong to them.

This happens markedly during puberty, but can happen anytime, really, kids will show serious upset about their bodies or their expression of gender. To a point where it is causing serious mental or physical anguish (or both).

But some kids aren’t greatly distressed at all. Those kids are just ready to be someone else. And considering the science behind it, why, as parents, should we wait for our kids to get to a dangerous pubescent age where the potential for them to experience gender dysphoria increases significantly?

If we can save our kids from any discomfort, hurt, or harm… isn’t that our ultimate goal as parents?

Consider the changes being made at a young age for a child. Really, it is just words. Making some adjustments to our language to make sure we appropriately refer to our child as their preferred gender and possibly a name change. But other than that, as parents of very young trans kids, that’s about all. And that’s about all for a number of years. 

The hope would be, at that point, we would have given ourselves and our children time to live as their true selves, and time to be sure. To let them experience life as the person they feel like on the inside matching the outside and have an opportunity to decide if there is more they would like to do about this, later… years later.

Basically, according to the pros at the Human Rights Campaign, we are allowing my child to be who he needs in this moment and in the meantime, we are looking for signs. Signs this is forever before we make any major decisions regarding his body and mind. 

He needs to be consistent, persistent, and insistent. If he waivers, if he questions, if he goes back and forth between the two…. that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s NOT trans, but it could mean he’s non-binary or gender fluid, or… he got it wrong. 

My son has shown me nothing but consistency and insistence since he’s expressed his true feelings to me that he be referred to, recognized as, and treated like he was born a boy.

If he faltered, I might have concerns. But even then, I don’t think that allowing him to live the way he wants to live (as a boy rather than the girl he was born as) is DAMAGING. If anything, the message being sent is that he is loved, he is accepted, and he’s allowed to be whoever he feels he truly is on the inside. He doesn’t need permission to be HIMSELF. 

So do I think 5 is too young for a child to understand their gender? The short answer is, I don’t know. At this age and with my kids with ALL.THINGS. in general, I can’t say I’m 100% certain of anything. Ever.

But, as someone who is raising a transgender child but never questioned my own gender, I say no. The professionals say, no. If someone asks me how he could possible know and understand any of this at his age, I typically respond with “at what age did you realize that you were a girl (or a boy)?” And most people don’t have an answer for that because the truth is, they have NEVER questioned their gender. It always just was.

In some ways, I think my child is far more aware of himself than I am at the age of 34. And for that, I feel proud to have raised an assertive, self-aware, and confident little dude. Wouldn’t any parent be proud of that?

If this article resonated with you here are a few others of my experiences raising a young trans child that you may want to check out:

My Son’s First Haircut – A Rite Of Passage

Grief and Loss Of A Trans Child

What If This Is Just A Phase?

My 5 Year Old Is Transgender, And I Don’t Want Your Advice

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Does Being In A New Relationship After Divorce Mean You’re Not A Single Mom Anymore?

When I was a newly single parent trying to navigate how to handle life with kids, but without a partner, I remember getting really annoyed, and frankly hurt, when I would see women complaining on social media about being a “single parent” because their husband was on a fishing trip. Or a work trip. Or whatever. He was gone for a short time and suddenly they understood what it was like to be a “single mom”.

But they didn’t. Their situation was temporary. Their partner is coming back (eventually). As a single mom, your situation is forever.

Or maybe not.

Maybe, sometime in the future, you will find someone new to share your life with. And then what? Are you not a “single mom” anymore?

Once I found a new partner and things started getting serious (meeting the kids, living together, and eventually engaged) I had been told by a handful of people that I should stop defining myself as a “single parent” as if I’m alone. I’m not a single parent anymore. I have someone.

And I get it. I understand someone who is TRULY single being annoyed by someone like me. A not-actually-single-single-mom. I would venture to guess that had I come across this situation during my new singleton life, I probably would have been vexed by someone bickering about being a single mom with a partner to share their life with.

But I am here to say, just because you are not “single” anymore, doesn’t mean you’re not exactly living like a single mom anymore either. Maybe just a different breed of single mom.

And here’s why…

I spent the better part of a year alone with my kids, working on my marriage (but apart) and then realizing it was ending, and going from having my kids all the time to most of the time to all of the time again.

I dated.

I did the daily grind of ALL.THINGS.KIDS. every day, all day.

And then I met someone.

And eventually it moved to the next level. And things are great.

(Side note: Blending families, especially when you have kids from divorce, kids who have experienced a parent’s addiction and mental illness, kids who are already annoyed with their blood siblings and now have more kids around A LOT, is really fucking hard. It’s almost (dare I say) harder than keeping a marriage together when you’ve built your life, your family, together. But the difference is, now you have had the experience of hell that goes with breaking up your family. And so you’re either going to put in the work to make it last and be beneficial for everyone involved. Or you’re not.)

But regardless of how much work you put in or how “normal” you try to make your family, it’s just not the same. And it never will be.

And here is where I say, being in a new relationship doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not a single mom anymore. In some situations you might be more comfortable, you might have help, but in almost all cases you will never share the same type of relationship you had before, especially when it comes to your kids.

You can love someone’s kids as much as your own and they can love yours just the same, but your experiences with your kids that started from the first positive pee-stick aren’t shared like they were with someone else.

Your history with this new person starts years later. And eventually, the goal would get to a point where all of those “before” experiences are water under the bridge. But it’s going to be awhile before you get there.

And despite their ability and desire to help, there are just some things that they simply can’t do (or your kids won’t allow them to) that your previous spouse was able to step in and be a part of.

My kids are young, their needs are still ever draining on a parent. I still wipe butts, give baths, cut food into little bite sized pieces, make snacks, tie shoes, get them dressed, open juice boxes, (etc, etc, etc….)

Some of these things, sure, my partner can help with. But so could one of my friends if I needed it that bad, when I was single. Other things? Even if he wanted to, he just can’t.

Any sort of major parenting decisions we weigh as a team, yet…. he’s not their dad. He wasn’t there from the beginning and so oftentimes I find myself doing more explaining than discussing.

He can’t give my kids baths, tuck them in, kiss their boo-boos or do my daughter’s hair. They won’t allow him to. It might be never that he is the someone they feel comfortable with confiding in, so the burden of all of the heavy stuff weighs solely on me. Maybe in time that will change, but for now, it’s mine to bear.

Financially, his job in this family wasn’t to come in and support me and my kids. That’s my job. And they have their own dad. But what if their dad is not contributing like an active and responsible parent? It’s not his responsibility to pick up the slack, that load falls on me too.

If my kid does something I find super quirky and cute, I’ll share it with him. But the reaction I get isn’t the same because he wasn’t there years ago when my older child did something similar and we laughed and laughed.

And the moments that my kids have that used to be endearing reminders of their father, now are terrifying indicators that his genes are still alive and strong within them.

If one of my kids gets sick I’m the one who has to call in to work, not him.

If there are conferences, meetings at school, doctor’s appointments, dentist appointments, play dates to be made, birthday parties to plan… he will join in the fun, but he’s not taking care of those things for my children, and he shouldn’t have to. But that doesn’t mean having him around makes my life “easier” as I’ve been told it should.

The discipline is my job, and so is the explosive reaction I get if/when that discipline is met by an angry child. As much as he would like to step in and help sometimes, ultimately, it’s not his place.

So despite not technically being a “single mom” anymore, I find myself still feeling overwhelmed at times. Wishing I could get some help. Some support. And what’s strange is I have it, but it comes in a different form and not one I’m entirely used to (yet).

People don’t seem to understand that just because you have another adult in the house, all of your struggles and responsibilities as a single parent don’t vanish.

Everyone feels and experiences their situations differently. I am starting to think I shouldn’t have been so quick to feel stabby and wronged by the mom claiming to understand my life as a single mom because her husband was absent for a weekend on a business trip. Maybe she was feeling really alone.

Being a single mom, completely raising my kids ALONE was probably the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Having someone around definitely helps make the days go by faster. I feel less overwhelmed, less tired, less lonely than I did when I was doing this thing all by myself.

I refuse to be a sanctimonious mom that claims I have the same life as a true single mom that is raising her kids completely solo. I’m not. At least not anymore. But as a mom who has done that before and lived to tell about it, I gotta be honest… the way I’m living now with a new partner is (some days) not that far off. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

 

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