Letting ‘Princess Boys’ Be …Themselves?
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We like to check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today we want to talk about something that we suspect has given many parents pause. Let's say you have a little girl who likes to be called Tom and she follows behind her big brothers when they play basketball or roughhouse. Cute, right?
But what if you have a little boy who likes to wear sparkly dresses and other princess attire? Even if your family thinks it's cute, will the rest of the world? That was Cheryl Kilodavis's story, or rather the story of her family, and her journey toward acceptance of her little boy caused her to write her new children's book. It's called "My Princess Boy." And she's with us now from New York. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. CHERYL KILODAVIS (Author, "My Princess Boy"): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: For additional perspective, we've also invited two other guests. Sara Mindel is director of clinical services at the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League here in Washington, D.C. She's also a mom of one. And also with us, Bonnita Spikes. She's the mother of an older transgender child and she has some very interesting experiences she wants to tell us about. She's also here with us in Washington. Ladies, welcome to you both.
Ms. SARA MINDEL (Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League): Thank you.
Ms. BONNITA SPIKES: Thank you, Michel, for having us.
MARTIN: Cheryl, let me start with you, because I think this has to be something that a lot of people have struggled with. And I'd like to ask, when did you notice that your son, Dyson, liked girly stuff?
Ms. KILODAVIS: Right before two years old is, I would say, when I started noticing that he had an eye for all things pretty, all things beautiful, everything pink. And when we'd go to the toy store, he would gravitate towards the aisle of pink toys. And my older son would gravitate towards the aisle with action figures and things. So it was very early on.
MARTIN: And did you try to discourage this? Did you try to push back against this and say no, play with the truck?
Ms. KILODAVIS: You know, I wouldn't call it discourage, but I did try to redirect. The first public display happened at a daycare when he was about 2.5 years old and he was twirling around in a red sequins dress with some pink heels and really, really just loving it and showing me and how happy he is. And I was kind of shocked with a frozen smile on my face and didn't know how to act.
So I went and bought boy dress-up clothes, thinking that there weren't enough cute boy dress-up clothes at the daycare and thought, OK, now I'm going to give him some options. So I solved that problem.
MARTIN: But - but no.
Ms. KILODAVIS: But no. The next day he was in a yellow dress when I got there. So I knew at that point that the issue was more sitting with me.
MARTIN: Well, you know, your son, your older son, actually, had something to say about this. Will you tell that story?
Ms. KILODAVIS: Yeah. My older son, Dacoby(ph), actually was my turning point. We were Halloween shopping and Dacoby had picked out his Ninja Turtle outfit and was happy as pie, and then here's my younger son looking at a blue Cinderella dress. And at that point I called my husband and I said, what do I do? And my husband's response was, hey, our son has a passion for something. He's happy, you know. He didn't really understand the problem. So it was kind of a switch of roles there.
And then my younger - my older son, Dacoby, came up to me and said, mom, why can't you just let him be happy? He wants to be a princess, just let him be happy. And at that moment you could've frozen the store in time. I realized that this is really my issue. This is not about my kids accepting each other and likely other kids accepting them. It's really an adult issue.
MARTIN: Sara, can I bring you into the conversation? Because I'd like to ask how often kids do experiment across gender, particularly little kids wanting to dress up in clothes that many, you know, the outside world or the adult world doesn't really consider, you know, gender appropriate - how often is that?
Ms. MINDEL: Well, I think it's what you decide what gender is. I think ultimately that's the question. What are our gender lines?
Ms. MINDEL: And if I have specific gender lines, anything I put on the child doesn't mean they're going to ascribe(ph) to it. Gender, just as Cheryl said, is our problem. It's an adult construct. We bring boy children home in blue blankets from the hospital and little girl children get pink blankets. We decide that. They don't. And I think that kids choose - let me back up - kids are who they are.
MARTIN: So Bonnie, could you talk about your experience? Your son was born Michael.
Ms. SPIKES: Yes.
MARTIN: But now goes by...
Ms. SPIKES: Michelle.
Ms. SPIKES: My husband and I figured with four male children, one or all could be gay. And we never had a hesitation that we would never - we would never stop loving them no matter what they thought they were. But Michelle knew early on, and I'll say as early as three or four, she wanted Rainbow Brite. She didn't want G.I. Joe and He-Man like her brothers. And so we kind of joked and said well, we'll let it go with it, you know, and we did, we never put restrictions. But she felt restricted in telling me the truth about not feeling - being in the right body. She told my son, which I was totally hurt. I was like...
MARTIN: How old was she when she, yeah...
Ms. SPIKES: When she told my son, she wasn't a teen - I don't think she was a teenager but nobody told me that early. But she told my son: I never felt I was born in the - in the right-sex body.
MARTIN: And was part of the concern, and I guess I'll bring - Cheryl, I'll bring you back for this too, is it - and I think a lot of the issue for parents isn't so much what they themselves feel within the family but you're worried about what other people will say. Do you think that that's fair?
Ms. SPIKES: Well...
Ms. KILODAVIS: Absolutely.
MARTIN: Do you think, Cheryl, that's fair?
Ms. KILODAVIS: Absolutely. I think, you know, for me, we actually did the doctor thing. We, you know, I was concerned that I didn't want to have my child to live one day in this world without being happy for who he was. And I wanted to know early. So we went to our pediatrician, to a psychiatrist, to a psychologist and we had evaluations done and things just to understand. And Dyson loves being a boy. He's very comfortable being a boy and he actually coined the term My Princess Boy. He said he wanted to be a princess, and having not one of my great-mother moments, he basically said I'm a princess. And I said girls are princesses not boys. And he turned to me and looked me square in the eye and said I am a princess boy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KILODAVIS: And so, of course, I went right back to journaling because I thought, you know, this really is something that I've got, you know, innate in me. You know, what is the barrier? What is really going on? And, you know, answering that question earlier about the gender thing, I think it's very - I mean if we are going to put the, you know, call a spade a spade, I think it's very clear that everybody has gender assumptions. Everybody, you know, when you have a boy or you have a girl, you already have preconceived notions of your children. And the moment you become a mother you realize you know what, I'm not supposed to control this life. I'm a guider of this life.
MARTIN: Well, you write about this in the book. Just a short passage reads:
I love My Princess Boy. When we go shopping, he is the happiest when looking at girls' clothes. But when he says he wants to buy a pink bag or a sparkly dress people stare at him and when he buys girl things they laugh at him, and then they laugh at me. It hurts us both.
But it's true that gender seems to have that effect on people. And it's not just a matter of personal preference. Bonnie, in your case, sometimes there's a physical threat that arises when people feel that you've transgressed a gender boundary. Do you mind telling that story?
Ms. SPIKES: Well, I - she's been beat up a couple times but one time she almost died. She was in intensive care and I remember...
MARTIN: Because she was dressed as a woman or...
Ms. SPIKES: She's gorgeous as a - and I have to really - she keeps me in check.
MARTIN: But she's tall. She's tall...
Ms. SPIKES: She is tall. She's tall.
MARTIN: ...and so there was a point at which dressing as a woman put her in physical danger. Is that it?
Ms. SPIKES: No because...
Ms. SPIKES: ...she got that shape together. You know, I mean she...
MARTIN: So why did people attack her?
Ms. SPIKES: Well, because she tells you she's a male. She's - if you come and flirt with her, the first thing she says: I'm a male. And I really think they get upset that they would get turned on and then find out it was a male that turned them on. That's just personal view. I don't know.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We're having our weekly visit with the moms and we're talking about what for many parents is a very sticky issue: what happens if your young child wants to dress up in clothes that are traditionally associated with the opposite gender? What happens if your child sees himself as a gender different from the one in which he was born?
We're talking Cheryl Kilodavis, author of the new children's book, "My Princess Boy." Also with us is Bonnita Spikes, mother of a transgender adult child. And Sara Mindel, who's a licensed clinical social worker and director of Clinical Services for the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League. That's here in Washington, D.C.
Cheryl, I think there are a lot of people who are interested in your husband's perspective on this. And you were saying that he's actually fine. He was fine before you were fine. I do have a short clip of him from - your husband Dean, sharing his thoughts on NBC's "Today Show." I'll just play a short clip.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Today")
Mr. DEAN KILODAVIS: It's not contagious, and he's just like any other kid. Plays checkers, he plays in the trees. He just likes to do it in a dress. Big deal.
MARTIN: Your appearance on the "Today Show," which was just yesterday, by the way, has already sparked a lot of commentary on the message boards. You know, one writer says I understand the fact that this mother is accepting her son for who he is but come on, reality. First of all, the writer says, this boy is five years old. This is a - he's a child, the decision is not for him to make at this age. And did anybody even stop to think that there may be some underlying issues in why this young boy wants to dress up this way? And this is the kicker to this letter which really fascinated me. He says by all means I'm not condemning the family or the boy because I am a gay male, but - and then there are other people who say you're setting himself up to be bullied by allowing him to dress in girlie clothes.
And so I'd liked to ask, what's your response to that? And then I'll hear from our other guests on that. So what do you say to that?
Ms. KILODAVIS: Well, you know, that's a lot in a question.
MARTIN: Yeah, it is.
Ms. KILODAVIS: I think, you know, first off yes, he is five years old. He is young. He is my son and I am a mama bear, if you know me at all. And I am doing everything I can to provide him the most safe, healthy and happy lifestyle that he deserves. So, yes, he is young. However, I don't believe that this is a health issue. I don't believe, you know, it's not as if we are saying eat a tub of ice cream if you want to or, you know, go outside in the snow in a tank top because you want to. That's not what this is.
Studies show that children early on, one of the most independent and positive choices that they can make for themselves is getting dressed in the morning and really feeling empowered to select things. And I just do not believe that as parents, our life is made to sit here and keep saying no and to have a child crying all the time. I don't think his first five years on this earth should have been like that.
And the other thing I want to point out is that this is a process and it's a journey. And so, you know, some of the feedback, I think people think that it's just a turned on acceptance kind of thing and that's just not reality. It is a process to get through this piece.
MARTIN: But what about the question of sexual orientation? Is it your - and, you know, forgive me. I...
Ms. KILODAVIS: Yeah.
MARTIN: It's such a personal question and he's such a young boy, but do you think that part of the issue here is that people assume that he's gay or that you are encouraging him to be - do you know what I mean, to be gay? I mean the sexual orientation question does arise almost immediately apparently, even at this young age. So...
Ms. KILODAVIS: Yeah. It's interesting to me that I can have a kindergartner that nobody's asking heterosexual questions, right? Nobody's asking that of a five year old right now - what's your preference - for heterosexual kids. So it's interesting that it does come up. But I understand. I understand why it does.
I think that he's five years old. That's really all the answer I have. And wherever this takes us, I'm excited for the journey because I know that I have had some growth in all of this. I hope the world will have some growth by looking at the book and having conversations.
The real mission here is to constantly have conversations because society moves when conversations happen.
MARTIN: Sara, talk about this if you would. You've worked with people across various age groups.
Ms. MINDEL: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: So if a little - if a child dresses up at a certain age in a certain way that doesn't necessarily mean sexual orientation down the line. It doesn't have anything to do with it, does it? Or does it?
Ms. MINDEL: No. It just means that they don't fit into the exact model of gender construction. It doesn't mean sexual orientation. But it means that -what we do know about it is it means that that kid cannot quite feel normal.
MARTIN: Let me ask you this though, why do you think it is that people get so worked up when they see a boy who likes sparkly stuff but they don't get worked up when a girl likes to play cowboys or something?
Ms. MINDEL: Ultimately, it's sexism and homophobia and that we are really just downright afraid of sissy boys, if I'm going to be so crass. And I don't mean that, you know. I think that that...
MARTIN: But why? Why are we so afraid of...
Ms. KILODAVIS: I think it's fear-based.
MARTIN: Cheryl? Mm-hmm.
Ms. MINDEL: Yeah.
Ms. KILODAVIS: I think it's fear-based. I really do. I think, you know, I know that I still in this process have to do a double-take myself. And one of the things that I had to do is start asking myself about differences, just plain, you know, kind of getting away from just that issue. But why - if this is different, why is this bothering me? Because we all know that there are boys who might show something, an interest pink, might show an interest in something sparkly and the immediate reaction is don't do that. Let's redirect. That's not what boys do.
MARTIN: Bonnie, what's your advice to people who may be listening to our conversation and say, you know, they have a child who, you know, dresses differently than perhaps they would prefer or that they think - that they think is appropriate for their gender and they just say look, I don't want my child to have to go through any extra drama in life. What's so terrible? What do you say?
Ms. SPIKES: Well...
MARTIN: What's so terrible about wanting my son to wear pants and my daughter to wear dresses because, you know what, that just makes our lives easier? What do you say?
Ms. SPIKES: I tell them children are a gift that's from God. Don't worry about what they're wearing. Worry about if you're teaching them right from wrong and love them. And let them be who they are. Because I really would have a fit if someone did not let me be myself.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: OK. Sara, I'm good to give you - ask you next, what are your final thoughts here? And Cheryl, I'm going to give you the last word.
Ms. MINDEL: I think the reality is is there's no way as parents we could really protect our children. We - as much as I would love to be by my child's side until, you know, forever, it's not going to happen. The way that I arm my child from bullying and to protect himself in the world is by helping him be happy and confident with who he is, no matter what that is.
And I think - I commend Cheryl and Bonnie for doing that. This is how you are arming your child from being hurt in the world, is by allowing them to express themselves and to learn how to do that in all - in the wake of everything in the world.
MARTIN: Cheryl, final thought for you. Sounds to me like Dyson is on point from what I can hear.
Ms. KILODAVIS: You know...
MARTIN: From what I hear. And in fact if you want to send him down to give me some fashion tips I'd be happy to get his input. But...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KILODAVIS: Yeah, he has great ones. You know, we all want it easy for our children, I mean let's be honest. And I actually struggle with him on, you know, dressing him any kind of way. I mean he may want to put on pink. He may want to put on blue. I don't over-encourage it and I don't over-discourage it. And I think that's kind of our way of accepting him for who he is.
You know, Dyson says the greatest thing to me sometimes. If somebody laughs at him or says something about him in a - in some of his dresses, he says you're not my friend until you like me in a dress. And I think there's something we can learn from that comment. I mean I'm kind of going, you know, that's a really good point.
So I'm just not going to have my child or both of my children in this world where they are not happy and comfortable with who they are.
MARTIN: Cheryl Kilodavis is the author of the children's book, "My Princess Boy: A Mom's Story about a Young Boy Who Loves to Dress Up." She joined us from our bureau in New York. Also with us, Bonnita Spikes is the mother of a transgender...
Ms. SPIKES: Male/female.
MARTIN: ... male/female. And she joined us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Sara Mindel, who's a licensed clinical social worker and director of Clinical Services for the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League here in Washington, D.C.
Ladies, moms, thank you all so much for joining us.
Ms. SPIKES: Thank you for having us, Michel.
Ms. KILODAVIS: Thank you.
Ms. MINDEL: Thank you for having us.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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