If You Believe in Mermaids . . . Don't Tell

A Novel by A. A. Philips
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Questions Parents Ask: A.A. Philips Responds
This set of questions and answers is intended to initiate conversation, to offer food for thought, and to support parents who are concerned for their children.

1. WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
When my five-year-old son preferred to play with his big sister's dolls, toy ponies, and mermaids rather than his trucks, I wondered if I might be unwittingly encouraging those interests. Gradually I realized how deep and intrinsic was his affection for "girl things." My husband and I read more about atypical children. We understood that he was born with these strong preferences and that this is part of the normal variation of humanity.

Just as a minority of children are left-handed, it's natural for some boys and some girls to be non-traditional -- to identify with fairy-tale characters and prefer the toys and clothing of the opposite sex. Parents may be alarmed when their five-year-old son says he'd like to be a girl. In the great majority of cases, he is simply putting into words his desire to sometimes wear a pretty dress and play with dolls, just as girls are free to do.

Raising any child is a challenging process. It's vital to build a strong support system. Find people with whom you can share your experience. You are not alone. Your child does not have to be alone either. Wonderful, sustaining listserv support is available as are professionals with experience and sensitivity to this issue. Seek them out.

Your Goal might be to connect with a caring, supportive, informed community.

2. IF I IGNORE OR DISCOURAGE THIS BEHAVIOR, WILL IT STOP? WON'T LIFE BE HARDER FOR MY SON IF I ALLOW HIM TO PLAY WITH "GIRL TOYS"?

Surprised to realize how deeply-held my son's interests were, I felt overwhelmed, depressed, frustrated, helpless, and angry at society's narrow compass of "maleness." And I feared for his future. So I tried to "nip it in the bud"-- as I'd been advised to do. Although I objected to the notion that there are "boy" toys and "girl" toys, I told friends not to honor his request for a Barbie for his birthday and hid away his favorite mermaid movie. But it was soon clear that this was not a passing phase.

Just as Laura Ingalls Wilder created a doll from a corncob and a rag, my son found innumerable items around the house to make into a doll. One piece of green or pink yarn (or his pajamas) draped over his head became his "long hair."

Your child's interests don't change, but he may begin to censor them. He will stop telling you his feelings if he is teased and punished for his interests. He may deny and hide his longing and feel miserable and guilty.

The greatest danger is that our unconventional children will feel deeply flawed and unlovable - a permanent bruising that many adults who have lived through this describe as nearly insurmountable. You can help your child most by reassuring him that you think he's wonderful, that you are interested in and respect his preferences.

Many parents explain to their children: "There is more than one way of being a boy. Some boys play mostly with boy things, some like to play with both boy and girl toys, and some boys like to play mostly with girl toys. And that's okay."

Your Goal could be to help him to feel safe enough to talk about his feelings and what he wishes for.

3. SHOULD I LET HIM HAVE A DOLL, OR NOT?

Whether you choose to give your son dolls or he creates his own, it's important to provide one place where he can be safe to express himself. Usually his safe refuge will be a room at home. There he may play as he wishes, without ridicule. I hope that you will spend some time in his world appreciating his creative play. Help siblings to understand and accept their brother's uniqueness. Perhaps you'll watch movies and television programs and read books together that have non-traditional characters. There are many ways that you can demonstrate to the family and to him that he is not alone, and that your family is not unique. Get together with family and friends who support and appreciate your child.

Your Goal could be for your son to have a place where he can let down his guard and play as he wishes.

4. WHAT WILL HAPPEN AT SCHOOL?

You may need to advocate for your child at his school. Many parents in the online community have met with principals and teachers and provided articles that describe their child and his needs, discussing ways to help him to feel safe and promote understanding in the classroom. Eager to learn about any child's special needs, some teachers and principals will energetically initiate school policies that ensure that no students will be bullied at school.

Your Goal is for the school staff to ensure that teasing will not be tolerated.

5. WHAT WILL HAPPEN?

Parents don't have a crystal ball to predict the future. The world can be unfriendly to unconventional people and we know that absorbing the disdain of others has long-lasting harmful effects on children.

Parents and their unconventional children do lots of compromising and problem-solving, creatively seeking a safe middle ground where their child can express part of his true self - while recognizing that in some settings it's better to avoid negative attention. Setting limits is fundamental to parenting with this issue as with any other.

An important Goal is to nurture your child's pride and self-love daily and to equip him to live in and navigate a sometimes hostile world. Feed his creativity, help him excel in some area, and involve him in activities where he will meet youngsters who share his interests.

You can choose to:
Keep connecting with other parents of non-traditional children and with knowledgeable professionals.

Keep talking with your child about his thoughts and feelings.

Maintain a safe space for him.

Advocate for children with non-traditional interests.

Keep problem-solving and nurturing.

For a more comprehensive parent guide, go to: www.dcchildrens.com/gendervariance