Note: This story will contain accurate wording for male anatomy. It’s how the story happened, so that’s what you get. This is a friendly notice so you aren’t too surprised.
Before we really begin, there are a couple of ethical considerations that need to be noted. This is a true accounting of events involving children, and that’s innately problematic. Children cannot give consent for their story to be told, for their picture to be taken, or for you to chat about them at the coffee shop with your other mom-friends or co-workers. I was there, and I can only tell you what I saw, but I’m still uncomfortable with the fact that the line of ethics is not clear. This is my story, but not mine alone.
So here’s what I can do. I’ve been working, volunteering, and observing in pre-schools, day-care centers, private homes, and schools for more than ten years. In that time, I’ve spent time with thousands of children, and I defy anyone to figure out who I’m talking about. In addition, I state my intent to change anything I want, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the story itself. I will change names, ages, setting, details, genders, family structure, and anything else I see fit in order to preserve anonymity. I’m telling this story because I think it should be told.
Elliot was a boy I first met at age 2. He was quiet, thoughtful, and friendly, with a mop of auburn hair that curled out in unmanageable cowlicks. The first thing I remember saying to his mother was how impressed I was with Elliot’s empathy. It’s a rare two year old that sincerely stops to comfort a crying friend, or cheer them up when they’re cranky. By age 4, Elliot had dropped most of his toddler lisp, and had a habit of running his hands through his shoulder length hair or curling it around his fingers. He was friends with everyone, and played dinosaur stampede with the guys, and chef in the play kitchen with the girls. Elliot wore the same pair of sandals until he outgrew them, then came into school with a brand new, nearly identical pair, and his favorite yellow tee-shirt with a giant, smiling sun.
One day, when Elliot was still 4, he sat at the craft table surrounded by the chef crew, carefully coloring an entire page pink. When he was finished, he colored each of his fingernails, then set about glueing feathers, beads, and copious amounts of glitter to the page until it was very wet. Then he drew an orange dinosaur in one corner, but was disgusted it turned a brown-green shade over the pink. “It’s ugly.” he said, gluing a feather over it. When it dried, he wrote MOM in big, shaky letters on the front. Before he went home I stopped him.
“Elliot, what’s that on your fingernails?”
“Nail polish. I colored them pretty.”
“Are we supposed to use markers on our bodies?”
“Okay, so where can you use markers next time?”
“On paper.” Sigh.
“Good idea, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The next week Elliot colored his fingernails twice. When I asked him why, he said “I want them to be pretty, and Mom won’t buy me nail polish.” Markers are for paper, and Elliot knew the rules, so we agreed that he would stop coloring his nails, and I would ask his Mom about the nail polish. The next time I saw Karen, Elliot’s mother, I told her what had been happening. Elliot colors his nails pink, purple, and orange at school. He agreed to use markers on paper from now on if I talked with you. “Elliot really wants to paint his fingernails, to the point he’s coloring on them. I don’t know how you feel about it at his age, my parents didn’t let me until I was 16, when they found a non-toxic brand.”
“Okay,” sighed Karen. “Thanks for telling me.” We both looked across at her son, anxiously curling his hair around one finger as he watched us talk.
A month or so later, Elliot, who still periodically colored his fingernails, came to school angry. He stormed to put his things away, flinging everything in his cubby in a way I’d never seen him do. Karen told me they’d had a hard morning, and left for work. Elliot kept his coat on until well into the afternoon. He turned red in the face, and started to sweat, but would’t take it off until we came in from playing outside. His shirt was new, green with a big dinosaur across the front, and I asked him about it.
“Oh it’s so ugly!” He said, holding out the edges so I could see. “I didn’t want it! I told Mom at the store I wanted the one with the kitten on it, or the pink rainbow one, but she got mad at me and made me wear this one. It’s so ugly.” He added sadly.
“Why is it ugly? I thought you liked dinosaurs?”
“It’s green, I hate green, it’s the ugliest color. And the T-rex is so angry! I don’t want him eating everybody, it’s not a nice T-rex.”
“I’m sorry you don’t like your shirt.”
“Mom made me wear it. She yelled at me in the store, and this morning.”
“Are you okay?”
“Well, I know you don’t like green, but it’s my Mom’s favorite color.”
“Your Mom?” Like all children, Elliot looked shocked to find out I too had a Mom.
“Yeah, my mom’s name is Sandy and she looks just like me, but taller. I think green’s okay, but my mom buys green chairs, and green plates, and green shirts. She even has a really light, lime green coat.”
“Does she like pink?”
“Not as much as green, but she loves to plant purple and pink flowers.”
After an afternoon of all his friends assuring him that the green T-rex shirt wasn’t horribly ugly, Elliot agreed to leave his coat off, but asked that I speak to his mother. When Karen arrived to pick him up, I sent Elliot to collect his things.
“So, you went back to school shopping this weekend?”
“Yes.” She sighed. “He threw a fit in the store. Wouldn’t have any of the shirts from the boy’s section. He wanted all the shirts with kittens on them. Was he alright today?”
“Yes, we cheered him up about the T-rex. He was pretty upset that you two were fighting though.”
Karen sighed, and took Elliot’s hand when he ran over with his backpack. “Mom,” He said solemnly. “I really don’t like this shirt. It’s ugly.”
“Okay.” She said.
The next day Elliot came to school in a bright, multi-striped shirt with big bands of every color. “We went back to the store!” He told me excitedly. “Mom took back all the ugly shirts, and we got stripe ones.”
“And how do you like them?”
“They’re beautiful.” He said, and ran off to the art table.
In the following months, Elliot was mostly his old self, calm, patient, and sociable, but more and more often arrived to school angry, or with red rimmed eyes. Karen didn’t want to talk about it, but asked that the school keep her son from coloring his fingernails, borrowing friend’s hair barrettes, and direct him away from playing with dolls at school. This last request came after a particularly bad morning where Elliot arrived, and shouted “NO!” at his mother. She in turn left him wearing all his outdoor clothes, and slammed the door on her way out.
“She wouldn’t buy me a barbie at the toy store!” Said Elliot. “Mom said I could have anything I wanted, but she shouted at me in the store, and I didn’t get anything.”
Then came the worst day. Elliot arrived at school bundled in his coat with the hood clutched around his face. He was sobbing, and his mother gave him a gentle push in the door, then left. Elliot sat on the floor right where he was, and cried. He wouldn’t take his coat off, wouldn’t talk to his friends, and just cried in a way I hadn’t seen in nearly two years.
I sat next to him on the floor with Green Eggs and Ham, his favorite book. “Elliot, you sound so sad, and I’m so worried about you. Will you tell me what’s wrong?”
He didn’t come out of his coat. “Th-they cu-cu-cu-tted my hair.” He whispered. “M-mom took me to the h-hair person and they cutted off all my hair. I didn’t want them to, but they wouldn’t stop, and now I’m so ugly.”
“Oh no.” I said, wrapping my arms around his big, fluffy coat. “Elliot, I’m so sorry you don’t like your haircut, and that they didn’t listen to you.” When he stopped crying, I asked if I could see his hair. He looked around to see if anyone was watching, then lowered his hood. It wasn’t a buzz cut, but it was very, very short. Elliot’s red streaked hair had been creeping towards his shoulder blades, but now was an even inch across the top of his head, and shaved on the back of his neck and around his ears. “What,” I asked him, “don’t you like about it?”
“It’s so short! It’s ugly, and my hair was so beautiful before, and now it’s all gone! Nobody listened to me!” He started crying again.
“Oh Elliot, I’m sorry you don’t like your short hair. I have to tell you though, I don’t think it’s ugly. I know it’s not what you wanted, but I promise none of your friends will think you’re ugly. Can I touch it? Hmm, you hair is really soft now!”
“Yeah, it is. And you know what? By the time your birthday comes, it’ll be longer, and by the time you go to school next year, it will be long enough to be big bangs across you face. Hair always grows, all the time everyday.”
We sat quietly for a while. “Why did mom cut all my hair off?” Elliot asked.
“I’m not sure, did she say why?”
“She said only girls have long hair. She said she was going to make it shorter, but she didn’t, the hair person cut it all off.”
“I’m not sure why, Elliot. You can ask her. Sometimes parent’s do things we don’t like, and I’m not sure why she wanted your hair short. I’m sorry she didn’t listen to you, but I promise when you get as big as me, or your mom, you can have hair as long or short as you want.”
Elliot’s friends assured him his hair was very short, but not ugly. Several of the other boys in class had similar haircuts, but Elliot cried off and on for two days. He also wore his winter hat inside for most of the week, and I didn’t see him and his mother speaking at all when she came to pick him up or drop him off. Elliot came to school crying all that week and the next.
About 10 days after the haircut, Elliot was out of school for the day and we got a new classmate. Noah was very small for a four year old, with big eyes, and long, beautiful, curling hair that reached most of the way down his back. Some parents have never cut their children’s hair, and Noah’s parents were such people. Elliot returned to school the next day, and everything seemed normal until shouting came from the 5 boys and 1 girl at the craft table.
“You’re a girl!”
“I’m a boy!”
“You’re a girl!”
“I’m a boy!”
“You’re a girl!”
I arrived at the group just in time to see Elliot launch himself across the table and knock Noah to the floor. It took a minute to settle everyone down. Noah wasn’t hurt, and sat back at the table to give Elliot a dirty look. I crouched on the floor, while Elliot held my shirt and looked angry, but didn’t say anything. I’d never seen him hit anyone, and he seldom shouted or cried, only lately with his mother.
“Noah, are you all right?”
“He,” Said Noah, pointing at Elliot. “said I was a girl, and I’m not.”
“HE,” Said Elliot. “Is lying. He’s a girl.”
“Oh, you’re arguing about that? Noah, are you a girl or a boy?”
“I’m a boy.”
“And how do you know you’re a boy?”
“Because I am!”
“I believe you Noah, you would know. I’m a girl.”
“How do you know?” Asked Noah.
“Well,” I said, and I had to think about if for a moment. “I feel like a girl. I don’t feel at all like a boy. It’s like knowing my favorite color is yellow, and my favorite fruit are oranges, I just know. I’m a girl.”
I pointed to everyone at the table, asking if they were a boy or a girl. When I got to Elliot, he thought for a moment. “I’m a girl.” He said.
“You are not,” said Eric, one of the dinosaur crew. “You can’t be a girl.”
“Because boys have a penis.” Said Eric.
“What’s a penis?” Asked Timmy, sitting next to Eric.
“It’s between your legs.” Answered John. “You hold it when you pee.”
“Oh.” Said Timmy, thinking that over for a moment. “My dad calls that the magic stick.”
I did not laugh, because I am a professional, but Parents you are killing me.
“No it’s called a Wee-wee.” Argued Leon.
I started to get a little hot under the collar. This really isn’t the sort of thing parents appreciate you talking about with their kids. “It’s sometimes called different things at different people’s houses. Just like your grandmother can be called Nanna, or grandma, or something else. It’s all the right name. Eric, what’s your favorite color?”
“Why is blue your favorite color?”
“Because it is.”
“Okay, I believe you. Eric’s favorite color is blue. Even if I saw you coloring with a red marker, I still know your favorite color is blue, you told me so. Elliot, what’s your favorite color?”
“Pink and orange.”
“Okay, and are you a boy or a girl?”
“I’m a girl.”
“Why are you a girl?”
“Because I am.”
“Okay then, is there anything left to argue about? No? Good. Elliot, do you have something to say to Noah?”
“Sorry I pushed you.”
Elliot is older now, and he’s continuing his story. I can’t tell you if he is straight, gay, machismo, or effeminate, and I don’t care. Kids go through stages, that include a bit of bending on traditional gender roles, as a natural part of cognitive and identity development. Elliot may have honestly felt like a girl, and may or may not still feel that way. Once again, I don’t care. What I agonized over then, and am still thinking about, is that 4 years of age is awfully young to have your mother make you feel ugly and wrong for liking the things that you do. If Elliot is transgender, making him wear things he doesn’t like, not buying him nail polish, and asking the school to tell him boys can’t have long hair, won’t change that. If he grows up to be something beyond the male ‘norm’, his path may be more difficult than most; I wish with everything I am that Elliot can come home each day to a family who loves and supports him.
Note to Parents: I understand, that for some reason, you’re just not comfortable telling your son or daughter the clinical anatomy names for body parts. You decide it’s easier, and cuter to call it ‘a wee wee’ or for some unforeseeable reason ‘the magic stick’, but just know it’s all going to come out later. It’s a guarantee that your child will shout out in the grocery store “I’m a boy because I have a wee wee!” It’s really not that much worse for him to shout penis, we all know what he’s talking about anyway. And what’s more, you could have saved me from Timmy running out buck naked from the bathroom the next week, shouting “I’m gonna make the tables fly!”, while gyrating his hips and pointing his ‘magic stick’. There is no restoring order after that.