What would you do if your 5-year-old son decided he wanted to dress up like a girl or your 5-year-old daughter wanted to be a tomboy? It’s an issue that some parents may be grappling with as Halloween approaches. The Internet is still abuzz about how Dean and Cheryl Kilodavis responded when their youngest son began displaying an affinity for girls clothing. Initial reaction to the Kilodavis family’s story ranged from agreement with their unwavering support of their son to strong condemnation. And while experts who have weighed in on the case praised them as parents, for a response that they deem appropriate given their circumstances, many others remain unconvinced that what the Kilodavis’ are doing is right.
In an interview with KING 5 TV, the Seattle NBC affiliate, Cheryl Kilodavis explained when Dyson first began showing his preferences for girls clothing.
“Dyson was almost two years old when he started having kind of a unique eye for everything beautiful. So, anything pink or sparkly, he just had a really, really great eye for anything that was just, beautiful,” she said.
Kilodavis said it was difficult for her and that she initially thought that maybe Dyson just didn’t have enough options with regards to “dress up clothes for boys” at his daycare, so she went out and purchased male outfits.
Yet, Dyson preferred to dress up in girl clothes.
That’s when she said, “I knew then it wasn’t about gender specification for him, it was just about what he thought was really pretty.”
Rather than chastise or malign him Cheryl Kilodavis and her husband worked to show Dyson that he wasn’t loved any less because others might see him as different.
“I just want him to be happy and healthy, and if this is the form he chooses to express himself, that’s fine,” said Dean Kilodavis during the family’s T.V. interview.
WATCH THE INTERVIEW WITH FAMILY
Dr. Melva Green, a psychiatrist said, “In terms of gender exploration this is very natural.”
While many child development experts share the doctor’s opinion many observers who read about the Kilodavis family expressed outrage when weighing in on Facebook.
“As a mother of two boys I would never let my sons wear girls clothing not even for Halloween!” wrote Julie Saunders.
“He is five-years-old he’d wear what I tell him to wear,” added Junior Demmings.
For the Kilodavis’ the decision to shine a very public spotlight on their family wasn’t made without serious consideration.
“We spent a year discussing how this would be received. We knew there would be negative responses because we experienced them too, and honestly, I thought we were really alone in this, which was very hard. We needed more than our family unit. We needed him to be happy outside the home, as much as he was inside it,” Cheryl Kilodavis tells theGrio.
Some of those commenting even went as far as saying that they’d beat their child if he expressed a desire to wear girl outfits.
Others were more understanding and saw that the family was put in a difficult spot of wanting to support their son, while also not wanting him to be judged or ridiculed by observers.
“This one is a hard one to call, we as parent want our children to be happy, but we also don’t want to see our children hurt,” added a more sympathetic Donnie Robinson on Facebook.
“I don’t think they are encouraging this, I think that they are accepting this and supporting this,” offered Dr. Jeff Gardere, a noted psychologist.
Sheri L. Parks, an associate professor in the American Studies department at the University Maryland, College Park, says she is intrigued by the enormous interest in the story.
“At one level I’m surprised because the phenomenon of little boys dressing up in little girls clothing is not new, and certainly not particular to him,” she said.
Still she says the fact that the Kilodavis’ are African-American called attention to the issue in the African-American community, which tends to be more conservative about the way they view gender roles.
Mrs. Kilodavis says her own interaction with other African-Americans has been a mixed bag but she acknowledges, “In some parts of the African American community, gender identity issues are taboo.”
Dr. Parks goes even further when explaining the taboo.
“Religiosity permeates African-American daily life more than any other population,” Parks said. “When you look at evangelical Protestants they are the most concerned about gender role development and sexual orientation.”
She noted, “African-Americans are very emotionally involved in black masculinity. Masculinity is very highly valued, that’s why some people come down hard on this little boy whose not taking his rightful place.”Dr. Green also points to a fear parents have that when a male child displays what society deems feminine behavior that he will end up being gay.
Still experts say to be careful that you distinguish between gender identity and sexual orientation.
As each of them has been clear to point out Dyson’s outward display of his gender identity doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll grow up to identify himself as homosexual or bisexual.
Cheryl Kilodavis also noted there’s a clear double standard which not many people talk about.
“Boys in female attire are less accepted, than girls in boys attire,” she said.
Dr. Parks noted that, “A generation ago girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school.”
But now she says that thinking has changed and while boys are taught to lock into their gender roles early, little girls have until puberty to explore, and end their tomboy stage.
Many parents who’ve criticized the Kilodavis’ have expressed concern that Dyson will be bullied as he progresses through school if the behavior isn’t broken.
At school last Halloween, Dyson’s teacher allowed him to dress up as a princess.
His teacher Judith Hart told KING TV, “Three of the stereotypical most macho men in the school got dressed up as ballet dancers for him, to support him.”
They even did a dance and Hart reported, “Instead of laughter through the whole school there were cheers.”
“I understand that we all want life to be easy for our children. I want that too. But I don’t think bullying will stop if my son wears traditional boy clothes,” responded Mrs. Kilodavis.
Cecilia Coats is a veteran teacher who has experienced having to facilitate often challenging conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation.
One of her goals as an educator is to give students the “tools, language, and strategies so they can feel comfortable with who they are.”
She said she often asks her students who might be struggling with any facet of their identity, “What is it you need?”
Organizations like GLSEN: the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network actively work to prevent bullying in schools based on a child’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
Many say the organization’s role has become even more important given recent reports of suicides by students who have been taunted after they’ve come out as homosexual or following other struggles with identity issues.
Coats says she also actively works to prevent bullying, and cyber-bullying in particular, with her elementary school students who are preparing for middle school telling them, “You have to be thoughtful about how you text someone or e-mail someone because you don’t get face to face reaction.”
She also said it’s important for school communities to create safe spaces because, “The kids cannot be successful academically if they are scared.”
When students aren’t in supportive environments and teachers and parents don’t have an open and honest dialogue about how to support a student struggling with identity issues she wonders, “Are they feeling so defeated or scared that they can’t do their best?”
Dr. Parks notes that if Dyson’s family didn’t support him and if he were unable to express who he is, if he’d become paralyzed by fear and unable to perform and live up to his fullest potential.
“Does that mean he doesn’t take the type of risk required for innovation and achievement in this society?” she wondered.
Cheryl Kilodavis penned her book My Princess Boy in an effort to have these larger conversations about acceptance.
“Sharing our experience openly has created a dialogue people in general weren’t having — and now with My Princess Boy adults and children have a starting point for a discussion that is difficult for many parents to approach,” she said.
Dr. Melva Green hopes just as the Kilodavis’ that the intense discussion by the broader community but particularly the African-American community is productive.
“We fear things that we don’t understand, and out of that ignorance is continual pain,” she said.
For other parents who might be experiencing similar situation she hopes they will see why it’s important not to give in to fear and shame, but be encouraged to address their issues.
“I don’t want to ever minimize a child or a family’s struggle with their identity in the world, but I want to be very clear that every child needs an intact and nurturing environment to help them with the normal developmental tasks of life. Anything that does not fall under the nurturing umbrella. Anything that is not of love, has more of a potential of devastating a person’s life,” noted Green.
As for the Kilodavis’ they don’t regret sharing their story.
“As Dean puts it – we can’t lose. If we support him now and he changes his mind and stops dressing up later, he can look back and say I can’t believe I did that, but I am so glad my parents and brother loved me and supported me. Or if he continues, he can say I am so glad my parents and brother loved me and supported me even when I was young. Either way, we love and support Dyson. It’s a win-win,” said Cheryl Kilodavis.