The help desk: My young grandson likes to dress up in girls' clothes but my daughter-in-law discourages him


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Q. My lovely grandson is six years old and not at all a typical boy. He's obsessed with Disney films, and when I used to take him to playgroup he always rushed to put on the girls' dressing-up clothes. I know he likes to wear his sister's clothes, too.

What worries me is that his mother, my daughter-in-law, discourages this side of him. He told me he had wanted to go to a birthday party dressed as a Disney princess, but she told him to wear a pirate costume instead.

I know he adores Barbie dolls and wanted me to buy him one for Christmas, but when I checked with my daughter-in-law, she said they have only gender-neutral toys in their house. I feel strongly about this because my other son (her brother-in-law) was a bit the same. He liked wearing my clothes and jewellery, and I was happy to let him. He has grown up to be a confident and contented gay man. I want my grandson to be happy with who he is. What should I do?

A. Well, this is a new one. My inbox groans under the weight of daughter/mother-in-law problems, but it's usually vacuum cleaners at dawn (rather quaintly, it always seems to me), rather than this intriguing contest to see who can be the most politically correct.

You are clearly more relaxed and open-minded about gender and sexuality than many of your generation. Nevertheless, I can't help sensing a bit of meddling here on your part. I wonder if you are being presumptuous about your daughter-in-law's intentions. Have you asked her how she feels about her son's cross-dressing tendencies? The pirate costume might simply have been practical – a perfectly good costume outgrown by her daughter that would save her shelling out on a new batch of the type of ultra-girly stuff that anyway seems to rub her up the wrong way.

It would be a mistake, in any case, to presume your grandson is gay. There was a girl in my daughter's reception class who insisted she was a boy, was friends only with boys and would only wear her brother's hand-me-downs. She has grown up to be a confident and contented straight woman. Her brother is gay.

You obviously feel protective towards your grandson, and maybe he reminds you a little bit of his uncle – in whom he clearly has a good role model, should he need one. He may or may not be gay or even gender-dysphoric. He might want to be more like his older sister. Or perhaps he's just seduced by the novelty of pink-and-sparkly things because of living in a gender-neutral house. But his parents have decided to fend off the dolls-or-guns stereotyping of their children, and you must respect that decision.

I know you'd love him to have the Barbie he longs for – heck, I want to buy the boy a Barbie, even though I spent some years, King Canute-like, holding back the tide of pink when my daughters were little (before, I confess, letting it flood in). If you really can't resist, then buy a Barbie for yourself and let him play with it when he's at your house. But understand that this would be a provocative act on your part, so be prepared for the fall-out.

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