A slice of humble pie: when your 3-year-old reveals you’re still attached to traditional gender norms

Over the past several years, I’ve chronicled our family’s journey to support our now 6-year-old son to express himself in a plethora of ways, whether his choices fell within or outside of traditional gender norms. We made mistakes. We did better. We challenged moments when someone tried to reinforce gender norms.

Just last week, I wrote about our latest success in supporting our son and his expression. I admittedly felt pretty good about myself and our family. My 3-year-old daughter then entered stage left, challenged me in an entirely new way and delievered a humbling reminder that I still have so much work to do to dismantle my own internalized attachment to traditional gender norms.


Our 3-year-old has always had a ton of hair and she’s always despised being groomed. Since she was an infant, she rejected wearing bows, ponytails or barrettes. We had the most success taming her hair when her brother enjoyed wearing barrettes and ponytails. Her love for him inspired her to style her hair as he did. Otherwise, our daughter has made it crystal clear she prefers to wear her hair loose. If we manage to sneak in a clip to start the day, it is inevitably pulled out at some point.


Our daughter also has strong opinions about what she wears. She prefers her brother’s underwear and socks, for instance, so now every morning he sets down a pair of each outside her door.She also seems to prefer loose-fitting tops and often selects her brother’s hand me downs instead of the new clothing we’ve bought from the girls section, which are, to my chagrin, always slim cut. She does love dresses and skirts so her expression is somewhat of a mixed bag.


Our daughter has such a fierce spirit and personality and we’ve embraced her individual style. In fact, we’ve noticed how much easier it has been to support her when she chooses to deviate from traditional gender norms as compared to her brother. Gender neutral clothing is largely created for little girls. People constantly comment on how cute she is in her brother’s hand me downs. Her decision to dress like Darth Vader for Halloween was met with delight, while we wrung our hands over our son’s desire to dress like Elsa. And so on.

We learned so much through our failures with our son, I honestly felt like we were getting the hang of parenting-outside-of-the-gender-binary. Right until my daughter said she wanted to cut off her hair to look like her brother while sitting in the chair at the hair salon. I had a strong, visceral reaction. And that reaction screamed “no.”

“What do you mean you want to cut your hair like your brother?” I asked, wondering if she had a specific vision in mind, as she often does.

“I want my hair reeeeeeeally short. Like my brothers,” she said again.

Her hair was past her shoulders, and I have to admit, I didn’t want to cut her hair.


We’ve done all this work to embrace the diversity in gender expression in our family and here I was giving pause to letting my daughter cut her hair. What if she hated it? What if people thought she was a boy? What if I hated it? What if our family hated it? A thousand thoughts raced through my mind. Ultimately, I had to make a split second decision as the hair dresser was waiting for instructions.

I couldn’t do it in the moment. I failed her. To ease into the transition (for me, not for her), I asked the hairdresser to cut her hair to her chin, which probably removed 5 or 6 inches.


While our daughter loves her haircut, I’m stewing in regret. Now that I’ve had additional time to process and reflect, I know it wouldn’t matter if someone thought she was a boy. I know it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, including me, if she loves her short hair. We preach about self-love and being yourself to our children, and I wasn’t brave enough to trust my daughter.

Even with this new short hairdo, she continues to not want to have her hair brushed or to pull her hair out of her eyes with a clip. From a practical standpoint, she would really benefit from a short haircut like her brothers. Double fail.

Yesterday, I looked up pictures of toddlers with really short haircuts and showed them to my daughter to see which one she liked best. She pointed to a pixie cut, but then said “I like my hair like this,” and patted her head. I’m going to continue talking with her about her hair and if she asks to cut it shorter again, I’ll make it happen.

The work, as always, continues.





5 thoughts on “A slice of humble pie: when your 3-year-old reveals you’re still attached to traditional gender norms

  1. david says:

    cutting it shorter in 2 stages might have been prudent. unlike nail polish or hair accessories, you cannot undo a haircut. she likes it now– so it is a victory. your acknowledging your own sensitivity and prejudices is good and fair, but always best not to go too radical on things that cannot be easily undone–like tattoos.


  2. davamarie says:

    If it makes you feel any better at all, I would be just as upset if our five-year-old son asked to cut his hair. I LOVE his long hair and would be so sad to cut it off (I just posted about it today, in fact: https://bit.ly/2Gg1lA1. I totally hear you on needing to confront your own gender norm biases, but there’s probably a little bit of just loving her long hair in there too, girl or not.


    1. strivingshannon says:

      I hear you. But because she has always hated the grooming I have zero attachment to her hair from a sentimental standpoint. If I’m being honest with myself, it was the surprise and worry that held me back. I am fearful of change in general so I know that played a role too.


  3. Lollol says:

    At 7 I requested a similar haircut. As expected I was often mistaken for a boy. At the time I wore it confidently nobody would have known I cared one bit. But I can still remember every incident where someone made that mistake and hate photos from that time and the awkward growing your hair out period that came afterwards. I definitely wish my folks had stopped me having it cut. I praise all other aspects of their gender neutral parenting approach. You did the right thing.


    1. strivingshannon says:

      Thanks for sharing your story. I have heard similar feedback from some friends in my life. I wonder if you would have felt differently had you been prepped for the reactions from the outside world and given some tools for how to respond? I know this was a crucial piece to empowering our son when he was wearing his hair in barrettes and ponytails.


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