Is it OK for your kids to watch or take part in drag performances?

It’s important for parents to have healthy conversations about gender expression with their children, says Calgary-based psychologist Nina Dragicevic

As drag performance and culture becomes more mainstream, it’s gaining wider — and younger — audiences. Some kids have been inspired to craft their own drag personas and take their place on stage. In the CBC Docs POV documentary Drag Kids, we meet four kids, aged nine to 11, who live in different parts of the world but meet in Montreal to connect and perform together.

The form of expression is famed for its colourful costumes and caricatures, as well as bending traditional gender norms. But is drag culture safe for younger children? Does watching shows or learning about drag disrupt their healthy development?

Ashleigh Yule, a Calgary-based registered psychologist who specializes in child and adolescent mental health, says “the idea that drag is somehow bad is actually incorrect.”

“From a developmental standpoint, kids have a very fluid understanding of gender,” she says. “It’s really important to have healthy conversations that are developmentally appropriate about gender roles and … gender expression being part of art.”

Watching shows together

Popular television shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race have helped bring drag culture into the mainstream. Vibrant characters and costumes can certainly be fascinating to young children, and Yule says parents should take the time to watch what their kids are watching.

“One of the best ways for parents to engage with their kids is to watch these shows with them and to have conversations with them about what they’re seeing.”

The unique characters and content are a good opportunity for children to learn about gender and diversity, Yule says.

“Who gets to wear makeup? Does nail polish have a gender? All of these questions are actually really positive, healthy and important questions for kids to be asking, and for parents to be talking about with their children.”

If children want to dress up

Imitation is a part of childhood, and kids may want to wear costumes and create characters, too. Some children may even want to perform in drag, attend events and find friends who enjoy the same hobby.

Yule says she’s familiar with drag readings at libraries, drag brunches, and other programming for children and families that enjoy the culture.

“The [drag] events that are geared toward children and teens tend to be very positive — not hyper-sexualized — and very appropriate,” Yule says. “I’ve attended many of these events with colleagues and my own children.”

“Children just actually really enjoy the performance. They enjoy sparkles, they enjoy music, dressing up and dancing. And that doesn’t really have a gender. There’s no reason why boys or girls — or children of any gender — wouldn’t enjoy that.”

Age-appropriate content

Yule says some adult drag shows and communities might have more “flirty” or sexual performances, but parents can ensure their children are attending age-appropriate events. If there are song lyrics or dance moves that a parent is uncomfortable with, it’s important to have a conversation.

“We want to make sure we’re always adapting to the age and stage that the child is at,” Yule says.

Monitoring children’s activities is not specific to drag, she adds. It would be the same with music, movies, television shows and online content — she says parents should screen for appropriate material with anything their children enjoy.

Children who want to perform or compete

Drag culture includes shows and competitions, and some children might want to participate.     

“I think we need to rely on a lot of the research and parenting recommendations that have been provided for any child who’s in performance or competition,” Yule says. “Kids need balance; kids need to have fun; kids need to be kids.”

Parents should model healthy attitudes about competition, Yule says, and employ stress management and coping tools. Check-in with children, offer to take breaks and monitor them for signs of stress.

“It’s not always about winning. It’s not always about looking beautiful,” she says. “It can be about simply having fun. And self-expression can be part of that fun.”

Again, Yule says this advice is not specific to drag performance — it also applies to children in any sporting, academic or pageant-style competition.

“Competition can certainly be very healthy for kids, but it’s the winning at all costs, or performing at all costs, that can be a little bit more concerning,” she says. “So we have to monitor that.”

When children are stressed

Parents should watch their children for signs of anxiety and depression, which can affect children of all ages, Yule says, whether they like to participate in spelling bees, swimming competitions or drag shows.

Communication is useful here, she says, rather than forbidding children from engaging in their hobbies or pursuing their interests.

“I think having conversations with kids is really important because it’s not about drawing a hard and fast rule,” she says. “It’s about listening to our kids.”

“It’s about balance. It’s about kids having the space to express what they’re interested in and figuring out who they are — and then parents monitoring and being supportive,” Yule says. “Talking about mental health is a really important piece, no matter what your kid is into.”

Watch Drag Kids on CBC Docs POV.