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A recent letter: Our age 4 1/2 son is a very affectionate and loving child, full of concern for the well-being of others. He does well in pre-school and is a genuine joy! We have noticed, however, that he prefers to play with the girls and is very interested in dressing up in “fairy gowns” and being the “bride”. He has no interest in playing with anything boyish and even displays a bit of fear of the boys in his class telling us they are too rough or not nice. My husband is most concerned about his behavior and asks our son about his friendship choices and his style of play.

I get about 10 letters like this every year. This letter describes a child who is a “genuine joy” and well-liked by all at school where he does well. What disturbs this mother and her husband is that their son doesn’t play like the stereotypical boy. Is this behavior unhealthy or is society’s expectations that all boys should play a certain way a flawed assumption?

Gender identity develops early in life so that by age 2 1/2 nearly all children can correctly label themselves and others as to gender.

Between age 3 and 6 children develop “gender understanding” (they know gender is defined by genitals, not external appearance), “gender constancy” (they know that when a boy puts on a dress it doesn’t change his gender), “gender stability” (they know their gender was there when they were born and it will stay the same when they grow up).

We need still another definition: “gender role”. This term refers to behaviors or characteristics that are attributed to one gender or another and are CULTURALLY DETERMINED.

Gender role stereotyping emerges when characteristics that EITHER MEN OR WOMEN CAN HAVE are linked to biological differences and are considered just as absolute. If society holds that women are–or should be–compliant and nurturant while men are–or should be–tough and aggressive, these messages are embedded in our children. Gender role stereotyping could constrict their childhood and ill prepare them for adult life today when men serve as nurses and the Governor is a woman.

To prevent the toxic effects of gender role stereotyping every boy and girl MUST be provided with opportunities to develop both expressive (nurturing emotional qualities) and instrumental (action, goal-oriented) activities.

Sadly many boys today grow up afraid to express themselves fully because it will disappoint their family if they behave “like a girl”. A father, who doesn’t understand that human beings have biological differences but share most behavioral and emotional characteristics, can make life miserable for a “sissy”.

What is cross gender behavior? Nearly all creative and imaginative 2 year olds go through a stage of pretending to be lots of characters including those of the opposite sex. However in our culture by age 4 1/2 most boys are busy identifying with the father and other males and engaging in same gender play.

The term “core gender identity” is used to describe one’s sense of belonging to one gender (and not the other) and valuing this. Most children are very happy that they are what they are.

Cross gender behavior — boys preferring to play with girls, for example — can be part of normal child development or a sign of Childhood Gender Identity Disorder (GID) characterized by persistent and pervasive cross-gender behavior or preoccupations.

GID is very rare. More often we see artistic boys who prefer solitary activities like drawing and do not particularly care for sports, or boys who like stereotypical feminine pursuits like cooking. These boys do not dislike their gender but may well grow up to be artists or chefs. We also see girls who prefer jeans to dresses, like rough physical play, and would rather play with boys than girls, but do not dislike their gender or their anatomy. These girls do not have a gender disorder; they are tomboys.

What would I do if this were my little boy? Because he does not tell you in words or play that he dislikes his gender and because he is “well liked by all”, I would do absolutely nothing. Accept him the way he is. Let him play the way he wants to play. If his preferences escalate or he begins to express dislike of being a boy, have him evaluated by a competent mental health professional.

I do have some words of advice for these parents. Dad is asking his son about friends and styles of play and Mom is concerned enough to write to Dr. Heins. In order to lower your anxiety levels so you can be fully accepting and supportive parents I suggest both of you do some reading about gender roles and gender role stereotyping and then do some soul-searching.

All of us, because we were raised in a culture that abounds with sex stereotyping, are prone to worry about a boy who is a “sissy”. Will he be accepted by his peers? Teased unmercifully? Grow up to be a homosexual?

It takes an effort — and it may take counseling — to fully accept a child who is different in our minds or perceived “different” by our culture. But it is an important effort because unconditional acceptance by parents is vital to every child. And what’s really important is the kind of HUMAN BEING your son grows up to be, not whether he turns out to be a theater director or a professional football player.

Your husband might want to spend time with your son teaching him how to throw and catch a ball because it’s fun to play with and teach our children. But he shouldn’t do this to change the boy, just to widen his horizons. And if you have a daughter some day, Dad should teach her to play ball too.