So your son wants to wear a princess costume to school and paint his nails pink. Or your daughter wants to crop her hair short and wear boys’ clothes. Whether you’re A-okay with your child’s wishes or are panicked about what it might mean, here’s what all parents need to know about kids and gender.
A Starting Point for Gender Issues
Experts agree that kids become aware of their gender at a very young age – amazingly even before their first birthday. Soon after birth, babies start differentiating between male and female voices, and between 6 and 12 months, they demonstrate an early understanding of gender, says Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D. a clinical psychologist in California, director of mental health and a founding member of the Child and Adolescent Gender Center, and author of Gender Born, Gender Made. In their second year, kids start developing a sense of gender identity: They learn, "I'm a boy," or "I'm a girl." By 2 or 3 they begin to understand gender roles and what particular behaviors are typically associated with each -- for instance, depending on home environment, they might learn that girls like princesses and dolls and everything pink, while boys prefer to rough house and play with toy cars.
Nature Versus Nurture
Most experts agree that our gender identities are shaped both by society and by biology. "There's clear evidence of a biological genetic predisposition toward gender attitudes, behaviors and beliefs based, in part, on hormones and brain development," says Mark Barnett, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Kansas State University and a leading expert on gender role stereotyping in children. One study of 14,000 Dutch twins at age 7 and 8,500 twins at age 10 found that 70 percent of cross-gender behavior could be linked to genetic factors at both ages, for both boys and girls. "But it's a combination of nature and nurture," says Dr. Barnett. "In our society, we often encourage boys and girls to be different -- we bombard them with messages of what's appropriate, whether through movies, books, role models or simply the way we act toward our children."
When it comes to gender roles, the expectation of how a girl or boy (or woman or man) should look and act vary greatly by where you live and your family's individual attitudes. In a big city like New York City and San Francisco, for example, kids might be exposed to a wide range of diverse families and might not feel as confined by gender norms as, say, a child in a small traditional community. At home, moms are typically more comfortable than dads with boys showing feminine behaviors. "What's appropriate gender behavior is in the eye of the beholder," explains Dr. Barnett. "Certain communities and families simply have more relaxed gender roles." What is normal: Kids will want to explore gender. "What makes it abnormal is adults' perception of it," says Dr. Ehrensaft.
A Lopsided Controversy
Both boys and girls can be gender nonconformists. And yet, if you follow stories in the news, it's always the boys dressing as princesses who get the attention, not the girls who only want to wear combat boots and pants. "Girls have been allowed much greater latitude in sexual expression than boys have been," says Dr. Barnett. "Boys get a lot more flak for not walking the straight and narrow." For example, if a girl has three older brothers and wants to dress in a football uniform like them, most parents wouldn’t think twice about it. However, if you flip the scenario, and a little boy wants to wear dresses and play with Barbies like his older sisters, some mothers and fathers might have objections. "We've become a lot more liberal over time in terms of how we accept girls doing masculine things, but, as a society, we’re very resistant to the same changes among boys," adds Dr. Barnett.
Children explore gender for many different reasons, but in most cases, experts say it’s simply a matter of a child’s natural curiosity. "It's very natural for kids to try a variety of things -- it's a part of learning and, through a process of trial and error, testing out the world to see what they like," says Dr. Barnett. Adds Dr. Ehrensaft, "Some children believe that they can play and act however they want. Our gender stereotypes don’t make sense to them. A little boy might think, 'If a frog can turn into a prince, then why can't I be a princess today?'"
Thinking Like a Kid
Plenty of little girls hate to wear dresses and prefer Star Wars action figures to Polly Pockets. And lots of little boys might want to try on their mom's high heels or wear pink. This doesn’t mean they’re going to be gay or transgendered down the road. Your daughter might want to cut her hair short simply because she likes Miley Cyrus; your son might want to wear your high heels to pretend he’s on stilts. Try not to make assumptions that your child’s play indicates anything about his or her gender identity.
There's Only So Much You Can Control
Some people wonder if letting their boy wear a Dora backpack to school and sparkly pink clothing as a child will make him more likely to identify as a woman later on. Or whether forbidding these things will help him “get used to” typical boy behaviors. Absolutely not, experts say. "If a child is going to be homosexual, there's not much you can do to prevent that," says Dr. Barnett. “Letting him paint his nails or play with dolls won't make him gay, and preventing him from doing so won’t make him heterosexual. Children’s sexual identities aren’t determined that way." Adds Dr. Ehrensaft, "Trying to control your child’s gender expression can send the message that you’re not okay with who he or she is."
Figuring Out What to Do
So what do you do when your son wants to wear a dress to school? In the past experts often argued that parents need to socialize children and teach them appropriate behaviors, including those related to gender. In recent years, a growing number of experts have been advising parents to let their children explore gender on their own terms. "If you try to change your child, you're essentially rejecting who they are," explains Rebecca Bigler, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab at The University of Texas at Austin. "Kids who feel pressure to conform to cultural stereotypes are at risk for low self-esteem and other negative outcomes." Other experts say that parents should guide kids toward "gender appropriate" behavior while remaining open to their particular desires. Talk to your spouse, your child’s doctor and your child about what’s best for your family.
While some experts recommend allowing kids more flexibility at home (for example, letting boys wear dresses at home but not at school, often to avoid bullying), others disagree. "By telling your child that he can act a certain way at home but not in front of others only conveys a kind of shame," says Dr. Bigler. “It’s a form of hypocrisy. You're essentially saying, 'I love you and accept you, but we’re going to make sure no one else sees who you really are,' instead of 'Be proud of who you are, and I will always stand up for you.'"
How to Say "No"
Even though most experts don't recommend telling your child he or she can't act, dress or play like the opposite gender, some parents just aren’t able tolerate it. If that's the case, explain your reasoning in a way that takes the focus off your child. Dr. Ehrensaft recommends making it an "I" statement. For instance, tell your son or daughter, "While you are not wrong for wanting to do this, I am not comfortable with it." Dr. Ehrensaft explains, "If you're going to tell your child 'no,' then put the blame on yourself. Doing so makes it seem like your problem, not his or hers."
Presenting a United Front
As with all aspects of parenting, it always helps if you and your partner are on the same page. However, that’s sometimes easier said than done -- especially when dealing with gender nonconformity. In general, experts say that fathers push gender conforming much more than mothers do. (Imagine a boy playing with his dolls peacefully at home and quickly putting them away the second he hears his father's key in the door.) However, it's crucial that you find common ground. "The worst thing for a child is to be caught in the warfare between two parents -- you want to avoid a situation where one parent is 'good' and the other is 'bad.'" says Dr. Ehrensaft. Talk to your partner about why he takes the position he does and, if he doesn't want his child to dress or act in a "different" way, find out what he is afraid of exactly. Together, try to figure out what is best for your child. If you can't reach a consensus, you might want to seek help from a professional. The American Psychological Association can help you find an expert in your area.
Just because a child seems to cross the gender line, so to speak, does not mean he or she will wind up being homosexual or transgendered. (In fact, one study by the researchers at Harvard School of Public Health found that the majority of people who were gender nonconforming as children said they were heterosexual as adults.) "There's no reliable way to predict during childhood who will be gay or transsexual," says Dr. Bigler. "However, sexual orientation and gender non-conforming are correlated. The probability that, say a six-year-old boy who always likes to wear dresses will wind up being homosexual is higher than for one who doesn't." The clue is often consistency. "If a little boy wants to play with Barbie dolls, all you know is that he wants to play with dolls," says Dr. Ehrensaft. "If you start consistently seeing a pattern over time that he wants to do more 'girly' things like wearing earrings, dresses and makeup, that may be an indicator for the future, but it may not. Remember, for the most part, our children's gender play is not about sexual orientation. It's about gender."
Managing Other People’s Attitudes
You might say to your child, "I think you're perfectly fine and you don't have to change." But experts suggest taking it a step further by saying you'll make sure the people around him or her know it's okay, too. Talk to your child's teachers and/or other administrators at the school to confirm that they will support your child at school. Also, talk to family, friends, your child's peers and their parents about how to be understanding. Websites like www.welcomingschools.org offers solutions for preventing gender stereotyping and bullying in schools.
Empower Your Child
While you might support your child's wishes to act or dress in a way that goes against gender stereotypes, other people might not. The key is to empower your child so he or she knows what to say if someone teases him or her or makes insensitive comments. Dr. Bigler says that if you, for instance, have a boy who wants to wear a princess dress, you might want to tell him something like, "In our culture, some people think only boys can do certain things and girls can do other things. I think that's silly, but if you wear a dress to school you might get bullied." Then, give your child the tools to handle these kinds of situations. Dr. Bigler suggests that children even as young as 5 or 6 say something like, "I’m sorry you don't accept that about me, but I'm not changing." Encourage your child to always seek the help of an adult if the teasing ever gets out of hand.
Helping Your Child Feel Less Alone
When kids feel different from their peers they can feel isolated. It's important to explain to them that they're not -- and that you’re always willing to talk about it. Books like My Princess Boy and 10,000 Dresses can help; older kids can watch television shows like Glee which celebrate gender differences. Help your child find role models and talk with your child’s doctor about whether speaking to a therapist might help The Children's National Medical Center also provides great resources for families.
Understand the Possible Consequences
As parents, we walk a delicate line between letting our children be who they want to be and protecting them from harm, says Dr. Ehrensaft. On the one hand, children who are gender nonconformists might get teased by their peers. However, those whose parents don't let their children fulfill their desires might face a whole host of other issues. "Children who suppress who they are in terms of gender often become very anxious, introverted, angry, and oppositional," says Dr. Ehrensaft. "As they get older, depression and suicide attempts are higher in kids who have suppressed their gender." In fact, a 2010 study by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University found that when families accept their lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual adolescent's sexual orientation and gender expression, the child is more likely to have greater self-esteem and better health down the road. Such support and acceptance also protects against depression, substance abuse, and suicidal behaviors. Experts advise that parents tell their children they love them unconditionally; it might seem obvious, but many kids still need to hear it.
If you think playtime should be free of gender stereotypes, you are not alone. Daycare centers around the country are starting to eliminate "boy" and "girl" sections, mixing all the dolls, cooking sets, trucks, and action figures together so children can freely choose what they want to play with, regardless of their gender. One school in Sweden took it a step further and banned the use of gender pronouns "he" and "she." Instead, they refer to all children as "friend." And some manufacturers of toys that previously targeted one gender or the other are changing their ways: Hasbro recently released a gender-neutral Easy Bake Oven in response to a petition.
Some parents have a difficult time dealing with their son's or daughter's gender nonconformity. It's important to remember that plenty of other parents have dealt with similar issues, and speaking with them can help you put your child's differences in perspective.
Dina Roth Port is a freelance writer and author of Previvors: Facing the Breast Cancer Gene and Making Life-Changing Decisions.