When Does It Stop?
Cross-gender experimentation is most common during the preschool years. Dr. Pascoe says, "It usually occurs before age six because kids aren't in school yet. Once they enter institutions, they enter a more gender-differentiated world."
Social worker and family therapist, Arlene Istar Lev, LCSW, is author of the books Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working With Gender-Variant People and Their Families and The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Guide. She specializes in counseling people with sexual and gender identity issues, and she agrees, "Cross-gender play ends around five and six when they start kindergarten and the rules of gender are enforced. Depending on your school and church, how grown-ups reinforce that makes the biggest difference in the world." That doesn't mean that children's real play preferences change, it just means that they conform to the peer pressure and social norms they're now exposed to.
Oddly, many parents don't care if a young girl wants to play sports or even if she prefers pants to skirts. A girl who likes to play with the boys is generally viewed as assertive and strong—someone who can stand up for herself. Dr. Pascoe says that's because our society values masculinity. So we tolerate, even encourage, girls who can throw a ball; but we turn around and shame boys who play with Barbies.
Yet society's expectations eventually catch up to girls, usually in their early teens, when they are told to appear more ladylike. Dr. Pascoe says, "Teen girls talk about their tomboy pasts, but when they hit junior high a mom or brother or a coach says they can't do those things. They tell me this with sadness."