Girls with Footballs and Boys with Dolls: Understanding Gender-Bending Play
Some parents feel uncomfortable when their children play like members of the opposite sex. How should you handle it when your kids don't want to "behave like a lady" or "act like a man?"
Is Gender-Bending Play Normal?
As soon as we learn the sex of our babies, the pink and blue clothes start arriving. Relatives buy tiny baseball mitts for boys and pastel-colored tea sets for girls. Most little ones enjoy their gender-specific toys, but when given the opportunity, little boys will dress up in princess gowns and girls will happily push fire engines across the floor.
If you worry such play will turn your daughter into a tomboy or your son into a sissy, you’re not alone—many parents debate how best to understand and manage this type of play. Take a look at what professors and doctors have to say about this often controversial subject.
Cross-gendered play is normal behavior among small children. In fact, little kids have no clue that it’s out of the ordinary until someone tells them. “Children up to the age of four don’t have the cognitive power to really understand what it means to be one sex or another: their gender identification is rather superficial,” explains Dr. Meredith F. Small, PhD, professor of anthropology at Cornell University and author of Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Our Children.
Little girls may want to shave like Daddy and boys might want to put on nail polish simply because mimicking adult behaviors is how they learn to become adults (and because putting shaving cream or makeup on your face is just plain fun). Dr. C.J. Pascoe, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California, Berkeley, says, “Girls don’t know that their faces won’t grow hair. They just know that shaving is something one of their parents does, so they want to do it, too. For us it seems like they’re breaking gender rules, but they don’t know those rules exist yet.”
Even when children start to understand society’s gender roles, they’re still likely to be curious and attracted to what some may consider stereotypical behavior regarding clothing and activities. Boys want to know what it feels like to wear a skirt or walk in high heels, or even wear makeup. And little girls want to experience the powerful feeling of yielding a sword, or dressing up in a suit and tie like their fathers. Both boys and girls enjoy the experience of cooking and working in the kitchen and delight in the process of making something with paint and glitter. And what child (boy or girl) isn’t curious about bugs and worms in the backyard?
Hormones might also account for some gender-bending play. According to a study of approximately 14,000 pregnancies and published in the December 2002 issue of Child Development magazine, the amount of testosterone a female fetus is exposed to in the womb can affect her preference for dinosaurs over dolls and sports over tea parties. (Testosterone is a hormone produced by the ovaries in varying amounts from person to person.)
While this study is fascinating, sociologist Dr. Pascoe cautions, “I’m not saying [gender-specific behavior] is all nurture or all nature. It’s some sort of interaction between the two.”
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.”
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