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.”
YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN