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?"
Does It Mean That Your Child Is Gay?
Gender roles—the fashions and behaviors a culture assigns to each gender—are distinct from sexual orientation. For instance, soccer, once considered a boys’ game, is now a coed sport with millions of girls taking the field each weekend. Likewise, cooking was once viewed as woman’s work, yet top celebrity chefs are predominantly male. And despite the shift in gender roles, most female soccer players and male chefs are heterosexual.
So why does a boy wearing a dress make adults uncomfortable?
One of the biggest reasons our culture frowns upon kids, especially boys, who play outside of their assigned gender roles is the fear that it’s a sign of homosexuality. And that fear has some statistical support.
Psychiatrist Dr. Richard Green, MD, spent 15 years studying two groups of boys. The first group of 66 boys preferred dolls, dress-up, and playing with girls. Seventy-five percent of them grew up to be gay men. The second group of 56 boys enjoyed rough play, boys’ clothes, and sports. All but one of them turned out to be heterosexual. Dr. Green published his results in the 1987 book The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality.
In a 1973 landmark study on this topic, psychiatrists Dr. Marcel T. Saghir, MD, and Dr. Eli Robins, MD, interviewed groups of homosexuals about their childhoods and current lives. They reported that nearly 66 percent of gay men preferred feminine toys and games as children while 70 percent of homosexual women recalled being “boy-like” in childhood compared to 16 percent of heterosexual women.
Lev says that interviews with adults be misleading because a gay man who’s asked to look back on his childhood will find significance in wearing Mom’s high heels whereas a straight man wouldn’t even mention playing patty cake with his sister or watching a Strawberry Shortcake movie because it wasn’t relevant to his sense of self then and isn’t now. A gay man sees his cross-gendered play as an expression of his sexuality, whereas a straight man sees his gender-bending play as childish goofing around.
The facts get even fuzzier for girls when you consider that in a 1998 research experiment of college students, their mothers, and their grandmothers, 67 percent of all the women across three generations reported that they were tomboys as young girls. A similar questionnaire-based study back in 1977 had similar results. Yet according to a 1994 University of Chicago survey, only 1.4 percent of American women define themselves as gay.
While men and women’s impressions of their childhoods vary greatly, it’s clear that gender-atypical play does not cause or nurture homosexuality. It’s merely a possible indication of a person’s eventual sexual orientation in some cases.
How Should Parents Respond?
Alan Costa, father of three girls and a boy, remembers when his son asked for a baby doll. “Of course we gave him one,” says Costa, who adds his goal was to raise well-rounded children with an educational mix of diverse experiences. Costa also didn’t balk when his three older daughters put makeup on their baby brother. “He wanted to emulate his big sisters. That’s totally natural. Kids want to emulate their family members and they want to try everything.” His son, now 25, is a heterosexual law student.
Lev agrees that the appropriate response to the sight of your son in a princess dress is a cheery, “You look lovely, sweetie.” And if your daughter chooses a plastic tool set over a tea set, be supportive and show her how to swing that hammer.
If gender-bending play makes you feel uncomfortable, be careful. It can be psychologically harmful to make your daughter wear dresses or tell your son, “only girls play with Polly Pockets.”
“It’s incredibly harmful,” emphasizes Dr. Pascoe. Psychotherapist, social worker, and author Joe Kort, MA, MSW, ACSW, concurs, “It’s traumatizing to the child and shaming that will likely manifest into low self-esteem.”
Once children enter elementary school, though, it may be a kindness to help them understand that their cross-gender behavior might invite teasing and trouble. Dr. Pascoe suggests, “Let your son know it’s OK to paint [his] nails, but we live in a world that hasn’t caught up with that, so if [he] goes to school like this, [he] might be teased. Explain the reality and ask him if he wants to deal with it.”
Kort suggests that allowing an older child to freely express himself or herself at home will make it easier to conform publicly and potentially avoid bullying. Just remind your football-loving daughter that it’s not her problem, but the problem of other people; it is a sad but prevailing notion that having unique likes and dislikes is somehow wrong.
Give kids a heads-up that their decision could have negative consequences, but give them the power to make their own choices.
Lev reminds parents, “We can force children to dress a certain way and we can eliminate toys from their toy box, but can we change who they are? We really can’t.”
In a nutshell, letting a girl dress like Darth Vader for Halloween or giving a boy a baby doll does not confuse their young minds. Play is about fun. Allowing kids to decide what they think is fun will not create a sissy or a tomboy: It will create a happy, well-rounded child.
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