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.