Your Child's Gender Identity

Difference #4: Girls Gravitate Toward Princesses & Anything Pink

Many parents struggle to shield their offspring from the boy-versus-girl marketing onslaught. I know that when Layla was a baby, I swore she wouldn't get all the princess paraphernalia. But soon enough she inherited her older cousin's cast-off gear and started tottering around the house in light-up plastic pumps and a glittering Sleeping Beauty dress.

While you can try to avoid gender-typing your little one's toys, you might be fighting Mother Nature. A 2009 study from Texas A&M University found, using eye-tracking technology, that by as early as 3 months, girls and boys show a visual preference for traditionally gender-specific toys such as dolls or trucks.

So whether or not you outfit your daughter head to toe in princess garb or give your son a plastic sword to do battle, there's a good chance they'll get that exposure on the playground or in day care. "Girls, especially, seem to go through a phase where they're intensely interested in girlie things, like wearing a fairy costume everywhere they go," says Kristina Zosulus, Ph.D., an assistant research professor at Arizona State University's School of Social and Family Dynamics in Tempe. "Some parents encourage it; others think it's just plain crazy. But often the child is going to gravitate toward it one way or the other. It's just a way of developing a gender identity."

The same idea holds with boyish behavior. "You can give your 18-month-old son a doll to teach him to be more nurturing, but don't be upset if he rips off its head," Dr. Meeker adds. "He's not being violent: He just may need to build and tear down, which is why blocks and big motor toys tend to be more popular among boys."

Don't forget that many toys aren't necessarily gender-specific. In one recent study from Arizona State University, researchers found that the most popular toys among toddlers weren't the typically girlie or boyish items, but neutral ones such as nesting cups and building blocks. "Expose your child to as many things as possible, and see which ones he hooks onto," says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., a child psychologist outside of Boston. That worked for Jeanne Coffey, of Nahant, Massachusetts. "At 21 months, Lila's favorite thing is big trucks," she says. "Her favorite day of the week is when the garbageman comes, but she also likes to wear necklaces and put her baby doll down for a nap. We're comfortable letting her play with whatever she wants."

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