The recent popularity of books such as My Princess Boy and Cinderella Ate My Daughter has more people talking about gender identity issues and gender stereotypes among children. Here are eight tips on how to react positively to your children if they gravitate toward different gender roles, as when your son wears tutus or your daughter dresses more like Shiloh than Suri.
"The first few years of life are a time for children to try out different gender roles and explore what it means to be a boy or a girl," explains Ellen Braaten, Ph.D., director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. "This is a normal part of development, and it's a stage that the vast majority of children will outgrow." In other words, despite society's stereotypes and beliefs, don't assume that boys who like wearing the color pink will always have "feminine" desires or that girls who play with action figures will always have "masculine" desires -- and don't assume that your child will grow up to be gay.
Learn as much as you can about the reasons why your child might be breaking gender stereotypes, suggests Cheryl Kilodavis, who wrote the children's book My Princess Boy about her younger son, Dyson, who started wearing dresses around when he was 2 years old. Talk to your child's teachers, pediatricians, and the parents of friends. Search message boards that focus on the topic. "The more you learn, the better you'll understand where your child is coming from," Kilodavis says. "Knowledge really is power."
"Young children are very creative and they move between fantasy and reality with considerable ease," says Ken Corbett, Ph.D., Clinical Assistant Professor at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and author of Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities. "If you're always coming down on the side of reality, you might not be in tune with where your child is coming from." You can also miss out on what your child might be trying to tell you -- for instance, a girl might say she wants to be a fireman simply because she wants a Dalmatian. A boy might want to be the "mommy" when playing house because he doesn't get enough chances to be nurturing or in charge. Play with your child and you might be surprised by his or her true wishes.
When a child steps outside of gender stereotypes it's often not a problem that needs to be fixed. Instead, parents might need to adjust their thinking about the situation, suggests Kilodavis. When her son began wearing princess costumes, her first reaction was to limit the behavior. But after seeing how miserable Dyson was, she realized that maybe this was her issue. "I was trying to control him, but I knew that I had to start accepting him rather than trying to make him be someone that made me more comfortable," she says. If you or your partner is having particular trouble sorting through these issues, consider seeking help from a therapist or a mental health professional.
Children who go against the grain might be subject to teasing, so it's crucial that they know their parents love them and will provide them with a safe place where they can act out their desires. "Children are more resilient and roll with punches if their parents are on their side," explains Dr. Braaten. While it's important to be supportive, though, you don't have to be overly supportive. "Just because a boy wants to try on his mother's high heels occasionally doesn't mean she should run out and buy him a princess costume," Dr. Braaten adds. You don't need to stop or encourage your child's decisions. Instead, find a solution that's right for your family.
If your child wants to make non-stereotypical choices outside the home or in front of other people, tell him what reactions he might encounter. Explain that if he opts to wear a Minnie Mouse costume when certain friends come over, they might feel uncomfortable and make fun of him for acting like a girl. If he still wants to wear the costume, at least he'll know what effect his decision might have on others and himself. "It's important to explain the potential risks in a language the child will understand," says Dr. Braaten.
The vast majority of kids who experiment with different genders do not need psychological help, says Dr. Braaten, but there are warning signs that your child might benefit from it. If your child seems more fearful, sad, or angry than usual, or if he starts making excuses not to go to school or go outside to play, these may be clues that he's having trouble with other kids, such as bullying. He also might be confused about why others aren't accepting him. A professional can help your child learn how to deal these issues. To find an expert in your area, contact the American Psychological Association (www.apa.org).
You don't have to struggle with gender identity issues in silence -- it's normal for young children to make non-typical gender choices, which means there are plenty of other parents dealing with similar situations. "When you release the secret, you realize it isn't so shameful, because people all over the world are going through the same thing," explains Kilodavis. "And that knowledge can be very empowering."
Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation
Dina Roth Port is the author of Previvors: Facing the Breast Cancer Gene and Making Life-Changing Decisions and has written for Parenting, Martha Stewart, and The Huffington Post. Check out her website at www.dinarothport.com.