Why does my toddler like dressing up as the opposite sex, and how should I react?
When it comes to your child’s behaviour and their gender, do you worry about your boy being ‘girly’ and your girl being ‘boyish’? Should you be concerned if your little boy loves strutting in your dresses or your daughter loves rough play? Or is it all part of your toddler learning and discovering?
“Before 18 months, children are simply working out the difference between what is ‘me’ and ‘not me’. They have no real awareness of what it means to be a boy or a girl,” explains child psychologist Linda Blair.
“From 18 months on, they start to explore what it means to be ‘me’ by working out how they fit into different categories: good/naughty, girl/boy, young/old and so on. They experiment through imaginative play and dressing-up, trying on different identities to see if they ‘fit’ and, from 3, a greater awareness of gender develops.”
By age 3, your toddler can most likely correctly label pictures of boys and girls and place a picture of himself in the right group. He’ll also realise gender is permanent.“As children develop a sense of gender identity, they tend to copy the same-sex parent,” says Linda. “But cross-sex play is normal and natural and doesn’t indicate a problem with the development of gender identity.”
When your child starts school, he’ll be exposed to social pressure to conform to norms. He’ll often play and mix in same-sex groups and will be quick to notice – and point out – if someone doesn’t fit in. He may become dismissive of opposite gender toys or interests that he previously enjoyed.
You heavily influence your child’s sense of gender identity and difference. You send your child messages about what it means to be male or female all the time, through your behaviour, your interaction with members of the opposite sex and also by the way you treat your son, or any of his brothers and sisters.
According to Steve Biddulph, psychologist and author of several books on parenthood, boys and girls tend to develop skills in a different order, which is why they’re traditionally drawn to different sets of activities.
By 6 years, most boys are still 6-12 months behind the average girl in fine motor skills. Social and language development also take boys longer.
Meanwhile, girls lag behind with gross motor skills, but seem more conditioned to want to please their parents. So you find girls playing carefully with tea-sets and jigsaws, while boys of a similar age may prefer climbing or riding bikes. But child psychologist Linda Blair stresses these are generalisations:
Cross-sex play is normal and natural and doesn’t indicate a problem with the development of gender identity.
Linda Blair, child psychologist
Experts suggest you should be careful not to push your child too strongly into gender-typical behaviour. Giving him opportunities to participate in all kinds of activities allows him to develop the confidence to choose what he likes and is good at.
Many child-development experts actively encourage parents to provide children with a range of non-stereotypical experiences, because criticising or banning some activities risks doing more harm than good.
“What usually happens is that the child stops showing those types of behaviour and pursues them in a secret way,” says Domenico di Ceglie, Director of the Gender Identity Development unit at the Tavistock Clinic in London. “The child then has to develop two aspects of himself at a young age – one public, one private. If he worries about disapproval and being ‘found out’, he can become isolated. Or the secret can be quite exciting, which may sow the seeds for developmental problems.”
“When your child is old enough to understand, explain the consequences of dressing or behaving in a certain way. Let him know other children may make comments or exclude him, for example,” says child psychologist Linda Blair. “Then allow him to make his own decisions, secure in the knowledge you’ll support him whatever he decides.”
“From the moment Alfie could choose his clothes, he’d toddle to the wardrobe and pick out one of his big sister’s skirts to wear. At first, I only let him wear them at home, but then he’d get really upset if he couldn’t put one on every time we went out and it seemed ridiculous to make an issue out of it. In public, he does attract quite a few stares, but I want him to feel he can explore all aspects of himself.”Susanne, 32, mum to Dorothy, 6, and Alfie, 2.
“I love having two boys and all that entails, but when I found out I was expecting a little girl I was excited about all the dolls and frills. But no such luck! Polly is into climbing trees, making mud pies and playing football. I love ballet but she wouldn’t be seen dead in a tutu! I’m a bit disappointed, but I guess that’s what comes of having older brothers.” Monica, 43, mum to Cameron, 10, Joe, 8 and Polly, 3.
“Two of my girls are into Barbie, pink – the lot. Not Mandy. She’s obsessed with Spiderman, and believes she’ll spin webs when she’s older! Jessica knows her own mind – it’s great to have a child who doesn’t just follow the stereotypes. I tell her we’re all different and not to let it bother her if people question her preferences. What right has anyone to try and change who she is?”Rebecca, 30, mum to Callum, 9, Maddie, 6, and Mandy, 5.
“When Danny was 2, a neighbour gave him a pram and doll which he loved. My husband said no son of his was playing with dolls! It didn’t worry me so much – I don’t want my boys thinking childcare or housework are just women’s tasks. Dillan played with the dolls a bit before they disappeared. At playgroup he still liked pushing a pram – but with a football in it! Phil would never let the boys dress up in girl’s clothes – he was adamant they’d grow up to be homosexual. I don’t think dressing up as a kid has anything to do with being gay. But I believe there’s a limit, as even young kids can be cruel and I’d hate Danny to be teased.”Helen, 29, mum to Danny, 4, and Jem, 2.
“When he was 3, Nathan loved painting ‘strawberries’ on his toenails and was obsessed with dresses, Mary Poppins and baking. He once wore his friend Lucy’s dress to nursery. I went along with it, although I was a little nervous. When Nathan’s dad went to pick him up, he found every little boy had raided the dressing-up box and they were all wearing frocks! Nowadays, Nathan couldn’t be more of a ‘boys’ boy’: it’s football, football, football. But if he ever wants to re-discover his inner diva, it would be nice to have someone to go shopping with! I don’t believe you should repress these things – it’s all very natural – and highly entertaining!” Dionne, 36, mum to Nathan, 9 and Alfie, 5.
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