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When Kids Defy Gender Roles

Brooke Fasani Auchinclos/Corbis

Picture this: You are a single mother raising a son. You walk into your 4-year-old's room and find him wearing his sister's tutu and his face smeared with lipstick.

DO YOU:

A. Get on the phone with your pediatrician, sure that the lack of a male role model at home has caused irreparable harm.

B. Tell him peach is more his color and grab your tube of “Coral Sea.”

C. Shrug and reach for the wet wipes.

You're a fine parent if you do any of the above. Children in any family arrangement—single or otherwise—gender-bend. Boys' pretending to be Foofa from Yo Gabba Gabba! or girls' tearing around the house with light sabers “are ways to experiment with perceived ideas about gender,” says David Hill, M.D., pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and author of Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro. Dr. Hill's own son enjoyed playing princess as a toddler. “I have the pictures to prove it,” he adds.

But does Mom's love of scrapbooking or Dad's jones for muscle cars shape a child of the opposite sex?

Mary Pols, a single mom in Mid Coast, ME, became aware of her limitations on all things manly while raising her 8-year-old son, Dolan. “I knew I could teach him to cook, garden, and knit. But what about throwing a ball?”

Parents are a key influence, but they're only a sliver of the pie. While children learn sex-specific roles from their moms and dads, environment provides plenty of gender clues. Relatives, family friends, and even entertainment figures all count as gender role models, says Dr. Hill, so choose the ones around you wisely. It will likely be your child's friends who put the spotlight on stereotypes. Once children turn 5 or 6, they start feeling peer pressure to participate in gender-specific activities.

If your son wants to play with dolls, or your daughter with trucks, let 'em at it. “Don't saddle learning sessions with gender expectations,” Dr. Hill says. Caring for a baby doll is a way to express empathy. Crashing toy cars together tests cause and effect. These are good traits for both sexes to possess but can only be accessed through play and experimentation. And find opportunities to tell your child that men and women are supposed to do and be many things—anything from washing the dishes to being Supreme Court justices.

As it turns out, Dolan can throw a perfect spiral. He's “innately macho,” says Pols, but likes to keep his hair long. “That's nothing I'm pushing on him. It's just him.”

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