What does this type of behavior really mean -- if anything? Parents, psychologists, and even kids themselves are struggling with this question. Through feminism and the burgeoning men's movement, we've blurred what used to be recognized as the line between male and female roles. Today, few adults would question a girl who would rather play with a soccer ball than with Barbie. But the issue isn't as simple for boys.
Because while we may cheer for the young hero of the film Billy Elliot in his struggle to become a ballet dancer, some of us wouldn't eagerly applaud our own sons if they chose such a traditionally feminine pursuit.
Listen in as parents share their feelings about raising boys in a society that is still shockingly hard on those who don't conform to stereotypes.
Where Gender Identity StartsAt age 3, Timmy Moore* refused to answer unless people called him Cinderella. "Even the pediatrician had to say, 'Okay, Cinderella, you're next,' or Timmy wouldn't go into the examination room," says his mom, Carol Moore,* of Seattle.
But "pretending to be a character of the opposite sex is not necessarily a sign of gender confusion," explains Gayle Peterson, Ph.D., a family therapist in Berkeley, CA, and author of Making Healthy Families. To a child, Cinderella could represent kindness, nurturing, or just plain goodness -- all qualities worth encouraging.
According to William S. Pollack, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood, this type of exploration is healthy and even necessary-though that doesn't make it any less puzzling to parents.
While it's easy to say "boys will be boys," typical male (or female) behavior isn't as biologically determined as many of us think. Gender identity is far from fully formed at birth, and it continues to develop throughout early childhood.
Starting around age 5, most kids experience an intense period of identification with their own sex. "Boys usually become supermacho and girls superfeminine," explains Ellen Galinsky, author of The Preschool Years. "They can be very unforgiving of a child who hasn't reached that point."
When the Teasing BeginsIt's when a kid doesn't conform and starts to be taunted that many parents first realize there's a problem. "Timmy came home crying because another boy told him that only girls play with Barbies, and it was hard to know how to comfort him," says Moore. "My heart breaks because all he wants to do is be himself. I wish he wasn't into dolls, but I don't want him to think there's anything wrong with him. So I just said, 'Well, that's not true. You're a boy and you play with Barbies, and that's okay.'"
Sometimes it's not just classmates who pass harsh judgment, but other adults, which leads to more parental anxiety and confusion. "We thought the school psychologist wanted to talk about some adjustment issues Julian* was having," says Steve Shore,* a dad from West Hartford, CT. "But when I called her, all she wanted to discuss was why Julian sometimes dressed up in girls' costumes during free playtime. When I admitted that my wife had just bought him a girl's costume to wear at home, the psychologist said that was a big mistake. She made me feel like we were encouraging aberrant behavior. I was upset -- I felt ambushed by the school."
Criticism can also come from closer to home. "My father is very conservative and had tremendous difficulty accepting that Robert played with Barbies," says Samuels, who recalls that the turning point came when her son matter-of-factly explained to his grandfather that he played with dolls because he liked them. Being forthright with family while continuing to support the child is a smart approach, says Pollack. "To shame the grandparents for their feelings doesn't help. There needs to be less blaming and more listening to what the child really wants in order to move in a positive direction for change."
The Samuelses make a point of allowing Robert to pursue his interests. "What matters is that I haven't lost my connection with my son," explains his mom. She and his dad have also joined Supporting Our Sons (www.supportingoursons.org), a group dedicated to "helping boys break out of the gender straitjacket," according to Pollack, who is on the board of directors.
Lisen Stromberg, the organization's president, explains, "Girls can be anything they want to be, but we still need to expand the code of acceptable male behavior, whether it's allowing boys to be more emotional or to take up dance." Stromberg's crusade grew out of personal experience: When her son was 3, a favorite dress-up costume was a princess gown. "His choice raised eyebrows, but no one batted an eye when my daughter went through her truck phase," she says. "I'm glad for that, but it's a sad double standard."
How the Issue IntensifiesFor older boys who enjoy pursuits labeled girlish, the situation gets tougher. Shame and fear of their parents' reactions can drive them to battle their tormentors on their own -- sometimes with disastrous results. "Rich* has always preferred acting to sports," says his mom, Roberta Folkers,* of Gary, IN. Her son is active in local theater and school plays, and takes both voice and dance classes. "But football and basketball are big here," notes Folkers. "When Rich started middle school, the other kids got on his case for not playing. They wrote 'gay' on his locker and tripped him when he went to the blackboard."
A once happy kid, Rich, then 11, became angry and combative. His worried parents had no idea why he was so upset -- until the day he made a fake bomb threat on his home and tried to pin the blame on his abusers. This cry for help got everyone's attention. Still, the school's effort to stop the bullying only made the boys tease him more. Folkers homeschooled Rich for a time, then enrolled him in a private school where, fortunately, the kids seem more open-minded. But now that the tuition money has run out, he must return to his old public school next year. Says Folkers, "We can hardly bear to think about it."
Why Parents Really WorryEven when the situation is not quite so desperate, raising a child who doesn't conform to gender stereotypes brings up all sorts of disturbing questions for parents. The first: Did I do something to confuse my child?
"When Aidan's* girlish behavior -- dressing up and playing with dolls -- didn't stop, I had to ask myself: Was I too smothering? Was my husband not home enough?" says Grace Shickler,* a mother of five from Boulder, CO, whose son is now 10. "The guilt was awful." A child psychologist reassured her that she wasn't responsible for Aidan's likes and dislikes, but that wasn't the end of it. "He wanted dolls for Christmas. If his sister asked for a baseball bat, we gave it to her. So I felt he should get what he wanted too. He did -- and we've had to make this sort of decision over and over again."
Shickler did the right thing, says Peterson. "Playing with dolls won't have any effect on his masculinity beyond perhaps helping to make him a more sensitive, nurturing man," she explains. "Parents shouldn't attribute so much meaning to something so innocent and should support their child's needs. Otherwise, he may feel he has to choose between his gender and his natural inclinations." The result: A boy who's macho on the outside but has low self-esteem and continues to display cross-gender behavior behind your back.
When a kid's being picked on, Pollack notes, reassurance is key. Say, "It's okay to be who you are and to make the choices you do. You are unique, and we love you." Then, assuming your child isn't in danger, work together to stop the teasing.
Still, there's another question that some parents are too uncomfortable to even voice: Does this mean my son will be gay? And am I truly open-minded and ready to make a stand for my child -- or do I wish I didn't have to?
Even though her then 4-year-old son, William,* hadn't shown any interest in typical boy stuff, Isabelle McGinley,* a mom in Pittsburgh, was still thrown when he wanted to be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz for Halloween. She felt this request crossed a line. "I worried that it meant he would be gay," she says. "My husband and I consider ourselves liberals, but it's still difficult to accept when this is your kid -- we're concerned about our culture's prejudice. As awful as it is to say, I don't want to have to deal with it as a parent. Raising a straight kid is hard enough."
Still, McGinley allowed William to wear the costume. "I hoped this phase would pass, and it did," she explains. A few months later, William discovered Pokémon, and he quickly forged a bond with the other boys in his class. "Now he goes around growling all the time and being supermacho," reports McGinley. "And though I know it's no proof that he's straight, I'm embarrassed to say that I'm relieved."
Rich Folkers's mom has experienced some eye-opening personal growth. "My husband always said, 'Let Rich be who he is.' But I just couldn't. His younger sister is athletic and popular, and I wanted him to fit in that way, too, so he wouldn't be teased," says Folkers. "The reality is that he just doesn't, and I've had to consider that he might be gay. It's not what we concentrate on, but if he is, I'm going to have to accept it."
In fact, there are conflicting opinions as to whether cross-gender behavior in childhood means a kid will be homosexual. It's also possible for either a macho-acting 8-year-old boy or a superfeminine girl to grow up to be gay, says Pollack. "We need a broader view of what gender can be," he insists.
"The real challenge for me," says Samuels, "is to make sure Robert knows that -- whatever he does -- I'm going to support and love him. And that's not just about sexuality. It's about being a parent."
Nancy Kalish lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.