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Ask Dr. Sears: Tomboy Concerns

Q:  My 5-year-old daughter wants to be a boy! This has gone on for almost two years. Is there something I can do to make her feel comfortable with who she is or proud of being a girl?

A: At this young age, children don't link their activities with their gender identity. Terms like "girl stuff" and "boy stuff" are adult stereotypes. Children are simply drawn to activities they enjoy. Many girls prefer "boy" activities and think that boys have more fun doing them. It's likely that your daughter's behavior will soon change, and as a parent, you should allow some gender bending when it comes to play and dress. It's common for preschoolers to shift gender roles, alternating between playing with dolls and throwing a football. Once children enter school, peer modeling usually takes over, and if that doesn't nurture gender identity, hormones later will. Not only is switching back and forth between gender roles normal and common for children, it has absolutely no relationship to adult sexual identity.

A frequent concern I hear voiced in my practice by the parents of preschool boys is that their son prefers to play with girls. This common and normal preference is often found in very sensitive boys who are easily bothered by the bullying and teasing that seems more prevalent among boys. This is often why they would rather play with girls. Consider this sensitivity a positive trait; our society could use an infusion of a million more males like this. You should nourish this sensitivity: Your son's future wife will thank you for it, and again, it has absolutely no relationship to adult sexual identity.

But back to your daughter: Even though environment and biology have significant effects on your daughter's development, it's also important that you foster healthy gender appreciation. You want your daughter to be happy being a girl, and to do so, try these tips:

Broaden your mind-set

The line between "girl" and "boy" activities is blurring, especially since schools now have as many sports activities for girls as they do for boys. At sporting events when I was a child, girls typically watched and cheered while the boys were on the field or court, etc. Nowadays, girls are equal participants.

Model healthy gender roles 

A child develops much of his or her attitude toward both sexes by observing how Mom and Dad treat each other. If your daughter sees mutual respect between her parents, she's likely to grow up with a healthy regard for both genders. If, on the other hand, she sees one parent treating the other badly, this could distort her view on how males treat females (and vice versa).

Have Mom model what it means to be feminine

You not only want your child to have a healthy esteem for herself but also about her gender. Take Your Daughter to Work Day is a wonderful way for your daughter to see how women are valued in our society for their contributions. A mom and her daughter should do "girl things" together. Let her see how much her mother enjoys being a woman.

Be patient and understanding 

As I said before, you have to allow some gender bending when it comes to activities and dress. Once your daughter gets more involved in school activities, especially with a group of girls, you'll see her beginning to change. In the meantime, since your daughter is happier doing "boy things," let her enjoy them.

Be sure she knows you like her the way she is

Sometimes, a child will pick up subtle cues from her parents that they wish she had been born a boy. Tell her how happy you both were when you found out that your baby was a girl, and how happy you now are that you have a wonderful girl.

When my eldest daughter, Hayden, recently got married, the song she selected for our dance was "Daddy's Little Girl." (She was our first girl after three boys, so I believe she always felt special.) As we danced, Hayden talked about how much she learned about men by watching how I related to Martha, and I realized all over again how important it is for a father to model healthy gender identity to his daughters.