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Sugar and Spice

The change seemed to come out of nowhere. One morning a couple of years ago, my then 4-year-old daughter, whose fashion "look" had always been best described as basic grub  -- stained T-shirts, faded pants, and sneakers  -- demanded to wear a dress to preschool. It happened again the next day, and the next. Soon all of Melissa's pants were moldering in the closet, as were her sneakers, because she'd wear only patent-leather Mary Janes. From there, she escalated into the cocktail-waitress look: black leotard with tiny skirt, tights, the Mary Janes, and an enormous hair bow. Then came the addition of a hand-me-down rhinestone necklace and fingernail polish.

"I think I'm so pretty people will fall down amazed," she murmured, gazing at herself in the mirror. She announced that her new favorite color was pink. She began to cut pictures of brides out of magazines. She handed over the few action figures she'd collected and ordered me to give them to a neighbor. "I don't play with boys' toys," she announced.

This haute girlishness was not something she'd learned at home: I'm a jeans-wearer, a former ice-hockey player, and a firm believer in the idea that there's only one thing men can do that women can't  -- pee standing up.

You might guess, then, that Melissa's transformation into The Total (Pre)Woman puzzled and alarmed me, prompting brief but terrible visions of our formerly feisty girl as the newest Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. I pleaded; I offered junior versions of feminist theory.

But as I looked at other kids her age, I began to relax. Because I saw a staggering array of sex-role behavior: There were other girly-girls, dressed in flounces and tiaras and cuddling their dolls, and ultramacho boys, whooping and kicking and brandishing imaginary guns. There were kids who veered from one extreme to the other and a few outright rebels  -- scrappy, hard-edged girls and gentle boys who pushed their teddies in doll strollers. And I came to understand that they were all normal. They were simply wrestling, for the first time in their young lives, with a very basic human question: What does it mean to be male or female?

It's All in the Timing
When pre- and early-elementary-school-age children start to experiment with sex roles, it's no accident. They've recently completed the task of developing a gender identity. This process goes on internally, before kids are verbal enough to talk about it, so we don't know exactly how they come to understand that they're either male or female. The current belief is that it's a combination of several factors. One is cognitive development: Infants learn to make sense of the world by sorting, categorizing, and looking for patterns in both objects and people. "Even very young babies are able to distinguish between the way males and females move and speak," says Estelle Zarowin, a social worker in New York City who specializes in young children. "At first they're only aware of differences. Then they begin to generalize, for example, that people who have higher-pitched voices also have a certain way of behaving. And then they begin to label: 'This is Mommy; Mommy is a girl.'"

An equally strong, if not stronger, influence on gender-identity development is a child's environment. Infants are constantly fed information about which sex they are. Parents insert gender cues into their most loving words  -- "How's my precious girl?" or "How's my darling boy?"  -- and encourage and reward kids for identifying with a same-sex parent.

By 3 years old, at the latest, a child looking at a picture of a person should be able to tell you whether it's a man or a woman, boy or girl, and also know his or her own gender, says Anita Hurtig, Ph.D., clinical associate professor of pediatric psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. By the time he's 4, he understands that gender is permanent. "Although, because young children of both sexes are so identified with their mother's nurturing, it's not uncommon, or abnormal, for a three-year-old boy who's very clear that he's a boy to announce he's going to have a baby when he grows up," says Annette Lansford, M.D., clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Illinois School of Medicine, Urbana-Champaign.

The Power of Stereotypes
Coming to know her gender is a big step for a child. And it raises some difficult questions: If I am a girl (or boy), why is that so? Exactly what makes me one? An adult would answer those questions by referring to reproductive and genital differences. "For us, these are the defining characteristics that separate male and female," says Patricia Bauer, Ph.D., professor of child psychology at the University of Minnesota. "But children place less value on physical characteristics than on typical behavior." In other words, the way a child shows himself  -- and others  -- that he's a boy is by acting like one. And to determine what that means, he looks around to see how other boys dress, act, and talk.

It often seems that the sex-role traits children fix on and mimic reflect some of the broadest stereotypes. "What do you think is the difference between boys and girls?" I asked my daughter during her cocktail-waitress phase. Her answer: "Girls' hair is long and boys' hair is short," she said after some thought. "Girls wear dresses and boys wear pants. Girls are quiet and boys are loud."

Where did my daughter get ideas like this? For starters, because preschoolers are struggling to understand a staggeringly complex world, the oversimplification of such stereotypes makes them tremendously appealing. "Kids this age aren't able to think abstractly," says Marissa Diener, Ph.D., assistant professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, "so one way to make sense of things is to separate them into black-and-white categories."

At the same time, some research suggests, certain differences between boys and girls may have biological roots. Male fetuses tend to be more active than female, for instance. Girls generally become verbal earlier than boys do. And various studies have found that as early as infancy, boys prefer toys that are mechanical or movable, while girls like those that can be cuddled.

But social and cultural forces exert enormous influence in teaching kids what makes a boy a boy and a girl a girl, and even in this new millennium, these forces often push in very conventional directions. The most well-meaning parents carry the residue of their own experience and the lessons their parents taught them, says Zarowin, and these biases may affect their child-rearing practices.

"These are things that manifest long before you choose to buy a doll or a truck," she says. "How firmly do you hold a child? How physically do you play?"

"Studies show that mothers and fathers spend more time talking to baby girls than baby boys," says Bauer. "That means that the girls often are being socialized differently for interpersonal exchanges."

In fact, research has documented the way parents nudge their children toward traditional sex roles. One 1980 study found that fathers often reacted negatively when their children (especially their sons) played with "sex-inappropriate" toys (like dolls). A 1992 study of 300 children found that when a boy asked his parents for an action figure, he got it 70 percent of the time, but if he asked them for a doll, he was only half as likely to get it. The clear message: That's not for you!

Studies on the way that parents project expectations onto their kids have found that fathers in particular tend to describe their sons with terms like 'sturdy, handsome, and strong' and their daughters with 'dainty, pretty, and fragile,' note psychologists Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., and Michael Thompson, Ph.D., in their recent book, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. Mothers tend to talk more about emotion with their daughters, says Thompson: "By kindergarten, girls are six times as likely to use the word 'love' as boys."

Though it's been more than 30 years since feminists first drew attention to the stereotyped gender messages delivered by mainstream television, movies, and books, men and women are still often portrayed in very traditional roles. For example, "through television, boys learn that violence and aggression are part of the male identity," notes Stephen Bergman, M.D., coauthor of We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men.

Of course, children receive varying levels of exposure to cultural messages as well as different parental instructions on how to interpret them. Kids may also be given differing definitions of "acceptable" gender behavior from schools, churches, daycare centers, and peer groups. When her 3-year-old son decided it was cool to wear nail polish, "the staff at his nursery school said, 'Fine, it's a phase, don't worry,'" says Amanda, a mother of two in New Jersey. But Robin Ginsburg, a mother of 7-year-old twins in Beachwood, OH, got a very different reaction from her kids' preschool when her son, at age 3, was in the throes of a cross-dressing phase. "He liked dressing up in tutus and cowboy boots, and he liked wearing nail polish," she says. "One day, I got a note from his school telling me that wasn't appropriate for a boy. After that, I kept the tutus at home and only put polish on his toes."

The Personality Factor
Even when children receive similar information about sex roles, personality differences can influence the way it's processed.

"An extroverted child may be more influenced by his peers' behavior than one who plays alone, because he's so attuned to them," says Diener. "And sometimes the way children play simply reflects what they prefer. A girl who's quiet will be more likely to adopt the nurturing play that we see as 'girlish.'"

A child's sex-role behavior also can be influenced by situation and context: A little boy who joins a group of other boys in driving girls from the preschool basketball hoop may act differently when alone with his beloved baby sister. Ginsburg, whose son's cross-dressing years are over, believes now that they were prompted by "a desire to be just like his sister, who's the dominant twin."

Because sex-role behavior is a loaded subject in our society, kids' early experiments can be anxiety provoking, especially when they veer toward extremes. But while it's not uncommon for adult homosexuals to report awareness of being "different" at an early age, there's no evidence that because a 5-year-old boy likes nail polish or a girl cherishes trucks, he or she is gay, says Dr. Lansford.

Similarly, boys and girls who embrace gender stereotypes aren't necessarily going to live traditional lives. In fact, it may be just the opposite: "To identify oneself in a rigid way can help a child feel more secure in her gender identity early on," says Hurtig. "And, in turn, that security will help her recognize that she doesn't have to be so rigid in her thinking."

While it's reassuring to know that a child's sex-role experimentation is usually a normal stage of development, that doesn't mean you need to be a passive observer. Nonconformists must be given support and, when necessary, defense from peer pressure or cruelty. If a child is being hounded, parents, teachers, coaches, and other authority figures must take action. "Harassment, like the use of the word 'fag,' is rarely stopped as quickly as racial harassment would be," says Barrie Thorne, professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of California, Berkeley. "But it should be."

Parents of kids who cleave to stereotypes should "celebrate the strengths in stereotypical roles but then point out ways to go beyond them," says Janet Surrey, Ph.D., coauthor of We Have to Talk. For Kate Adams, a mother of 8-year-old twins in Salt Lake City, that has meant infusing fairy-tale fantasy with healthy doses of reality: "The girls are always saying things like 'I want to look beautiful,'" she says. "So I talk to them about how good it feels to be healthy and to like yourself."

Teaching a child to be what Thorne calls "a critical consumer of popular culture" remains very important: "Ask your child whether anyone she knows has a waist as small as Barbie's," she says. "As early as third grade, you can have a discussion about what constitutes a stereotype." Similarly, say experts, parents should promote stereotype-busting attitudes and activities. That means teaching girls about anger, allowing boys to express fear, and cheering the boy who wants to cook and the girl who shows an aptitude for math. It means making sure children see that both Mom and Dad wash the dishes, mow the lawn, and kiss boo-boos away. And it means looking around on the playground and encouraging the boy who looks like he's dying to play jump rope and the girl who'd love to shoot hoops to step into the game. These efforts can help produce a child who's secure in his or her gender without feeling restricted by it.

I'm hoping that will be true for my daughter. Shortly after she started kindergarten, Melissa abandoned her rhinestones and dresses for bell-bottoms and boots, the uniform of the big girls she worships at school. She still wears fancy hair clips and loves to play with dolls, but she also talks proudly of how strong she is, how far she can hike, and how she rode the fastest roller coaster at Disneyland.

In other words, she's still working this gender thing out. And I can understand that: In some ways, so are we all.

Carol Lynn Mithers wrote the essay "Declarations of Independence" for the December/January 2001 issue.