When a boy struts around the house in a princess costume or a girl consistently chooses to dress like a lumberjack, parents tend to get nervous. They begin to dissect every storyline and question the motivation to dress up as the opposite gender. Some parents even go so far as to limit cross-gender play or eliminate it completely.
Gender identity develops early in life. By about the age of two and a half, nearly all children can identify themselves and others in terms of gender. By age six, most children have grasped the concept of gender constancy (they understand that gender remains constant regardless of outward appearance or behavior).
Young children rely on play to act out the various roles and messages they encounter in their daily lives. It's perfectly normal for children to try out some of those roles, even if that means a little boy playing the role of mommy or the princess who needs rescuing. Play helps children make sense of and cope with the world around them.
According to Rebecca Siegel, M.D., Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Director of Psychopharmacology, Family Health Associates, New York, New York, "Young children dressing up as the opposite gender is a common and normal part of imaginative, expressive play."
When parents exhibit anxiety about cross-gender play, children internalize a negative message. They begin to feel like they are doing something wrong.
It's important for parents to step back and realize that cross-gender play is simply a child's exploration of the different people in his or her life. Cross-gender play does not indicate confusion about gender; it indicates interest in different roles.
Children need to be able to play without judgment. During the context of play, children express their thoughts and feelings.
When children feel judged or criticized, they internalize their thoughts and emotions. This can lead to social isolation, anxiety and even symptoms of depression.
"If a parent makes a big deal out of this type of play, it may be distressing to the child. Children should feel safe and supported when expressing themselves in creative ways," says Siegel.
Talk about it
The majority of children outgrow cross-gender play by the time they enter elementary school, but some do continue to try on opposite gender roles. When this happens, parents often fear teasing or bullying from other students.
Try not to let your fears get in the way of your child's healthy exploration of gender roles. If your child expresses concern that boys do not play mommy or girls stick to princesses and fairies, have an honest conversation about the different ways kids play at school. Try to remain open to your child's thoughts and ideas and help your child work through his or her feelings. An open line of communication is essential for building trust and helping your child feel safe.
You might find that you and your child need to determine appropriate times and places to engage in cross-gender play so that your child can continue to feel safe in expressing his or her feelings through play.