Dads have come to talk prompted by confusion over why their sons prefer to play with girls. In reality, the sons are highly intellectually gifted and are more comfortable with the more verbally-oriented, rule-bound play of girls as opposed to the explosive play of boys. Mothers come in because their daughters are "way beyond acting like a tomboy. What is going on with her?", they ask. The usual answer is that kids express their gender role identification differently.
Gender role identity is defined as a person's own sense of identification as male or female which may actually be different from their actual biology.
By age 2-3, kids have established their gender role identity and identify themselves as a boy or girl, recognize what is expected of and is the appropriate behavior for boys and girls and make notes that others are of the same or opposite sex. Wow..at 2 or 3!
Role identity has a greater impact on self-esteem than does their actual biological sex. Essentially, "how" a person identifies themselves if far more important than their gender. For example, masculinity is associated with higher levels of self-esteem than is femininity. People generally see men as being more capable and brighter and having some masculine traits as a woman enhances her role in the world.
As kids age, they realize that genders stay consistent (gender stability). If you are a girl one day, you're a girl the next and the next and the next! By the time they are 7-8, they understand that being a boy or girl doesn't change just because of the clothes you wear, the way you behave or because situations change (gender constancy).
There are several theories about "why" kids go through the stages in this sequence and the sequence is universal across cultures. The social learning theory says that kids first develop gender types through reward and punishment, modeling and imitation. The gender schema theory explains that kids develop schemas (concepts and ideas) about the behavior that is expected of them as girls and boys within the social environment. These schemas influence how they perceive and think about the world and then, apply these schemas to their own behavior. They end up adopting attitudes and behaviors to fit those expectations. The cognitive-developmental theory tells us that kids have to have the necessary intelligence to pay attention and to consider the features of the kids around them in order to think about think about their own gender identity.
The development of gender identity is a complex process and requires that parents be flexible in letting their girls explore different "costumes", behaviors, roles and activities that may not be exactly "female" in nature. Even though their behavior may make you uncomfortable, Mom and Dad, remember that this is an exploratory process and your kids need the chance to "try on" different roles.
Yes, gently guide them toward their gender roles without the appearance of judgment or disapproval. If they consistently and completely reject their gender roles, they may be in conflict and have a gender identity disorder. We're not talking about the emergence of homosexuality, but a true psychiatric disorder that occurs in less than 1% of the population. As a result of its rarity, the behaviors of a child with this disorder are frequently misunderstood. However, if this is happening to your child, it doesn't feel "rare" at all. You, as parents, are likely to be the one teaching the professionals.
A gender identity disorder involves "intense and chronic identification with the opposite sex, persistent unease with one's actual sex, a sense of inappropriateness in the gender role" that causes distress or functional impairments (it interferes with daily life). In children, at least 4 of the following symptoms are required:
- Wants to be or insist they are the opposite sex
- Prefers cross-sex roles in playing
- Insists on or prefers to wear opposite sex clothing
- Engages in games and activities that are associated with the opposite sex
- Has a strong preference for playmates of the opposite sex
Boys may be disgusted by their penises and have an aversion to rough-and-tumble play. Girls want to grow penises and don't want to have breasts or menstruate. They reject female clothing.
In adolescence and adults, the behavioral presentation is vastly different. The individual "passes" as the other sex, wants to be treated as the opposite sex and typically states the desire to be the other sex. They are convinced that they have the same feelings as the opposite sex.
Gender identity disorders can appear even in early infancy and are frequently associated with emotional and behavioral disorders.
The more we learn about how people evolve and adapt, the less frequently we react in unhealthy ways to the behaviors we are seeing. So, when your child acts very differently from his friends and very differently from the expectations, take some time to learn about what you are seeing. It's up to you to help your child make a healthy adjustment from one stage to another. Isn't this parenting stuff just soooo easy?!?!
Just do the best you can,