On Overly Gendering Children, Setting Examples, Identity Crises, and Whether a Boy is a Boy

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Question

Is it wrong to overly gender young children? For example, is it wrong to buy exclusively pink things for girls and blue things for boys? Is it wrong to tell girls that they are princesses? Is it wrong to buy girls girly toys and games and to buy masculine toys and games for boys?

Answer

Overly gender. Now there’s a phrase straight from a psychology textbook. A boy is a boy. Not a half boy or a three-quarters boy, but a boy. At first blush, it’s difficult to understand how you can overly gender a child, but we’ll consider the issue in a bit.

First, we’ll address whether the conduct you describe is appropriate.

Given the mixed messages sent by many of today’s children’s television shows and movies, establishing gender roles early makes sense. That doesn’t mean buying cleats for a three-month-old boy who can’t yet walk or dressing an infant girl in a tutu. But if you want your boy to know he is a boy, don’t give him toys or clothes that he associates with girls. Is it wrong for a boy to play with a doll? In many cases, no. Sometimes the forces of Cobra may kidnap Barbie, and only GI Joe can free her from their foul clutches.

Academics differ on the particulars, but the concept of Gender Identity Disorder (GID) has become more widely accepted in recent years. At a very early age, some children seem to lean toward play seen as inappropriate for their genders. A small but vocal minority of psychologists claim such trends are biological, asserting that some children are genetically predisposed to behaviors of the opposite sex. More widely accepted is the contention that some children just like playing with other children of either sex and go along to get along. While some panicky parents or psychologists may interpret such behavior as a gender-identity crisis, given time, these children generally trend back toward gender-appropriate behavior. Unless parents or other adults purposely lead them on a different path.

Cases of GID appear to be on the rise. I suppose the trend could spring from a genetic shift in the population, but given the short history of this field of study, a biological explanation seems highly unlikely. Just about everybody in the world of psychology, regardless of their opinions about homosexuality and other gender-related issues, agrees that gender roles can be taught. And given the apparently accelerating trend toward children becoming confused about their gender identity, wise parents will teach their children the proper path.

Would giving a young boy a Bratz doll and a princess hat as his only toys confuse his gender development? Perhaps not. But given the plethora of both boy-themed toys and gender-neutral playthings such as blocks and board games like Candyland – coupled with the rising level of confusion about children’s gender roles – you have no reason to take the risk. And if a mother wants her son to wear only blue and play with baseballs and remote-controlled cars rather than dolls, I can think of no reason to discourage her from pursuing that policy.

A few months ago, I responded to a question sent by a father worried because his wife dressed their son up like a girl. Over time, the boy was beginning to act more and more like a girl, as the indoctrination by his mother overcame his natural male tendencies. She and her friends thought dressing up the boy like a girl was funny. The father did not, and neither did I, because from such foolishness can spring serious problems. That kind of parental conduct could fund tropical vacations for a generation of psychologists.

I took the long way around with your question, but it’s time to go back to the beginning. Is it wrong to overly gender a child? If you see buying boy toys for boys and girl toys for girls as evidence of overly gendering, then my answer is no, it’s not wrong. However, the behavior you describe does not sound overly aggressive or inappropriate in any way.

Thank you for reading today’s Q&A. Check back here tomorrow for another installment of the Ask The Dad advice column. If you’d like to submit an Ask The Dad question, send it to [email protected] .