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My 3yo regularly plays and acts like a girl. For example, he likes to take his arm out of one sleeve on his shirt and pretend he's a princess. He loves to dress up in his mom and sister's clothes. He asked for a dollhouse for Christmas. He often compares himself to his little sister saying, "I just want to play with her, because we're the same". He'll also make comments about how things are pretty and beautiful, and likes pink and flowery things. Even his body movements and facial gestures are very feminine in nature.

He also frequently refers to things as the mommy and babies, both animate and inanimate. For example, if he see's a big and a little animal, he'll refer to the mommy and baby animal. But he'll also refer to a big and little pillow as the mommy and baby pillow.

To be honest, we have no problem with any of this. He's my son, and I love everything about him and the way that he thinks. This behavior may or may not be an indication that he will have homosexual tendencies in the future, but that doesn't matter to me, because I support how he thinks and who he is.

His personality and tendencies are obviously different than what society deems typical or normal. We've tried to maintain a neutral standpoint on everything: not ignoring the situation, but also not discouraging or encouraging one behavior over another.

The question is: what is the best way to handle the situation? What types of things should we be discussing with him. How should we approach those conversations? Any help from someone who has a similar situation or has worked with childrens' sexual identity issues would be greatly appreciated.

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Sounds like you're handling this just fine. –  Jay Bazuzi Apr 8 '11 at 3:41
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I too think you're doing fine. We have 3 girls and all the boys who are friends come over and dress in their 'dressing up' clothes, all of them. One parent has made an issue of this, which has simply led the lad to doing it furtively. That would worry me more. I think you're approaching this really well. –  Hairy Jul 12 '11 at 12:41
    
As an aside, there are two movies on this I'd suggest - My Life in Pink and Ready? OK!. They're both fiction, but good movies. –  Charles Jan 17 '13 at 18:37
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13 Answers 13

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I did a small amount of research into this. According to one theory, children at the age of 3 haven't solidified the idea of gender permanence, that they are one sex and remain that sex even if they wear different clothes, etc. A three-year old boy may understand that he is a boy, but not necessarily have internalized that he is always a boy and will remain male forever.

I'm not getting into issues of later gender identity here, obviously, there are people who never feel comfortable as males or females and feel the need to change sex later in life. This is atypical, whereas having a flexible sense of gender in early childhood is quite typical.

Most of the articles I read point to the ages between 3-6 as a time when gender identity becomes solidified. That is, at age 3 there is a sense that gender is flexible, but by age six most children have locked into a gender identity. So I think that for your 3 year old, there isn't any cause for concern at this time. His behavior is not particularly unusual, and it's too early to come to any conclusions about his sexuality or gender identity.

Anecdotally, after I read "The Trumpet of the Swan" to my son (who was about three at the time) he pretended to be a mommy swan for several weeks. He would pretend to build nests and sit on eggs, waiting for them to hatch. He's spent time caring for his sisters dolls. He loves baseball.

In other words, he's just a kid, and his games reflect what he is thinking and learning about more than anything else.

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Interesting how the years 3-6 also highly correlate to the years that children begin schooling. I wonder if there is a causal argument... –  Paul Apr 27 at 20:47
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I have no experience of children I know having such issues, but I myself did when I was a child.

Not a definitive answer here, but it's possible that a lack of prompting/conversation about this (when I was old enough to sensibly talk about it; i.e. probably when I was first cognisant it myself, when I was around 8 or 9) caused it to be something of a loose end/unresolved question in my life for another decade or so.

Your attitude towards your child's behaviour is great. If I were in your position, I'd probably let it ride out for a few more years; at 3 years, I wouldn't be surprised if it was "anything goes" (and that gender doesn't really influence decisions/behaviour, as @Hannibal mentioned). But, if it continues into primary (elementary) school, maybe bring it up with him, as by that stage he'd certainly notice a difference between himself and the other boys at school.

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.. was it that you discovered later that you were different from the other boys, or that it was just a phase? In any case I think this question applied to an 8 or 9 year old is completely different from a 3 year old. This is quite normal at 3 and is no indication of future sexual orientation whatsoever. I think its just an indication that he spends lots of time with his sister, and he'll probably change is mind when he spends more time with other boys in preschool. –  Justin Standard Apr 7 '11 at 18:33
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@Justin Sorry for the rather late reply! The answer is that I was different from the other boys ;-) (either that, or the phase has been 13 years long). As you say, a 3 year old barely has any gender-specific traits, and whatever happens then will probably have no correlation to what goes on in their later life. More and more socialisation may help them to either realise they have more in common with boys than they currently appear to, or less! :P –  Yuki Jun 14 '11 at 1:21
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I think this is 100% normal. Many kids do this - one of mine did - and then grew out of that phase and now likes toy guns and fighting. Kids need to play act, I don't think it matters what they play act as.

I wouldn't pay it any attention one way or the other - I would doubt gender confusion is even a thought in a 3 year old's mind!

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+1 My son went through a very similar phase where pink was his fav color, and he was very into princesses. I think having an older sister is contributing to this some, and when your son goes to preschool he'll probably gravitate towards what other boys are most interested in. –  Justin Standard Apr 7 '11 at 18:27
    
Also I wish I could upvote this 3 times or more, to me it is 100% the correct answer as I observed the exact same thing. –  Justin Standard Apr 7 '11 at 18:40
    
My son went through a similar phase as well, when he wanted to be a princess, etc. Pink is still one of his favorite colors, but he's moved on from the princess bit. I think some of that was just becoming more aware of the differences between boys and girls... when his little sister started potty training, for example, he realized he could pee standing up and she couldn't! –  philosodad Apr 7 '11 at 21:14
    
Ignoring it altogether doesn't feel quite right, but I appreciate the feedback. –  Javid Jamae Apr 8 '11 at 2:07
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Some of this behavior sounds like sibling jealousy to me. The fact that your son is talking about "Mommy and Baby" and then saying that he's just like his sister seems like he's trying to fit in with your new family dynamic. Think about:

  1. When did the behavior change? Was your son into different things before his sister arrived?
  2. Does your family (wife, other family member, family friends) pay more attention to your daughter?
  3. Does your son participate in any individual activities - friends outside the home, special interests etc?

My suggestion is to spend more individual time with your son, provide him with an outlet to be an individual instead of being just part of a family. You should also provide him with many different strong role models: male, female, other races/religions/nationalities/professions/etc.

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I have no direct personal experience, but the attention I pay to early childhood research tells me that this is normal. At this young age (3 years) your son is trying on aspects of his environment to see if they fit. Think of it as an extremely valuable and productive form of imaginative play.

With that in mind engage your son in his imaginative play with puppet play or costume play to help him explore and process his ideas about the world. Whenever possible enrich his environment with new experiences (such as a visit to a children's museum or hiking in a nature park). He will get plenty of exposure to gender norms; that's why they are call ed norms. You seem to be asking what to do if your son falls outside the norm.

Keep in mind we all take on gender norms to a degree and gender norms change. Men cry. Women are tough. Also, pink and blue were assigned to girls and boys only about 50 years ago, and many cultures (including America about 70 years ago) treat adolescents as though they are gender neutral.

A great PBS program This Emotional Life has a webpage on Gender Identity Formation (you have to find and click the Gender Identity tab) that ends with this comment:

The best way to help your child as she explores her gender identity is to educate yourself on gender stereotypes and identity formation, and provide a safe, supportive environment for your child to discover her own identity.

Gender Development [book] with similar books shown on Google Books
Gender, Nature, and Nurture [book] Amazon.com

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There are plenty of "straight" people that dress up as women (or do other very strange things). There are also gay people that are very masculine. "He" could also end up as a woman at the end of it all (I have a close friend who had the surgery a couple years ago. She is more happy than she ever was as a he.)

Best way to handle this?

Maybe he doesn't have enough "boy" friends to learn from example how to be a normal boy. If he's always with his sister and his mom, what else is he going to learn? I would make sure he had more time with "normal" boys... playing with trucks and toy soldiers and what not. Let him learn that. Put him with in a good environment. Let him be influenced by good/different things. (Not saying a boy who likes dolls is "bad".)

Maybe he suffers from gender confusion. He truly feels like he is a girl. He says he and his sister are the same... maybe you can point out the differences. If this continues, at some point (not at 3, my opinion) he'll have to see a doctor to have this looked at deeper. There are kids that believe they are the opposite sex. This wouldn't be the first... but it would be fairly rare and something that would need a professional opinion on. Someday.

Maybe he is gay... I think 3 is a little young for something like that to be known, personally but its definitely possible. Continue to be supportive, but you have 7+ years before that should even be a thought in his mind.

Maybe it's a phase that he'll grow out of. All kids want to be firefighters, police, doctors, etc... they "grow out of" most phases.

At some point he'll be old enough to make a more informed decision... You sound very supportive. Keep that up and I think you'll do good. Maybe day care with other kids his age will be all you need. Maybe a neighborhood family his age. Emphasize "boy" stuff. He may choose to follow his current path... he may not.

What I worry about is the fact that you tag this as "homosexuality". Your son is 3 years old. I doubt he knows what a penis is used for yet (other than potty training.) Overall that wouldn't be my worry at this stage. As I mentioned above, I would try to put him in different environments and let it play out.

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+1 for the thought about having enough opportunities to play with other boys. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 7 '11 at 13:42
    
I think its too early to be saying "maybe he's gender confused... maybe he's gay" etc. The only one that seems reasonable is "maybe its a phase he'll grow out of." For some actual evidence (albeit anecdotal) see @Rory's answer. Like him, and the OP, my son went through the same phase at around that age (with no sister, but a very close girlfriend who he played with all the time and thought of as his sister). 2 years later he likes toy guns and trucks and star wars storm troopers. This is pretty normal. –  Justin Standard Apr 7 '11 at 18:39
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@Justin Standard: I don't think there's anything wrong with @WernerCD's use of "maybe...", because those things are possible. It's too early to tell, and maybe WernerCD should have stressed that it little more, but that doesn't mean that those options are necessarily not the case. –  RolandTumble Apr 7 '11 at 19:05
    
Agree, but it seems to be overly emphasized here, where I think what should be most emphasized is that it IS too early to tell. –  Justin Standard Apr 7 '11 at 19:29
    
WRT playing with other boys, he has 3 brothers and one sister. He has plenty of testosterone around him. And the other boys are definitely very much into boy stuff. –  Javid Jamae Apr 7 '11 at 20:26
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First of all, your 3 year old child isn't gay and this is perfectly normal. He's a tomgirl, like a tomboy, but only different. What makes me sad is that society views him as a freak, whereas it's perfectly normal for a little girl to wear pants, pretend to be a pirate, get into fist fights etc. Why isn't it okay for a boy to do the same?

I loved how you're handling this, and I understand you feel alone, but there are several other families out there with such kids. It's just a part of growing up.

I request you for your child's sake to read this amazing writer's experiences of raising her pink son. If anyone ever advises you to discipline him into the norm, then please show them this story. That story isn't unique and it pains me to know that thousands of children suffer for the crime of being different. For prejudices they don't even understand.

Thank you for reading this.

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As of this writing, there's nothing on this page to indicate we (presumed members of "society") view the child as a freak. Give "society" some credit! –  Jeromy French May 3 '13 at 15:17
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I have 2 girls, and another on the way. Whenever boys come over to play, the very, very first thing they will ALL do is to go into the play clothes/costume pile and dress up as princesses, Cinderella, Snow White, etc, etc, etc. I mean absolutely 100% all of them. There is absolutely nothing wrong in this at all, and the only problem at this stage, will arise if you continually make an issue out of it.

We have a French friend, whose son comes to play and always dresses up. He is getting more and more irritated by this (especially as he is a red-meat-eating, sport-playing 100%-heterosexual Frenchie) and when he catches the child the child gets severely reprimanded. All that happens now is that the son is doing it on the quiet, and I think more issues will be raised that way; keeping something in the closet was a phrase coined for this behavior.

Let them be kids, don't force them to do it behind your back, as you are (kind of) teaching them to hide participating in a fun activity. This can create deep issues with you instead of letting him move through this stage.

I don't like my girls biting their nails, so they don't - in front of me. Now they do it behind my back and know it is taboo. All I have taught them is if something isn't approved, you have to hide it. Shame on me.

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Children don't really understand about gender differences and sex before three. Even if they can identify "what girls have and what boys have". It is possible that your child isn't experimenting with gender at all and is experimenting with beauty and/or emulating female rolemodels (sister and mom). This was REALLY common with my three's class when I taught preschool.

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You should let your son play as he wishes. There is very little correlation between effeminate behaviour in boys and homosexuality. I am a happily married straight man who loves women. I prefer the company of women to that of men. I like art, music and science and have little interest in typical sports, even though I think I tried most of them as a child.

Before you say I'm a closet gay, let me assure you that I am not. Many people assume I'm gay and I've had plenty of opportunities to have relationships with men and my reaction is totally heterosexual. My fantasies are always of women. I've been with my wife for over 25 years.

I prefer my hair long, I like cats and poodles, I like sports cars and bicycles. I'm better at interior design than my wife and almost as good a cook. I don't watch professional sports and don't even know who won last year's World Series. I used to wear flamboyant versions of mens clothes, e.g.. a gold lamé shirt that I had my mother make for me because I don't sew, I do however know how to crochet.

As a child I was teased mercilessly by the other boys, but luckily the girls liked me, one even came to my defense and beat the crap out of one of the bullies (we were about 14 and she was a lot bigger than I was).

It's very difficult being different as a teenager, I was lucky in that I as good looking and very popular with the girls because we tended to share a lot of the same interests. For a couple of years I was interested in football, because my best friend was the captain of the cheerleading squad, and she and I went to most of the games.

Luckily I learned to moderate some of the outward signs to seem a bit more normal, cutting my hair more often, learning how to swear and learning a bit about team sports. But I still gravitate to the women as friends since they are usually easier to talk to, have similar interests, etc...

I wish you and your son all the best and a happy future.

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I'll give you a +1 if you provide some information to back up the claim that "There is very little correlation between effeminate behaviour in boys and homosexuality". –  Javid Jamae Jan 17 '13 at 22:42
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It's normal! I used to do this at that age and I am 15 now. I loved dancing to Cinderella and acting like her. I would get in my mom's shoes and her dresses. My dad was sooo worried about me thinking I was going to be gay. No, I am straight! It was just in his imagination. I used to love putting on makeup, wearing a wig, be a witch whenever it was Halloween. Embrace it! Very few families have this!

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One of the most important things is to make sure he has a strong male role model. Someone he can look up to and want to mimic.

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No. Google George Rekers and his failed methods on the subject of "sissy boys". Usually they included a boatload of parental abuse too. Anderson Cooper did a story on him too. –  Ernie Jun 26 '13 at 17:20
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I said a strong male role model, not an abusive parent. –  MasterZ Jun 27 '13 at 2:01
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You're doing great, but just know this:

Your son might be gay, but based on what you describe, it's more likely (if this behaviour continues well into his school years) he's transsexual. While some gay men have a tendency towards being effeminate, there's a difference between being effeminate and completely acting as if they're the opposite sex.

Consider yourself lucky that you're finding out now and not when he's 40, because gender reassignment is considerably easier before or at puberty than after, and trans people who are accepted and transition earlier are typically far less psychologically damaged than those who repress their feelings until they explode in the middle of a marriage with kids.

Really though, 3 years old isn't really the time to define this. At 6 or 8 or 10, it is. If your boy decides that he wants to go to Kindergarten dressed like a girl, then you can be reasonably certain that this is where his future is.

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Sorry - totally disagree. There is enough evidence the world over of some kids dressing in gender-opposite clothes all through school, and some even into adulthood, without transexuality or effemenism (sp?) coming into it at all. –  Rory Alsop Jun 26 '13 at 17:26
    
Sorry, boys who act like girls (especially in our culture, which reallyreallyreally discourages it, meaning that there are lots of incentives not to act this way, and thus demonstrates a strong willingness to continue this behaviour, as opposed to a passing fancy) in every way is pretty much the definition of gender dysphoria. That, and not being happy with being the gender you are. Again, only time will tell. The child is only 3. –  Ernie Jun 28 '13 at 18:09
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