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Can a Preschooler have Gender Confusion?

QUESTION: I have a daughter who is nearly four and a son who is 19-months-old. My daughter is difficult and can be whiny and irritable. My son, on the other hand, is a delightful child. I have tried so hard (and for the most part succeeded) to treat them equally. The problem is that I genuinely find that my son is more lovable than my daughter. I feel very guilty about this.

ANSWER: It is natural for preschool boys and girls to "dress up" to imitate either gender. At some point, most children (boys and girls alike!) do experiment with traditional "female" attire. After all, mothers are important people in their lives and they are women. It is understandable that your son will emulate the gender he is most in contact with at this period in his life, in order to incorporate some of the positive qualities represented.

Women remain the major caretakers for young children. Perhaps this is why it is more common to see boys dress up as girls, than girls as boys. Do not charge your son's behavior with anxious interpretations. He is not "obsessed". He is playing!

It is common for three-year-old boys to adopt a role for a period of time, calling themselves "Batman" , "Robin" or even "Cinderella" whether or not they are wearing the costume. Pretending to be the opposite sex is not a sign of gender confusion. It is more likely to be a part of the process of finding their identity by trying on different qualities represented by the roles they play.

Cinderella could engender the qualities of kindness or nurturing or simply an identification with being "good." Identification with the feminine can add to a boy's growing identity. But preschoolers must try these identities on in a concrete manner. That is what their play is all about.

Consider, too, that your son's personality may not fit into the stereotypical cowboy or power ranger. We must be careful to accept a full range of attributes for boys, including softness and nurturing, if we are not to fall into the trap of what William Pollack in his book, "Real Boys" calls the "boy code." Putting our sons in a gender straitjacket can suppress emotions and stimulate violence as the only acceptable male expression for feelings.

The "Cinderella" fairy tale also includes the theme of rescue and protection against evil so common at this stage of development. Rescue themes help children work through the ever-present reality that , as small children, they are vulnerable. Playing out the characters of these fairy tales can help a child work through fears, whether it is a wicked witch or an evil stepmother who is defeated. And who wouldn't want to clop around in those pretty glass slippers for awhile?

Self directed play helps your child build his identity and work through everyday anxieties. Suppressing his needs in this regard will likely result in shame, rather than mastery. Accept and support your son's play. Allow him to incorporate what he needs from this Cinderella period.

You are an important person in his life. Keep in mind that your approval of him will contribute to his sense of pride, while your disapproval is likely to undermine his self confidence.

Remember, this is only PLAY!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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