Boys Will Be Boys? Not in These Families.
by Jan Hoffman
A 3 ½-year-old named Harry was playing at home in Los Angeles recently when his father walked in with a Target shopping bag. Inside was a special gift for the little boy: a sparkly princess Barbie doll.
“You could hear the gasp of excitement,” recounted Harry’s mother, Lee. “It just made his whole world.”
A year ago, Harry found Barbies abandoned by his two older sisters. He makes sure they are properly outfitted and worshipped regularly. The girls’ cast-off dress-up clothes have become his go-to outfits. And when he arrives at preschool each morning, he selects a dress from the costume box and wears it through recess, even as he scrambles on the jungle gym.
At first, Harry’s father had a hard time watching his son twirl around in princess wear. But his gift of the Barbie symbolized acceptance; Harry’s joyous gasp indicated that the little boy intuitively understood. “We are following his lead and supporting him for who he wants to be,” said Lee, who, like other parents interviewed for this article, did not want to be fully identified in order to protect their children.
For generations, parents who saw their toddler boys put on tutus or play with dolls would either ignore the behavior as a phase, or reflexively repress it. But in recent years, more parents have chosen the approach taken by Harry’s mother and father. Rather than looking away, they are trying to understand their toddler’s unconventional gender behavior, in order to support it and prepare for what they fear could be a life of challenges.
“Is my 4-year-old gay?” read postings on parenting Web sites that offer strings of advice that can, by turns, be acidly dismissive or thoughtfully engaging.
The dialogue represents a new direction. “Ten years ago, the gender and sexual meaning of young children’s behavior was only discussed by a small handful of developmental psychologists,” said Arlene Istar Lev, a family therapist in Albany. “Children who expressed that were silenced and their parents were ashamed of them: ‘You will not walk out of the house that way.’ ”
Now, Ms. Lev said, “parents want to be supportive and that’s what is new. A generation of parents is developing a philosophy of encouraging their children: ‘Sweetie, let’s talk about this.”
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