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4 year old boy prefers girly clothing

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Dr. Laura,

My son is going to turn 4 in a week. He's always had a very active imagination. Our concern is that he is still pretending that he is a girl characters at times. I recently picked him up from daycare and he was wearing a princess dress and some of the older kids were making fun of him. He does also pretend to be different superheroes such as Thor etc. He also wants to play with princess dolls etc. I'm just not really sure how to handle all of this and my husband is having somewhat of a rough time with it. He is doing the best he can with it. I love my son no matter what, but it breaks my heart when I hear other kids making fun of him. We did explain to him that some boys don't want to play with girl toys and so when he is with the neighbor boys he plays superheroes and soccer.

Thank you!


Dear Clav,

I think you have four issues here:

1. What does your son's strong interest in girly things mean?

2. How can you manage your own worrisome thoughts about this?

3. How can you help your son socially?

4. How can you help his dad deal with the "rough time" he is having about his son not being who he wants him to be?

Let's take these in turn.

1. What does your son's strong interest in girly things mean?

MANY four year old boys play princess. Many say pink is their fave color. This is natural and normal, as much as when girls reject princesses and pink in favor of soccer and pirates. As parents become less dictatorial about conventional gender roles, boys are feeling more free to explore. That's a good thing.

Now, does this mean your son will be a cross-dresser for the rest of his life? Unlikely. Certainly some four year old boys who only want to wear pink will be gay or transgender. However, most won't. And the question isn't really relevant. If your son IS gay, then he was born that way, and forbidding him to play princess won't change his being gay, it will only make him feel bad about himself.

If your son were being rigid about this preference and ONLY wanted to play princess, I would worry, simply because any rigidity is a sign that we are defending against some big feeling that we need help with. A boy who is rigid about his girlish identification may be reacting negatively to being male, for instance, and needs help with those feelings so that he can feel good about his body and himself. So your comment to your son about the other kids not liking the same games was perfect, both to test his flexibility and to help him socially. Since he's comfortable playing superhero and soccer, we can assume that he doesn't have any negative feelings about being a boy to work out, and we can just enjoy his freedom to explore.

2. How can you manage your own worrisome thoughts about this?

First, you acknowledge them. What are you worried about? That your son might be gay? What would be so bad about that? Would it make him any less lovable to you? Would it make his life any less fulfilling?

I would say it should not change a thing, and if this is indeed your worry, then I'd advise you to get to know some parents who have gay sons, and start working on your own fears. But you are indicating that your fears lie elsewhere, such as your son becoming a social pariah.

3. How can you help your son socially?

You can help him, just as you did with your previous comment, to navigate his social world, by sharing your observations without judgment: "Those boys love soccer and superhero, they don't seem to like to play princess." You can also point out when the cashier at the grocery store seems to be having a hard time with his gender-bending. As long as your love and acceptance of him comes through, he will not hear your comments as a judgment about him. These comments will empower him to notice his effect in the world, and to make choices that feel good to him.

At some point, if he is getting a lot of negative feedback from the outside world, you can raise the question of whether it would feel less stressful to him to just play princess at home. Again, your ability to speak from your love rather than your fear is critical in this discussion. Shame won't help him. Your goal is to empower him to make choices that he comfortable with, that lead to consequences he can handle.

4. How can you help his dad deal with the "rough time" he is having about his son not being who he wants him to be?

First, get Dad talking about his fears. Let him express them and explore them. Most of our fears evaporate when exposed to the light of reason and love. Is he worried his son isn't manly? Well, what does manly mean? Research shows that young men who are more emotionally intelligent have better relationships with young women. Of course, playing princess won't make him more emotionally intelligent, but playing with girls might. Is Dad worried his son will be gay? Again, what's wrong with that? AND forbidding pink won't change that innate sexual preference. AND this is hardly a predictive indicator.

There was an article about this in the NYT recently, in which parents talk about their challenge in supporting their sons who love playing princess. I recommend you print out a copy for your husband and discuss it together.

Bottom line, our ability to support our children with the unconditional love they need depends on our ability to manage our own fears. You and your husband need a chance to express your fears, to explore them, to rise above them. You may want to see a counselor, not to fix your son, but so that you can get past your own fear to your deep love for your son. Or you might be able to do this by talking with each other, or with a close friend who is able to just accept and let you talk, without making suggestions. Whatever path you choose, I urge you to find non-judgmental support so that you can offer your son the support and unconditional love he needs. And I wish you every blessing.

Dr. Laura

Wondering about the research behind Dr. Laura's advice here? Some references for further reading:

Balthazart, J. (2012). Brain development and sexual orientation. Colloquium Series on the Developing Brain, Morgan & Claypool Publishers.

“Many sexually differentiated behaviors are organized during early life by an irreversible action of sex steroids. In particular, the preference for a male or female sex partner is largely determined in rodents by embryonic exposure to sex steroids. The early action of these steroids also seems to affect sexual orientation in humans. Indeed, clinical conditions associated with major endocrine changes during embryonic life often result in an increased incidence of homosexuality. Furthermore, multiple sexually differentiated behavioral, physiological, or even morphological traits that are known to be organized by prenatal steroids, at least in animals, are significantly different in homo- and heterosexual populations. Thus, prenatal endocrine (or genetic) factors seem to influence significantly human sexual orientation even if a large fraction of the variance remains unexplained to date. The possible interaction between biological factors acting prenatally and postnatal social influences remains to be investigated.”

Burri, A., Cherkas, L., Spector, T. & Rahman, Q. (2011). Genetic and environmental influences on female sexual orientation, childhood gender typicality and adult gender identity, PLOS ONE 6(7): e21982.

Garcia-Falgueras A, Swaab DF. (2010). “Sexual hormones and the brain: an essential alliance for sexual identity and sexual orientation.” Endocrine Development. Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

“The fetal brain develops during the intrauterine period in the male direction through a direct action of testosterone on the developing nerve cells, or in the female direction through the absence of this hormone surge. In this way, our gender identity (the conviction of belonging to the male or female gender) and sexual orientation are programmed or organized into our brain structures when we are still in the womb. However, since sexual differentiation of the genitals takes place in the first two months of pregnancy and sexual differentiation of the brain starts in the second half of pregnancy, these two processes can be influenced independently, which may result in extreme cases in trans-sexuality. This also means that in the event of ambiguous sex at birth, the degree of masculinization of the genitals may not reflect the degree of masculinization of the brain. There is no indication that social environment after birth has an effect on gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Frankowski, Barbara L. and Committee on Adolescence. (2004). “Sexual Orientation and AdolescentsPediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Human sexual orientation most likely exists as a continuum from solely heterosexual to solely homosexual. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association reclassified homosexuality as a sexual orientation or expression and not a mental disorder. The mechanisms for the development of a particular sexual orientation remain unclear, but the current literature and most scholars in the field state that one’s sexual orientation is not a choice; that is, individuals do not choose to be homosexual or heterosexual.
A variety of theories about the influences on sexual orientation have been proposed. Sexual orientation probably is not determined by any one factor but by a combination of genetic, hormonal, and environmental influences. In recent decades, biologically based theories have been favored by experts.”

King, Michael. (2007). “Submission to the Church of England’s Listening Exercise on Human Sexuality.” Royal College of Psychiatrists.

“Despite almost a century of psychoanalytic and psychological speculation, there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person’s fundamental heterosexual or homosexual orientation. It would appear that sexual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of genetic factors and the early uterine environment. Sexual orientation is therefore not a choice, though sexual behaviour clearly is…In conclusion the evidence would suggest that there is no scientific or rational reason for treating LGB people any differently to their heterosexual counterparts.”

Malory, Marcia. “Homosexuality & Choice: Are Gay People 'Born This Way?'” The Huffington Post. Posted 10/23/2012.

Whitam, F.L., Diamond, M. & Martin J. (1993). "Homosexual Orientation in Twins: A Report on 61 Pairs and Three Triplet Sets"

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