It's normal for kids to explore opposite-gender roles

By Sara Curtis on May 02, 2012
When David Pelletier was young, there was only one thing to do during the winter in his hometown of Sayabec, a small community of about 1,800 in Eastern Quebec: skate. For most of the boys, that meant hockey, and for the girls it meant figure skating. For David, it meant both. And the figure skating part meant that he took his share of heat from his hockey-playing contemporaries.

"I got teased from the time I was very little all the way until the end of high school," he says. "At first it was just boys being boys, but then it turned into bullying. There was a guy who used to wait for me after class every day, and walked home behind me with his buddy, making fun of me all the way. But I just ignored it. What else could I do?" David, of course, had the last laugh, eventually winning a gold medal at the 2002 Olympics in pairs skating with his partner Jamie Salé.

But for many boys who like activities traditionally associated with girls – such as figure skating or ballet – the story includes the bullying but not the gold medal. And it can leave parents wondering if their son's interests will open him up to bullying. Some might ask if it's "normal" or if it means their son might be gay or gender confused.

Most experts agree that by about the age of five, most children have developed a strong identification with their gender and tend to gravitate towards more traditionally gender-specific toys and activities. But it is also completely normal for kids to experiment with opposite-gender roles well into school age. In fact, it's probably a sign that their parents have been open and nurturing, and have provided them with opportunities to explore all kinds of interests beyond the typical "boy" or "girl" play. This experimentation is not an indication of a child's future sexual orientation.

But there's no denying that society has evolved to allow girls to enjoy and even excel at "boy" activities such as hockey and other sports, more so than the reverse. So no matter how open-minded a boy's parents are, there will be withering looks and concerned comments from friends, family members and even strangers if your son prefers Barbie to Lego.

Let your gut guide you: if your son is happy, if he plays well with other children, enjoys school and other social situations, and feels comfortable in his own skin, then he's on the right track to becoming a happy adult.

And who knows, maybe a gold medal.

Storm of Controversy

We all want our children to grow up being accepted for who they are. For one Toronto couple, that meant removing any gender stereotyping from the equation right from the beginning. When Kathy Witterick and David Stocker's child, Storm, was born in January 2011, they decided to conceal the baby's gender from everyone (except their two older sons, the two midwives who attended the delivery, and one close family friend).

Their decision, they told their friends and family in an email, was "a tribute to freedom and choice, in place of limitation". They have said that their two older sons have been subject to criticism for things like wearing their hair long and in braids, and painting their fingernails, and they wanted to allow Storm to grow up without those societal constraints.

A lengthy interview with the couple in the Toronto Star last May ignited controversy, with some people calling their decision narcissistic and even abusive, and others lauding their bravery. When the story started to gain traction on American talk television, the couple retreated from the media.

A spate of tragic stories about gender-based bullying last December prompted the family to weigh in on Storm's progress as Storm's first birthday approached. Still only seven people knew the baby's gender and the family told the Star they were even more confident in their decision to keep Storm's gender private.

Originally published in ParentsCanada, April 2012

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