Gender roles can be rigid and disruptive, especially for a child just trying to be who they are meant to be. It isn't an easy thing to navigate, as a parent, when your child wants to explore something outside of their prescribed gender role.
Dr. Laura Berman, leading sex and relationship educator, reminds us that it is important to remember the differences between gender and sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is based on sexual attraction and desire whereas gender separate attraction and related to how a person identifies on the inside. While many people identify as the gender they were born into (i.e. a woman who identifies as a woman), many people identify as the opposite sex, even from a young age (i.e. a man who has always felt as though he was truly a woman). These feelings can often be terrifying and confusing for the individual as our society generally discourages gender exploration. And the pressure to perform your physical gender starts even before we are born. Parents plan based on gender. If it’s a girl, they paint the nursery pink and they buy frilly outfits and princess-themed diapers. If it’s a boy, they paint the nursery blue and they buy trains and stuffed baseballs. See? Expectations already in place.
For kids who want explore their gender identity or for kids who are transgender, these expectations can be even more difficult. The poor kid is often left feeling like they have to hide who they are inside. Even the most well meaning parents sometimes don't know what to do either, becoming alarmed if their son wants to wear a dress, for example.
The good news? Gender exploration is normal and healthy. For many kids, putting on a dress or playing sports doesn't necessarily mean identifying as the opposite gender. Usually it is just a sign that they are more imaginative and playful than most adults. Dr Laura says, "If parents allow kids the freedom to play without shaming them or admonishing them, they can actually help to ensure that their children will grown up with confidence and with a strong sense of identity and belonging."
She also notes that if your child's gender exploration seems to go deeper than just play, it might be a good idea to talk to someone who can help you to be more supportive of your kid. You can visit a therapist in your area or reach out to a group such as GLADD or PFLAGG for tools or resources that can help you to better understand this sometimes confusing process.
When all is said and done, the most important thing you can do is make sure your child feels loved each step of their journey, no matter their gender identity.