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Non-conforming gender play


Johnny’s favorite color is pink and he loves to play with princesses. Mary would rather play with a football than a Barbie doll.

SheKnows checks in with experts to see if this means your child’s sexual identity might already be determined and how to support and foster your child’s desires.

Gender vs. sexual identity

Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., director of the Mental Health, Child and Adolescent Gender Center in San Francisco and author of Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children notes that gender and sexual identity are indeed quite different.

Check out these tips to answer young kids’ sex questions >>

She says, “Gender expression, including what toys a child plays with, along with gender identity are completely separate from sexual identity. Think of them as two separate tracks that occasionally cross. While it is true that some children who express interest in cross-gender activities may grow up to be gay, many others will not. There is no way to know that when your child is very young.”

Read one mom’s journey to find gender neutral imaginative play toys >>

Nurture gender health

Ehrensaft also notes that parents really cannot control their child’s gender or sexual identity nor should they try to. Rather, they do have a large influence over — and an opportunity to nurture — their child’s gender and sexual health.

In this vein, she notes, “Rather than being ‘concerned’ that your child might be gay, it would be best to keep in mind that this could be a possibility someday — a possibility to be celebrated if that should come to be because that will be the true self of your child. Like with playing with opposite gender toys — if you do not celebrate it, your child would suffer from feeling unloved and rejected by the very people who are the most important in his or her life — his or her parents.”

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Jason Evan Mihalko, Psy.D, licensed Psychologist with a private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts advises, “Children engage in all sorts of play to examine adult activities such as relationships, care-giving, work and creativity. Children play to process and understand their emotions whether it be love, joy, anger, rage or guilt. Parents need to be encouraging their children to play in a variety of ways so that the fullness of the human experience can be safely explored. It does not make good sense to limit play to some artificially created notion of what is girls play and what is boys play.”?

Loving advice

To help foster a healthy child regardless of gender or sexuality, Dr. Fran Walfish, child, teen, parent and family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building A Better Bond with Your Child offers the following tips:

  • Be kind to your kids. How we treat our children sets the model for how they will treat others.
  • Create an open discussion. Talking is the glue that holds relationships together.
  • Balance love/nurture with setting/holding boundaries. ?
  • Build self-esteem by using words that support and motivate, rather than criticize. ?
  • Equip your children with coping skills to deal with disappointment.

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