The Gender Spectrum: Social pressure to act girly or macho is stronger than you'd think. By Brett Berk

Big changes are afoot in the ways parents address gender with their young kids. I’ve seen little boys pli’ at Boys Ballet, watched girls dig up cicadas at Bug Camp, and witnessed my niece’s friends playing Gay Wedding on their grade-school playground. Recent studies even indicate that two-to-six-year-olds are significantly less rigid about how they classify toys than they were twenty years ago, with modern boys being sufficiently liberated to believe that pretend phones and kitchen play-sets aren’t just for girls. 

But we all know that line about the more things change. In the midst of all this progress, there’s been a retrenching. Recent books instruct parents to celebrate their boys’ innate need for aggression and dominance. Girly Girl Camps have popped up in cities around the country, where young females can avoid all that grody sweating and running around, and revel in manicures and fashion shows. A Chicago summer program requires boys to sport a “masculine” hairstyle. And an Arkansas middle school mandates that girls wear a dress to their graduation.

Biology’s reins on our kids’ destinies have certainly slackened. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to figure out how to raise a healthy “boy” or “girl.” Even if you grew up with many of the choices available to kids today, responding to your child’s individual actions and desires can remain challenging: your daughter’s narcissistic obsession with her hairbrush; your son’s maddening drive to turn every object he picks up into a weapon. When her daughter asked for a pair of frilly Barbie slippers for her fourth birthday, my friend Clarisse responded with a Women’s Studies dissertation, ranting on about how she didn’t approve of Barbie because “she doesn’t look like a real woman.” Her daughter cocked her head. “She isn’t supposed to be a real woman, mommy. She isn’t a woman at all. She’s just a Barbie.”

Things can become even more confusing for parents when their children exhibit “gender-variant behavior” – actions that fall outside our traditional expectations for boys or girls. My friends Kate and Dylan are unambiguously supportive of my flamboyance (up to, say, the third martini), but responded differently to similar conduct in their three year-old son. It wasn’t that they were opposed, or looking for means to “correct” it. They were simply uncertain how or how much to react. Wearing pink marabou-tufted kitten heels around the house was deemed harmless. Wearing them to mommy’s hair appointments was cute; the guys at the salon loved it. But wearing them to school? “He cried that he wants to,” Kate told me, “but I thought, won’t it make him a target?”

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