Should we be worried about our little boy's sexual identity? He's still very young, but he likes to play store and draw pictures all day long, and he can't throw a ball three feet. Is he turning into a "sissy?" What can we do to help him develop a healthy sense of his masculinity?
There are some easily recognizable behaviors that may indicate that a boy is failing to embrace his masculinity. For example, playing exclusively with girls; avoiding other boys and men; consistently taking a female role in games and play; and cross-dressing. If these indicators are strong and continually present, it's likely your son needs some assistance.
More extreme cases, in which a boy has a definite and persistent unwillingness to accept his male identity ("I'm not a boy! I want to be a girl!"), are uncommon and require formal evaluation by a professional who is qualified to deal with behavioral and identity issues in children. Be sure, however, to find out where the therapist stands on this issue. Don't entrust your son to a counselor who will affirm and encourage his rejection of his own maleness and masculinity.
There is no precise agreement among child-development experts as to how a boy grows into a healthy sense of his masculinity. But we do know that parents are a vital part of the process. If a boy gets plenty of attention and approval from loving adults of both sexes, he should develop a basic attitude of trust, self-worth and a healthy sense of being comfortable with his gender. Much of how a child thinks about himself and the other sex is established during the early years of emotional bonding with Mom and Dad.
That said, we should add that while both parents are important, dads play a unique role in a boy's development. A male infant begins life in close contact with his mother. Later he makes the leap to identifying with his father. From there he moves on to participation in the larger "boyhood community" of his male peers. Each piece of the puzzle is important, and the entire process takes place over an extended period of time.
Some boys opt out of the rough-and-tumble, sports-centered world of so-called "masculine" pursuits. This doesn't necessarily mean that they are going to develop same-sex attractions or view themselves as girls. A boy doesn't have to play sports, work on cars or engage in other stereotypical male activities to become a man. On the other hand, learning to be comfortable with same-sex peers is essential to healthy development.
This last thought leads naturally to the question of how we define masculinity. It's important to realize that many of the outward signs we associate with healthy sexual identity are primarily cultural in origin. Masculinity is much broader than one culture's expression of it; at its core, it's about initiating, self-sacrifice, speaking the truth, giving, protecting, defending, and reaching out to others. Here are some suggestions of things you can do to help your son develop this fundamentally masculine orientation toward life:
- Give him opportunities to spend quality time with affirming adults of both sexes. A boy needs to be affirmed as a male as he is, even if his form of expression doesn't fit his parents' preconceived notions of masculinity.
- Dad should make an effort to enter into his son's world. If the child likes books and drawing, his father should make it clear that these are also "cool things for guys to do."
- Take steps to introduce him to the world of boys and men. This may require gentle strength and persistence – especially if a boy feels hurt and angry and has for this reason rejected his father. It also means enlisting other healthy boys and men to be part of your life and your son's life.
- Make appropriate corrections as needed. For example, if a boy has decided to see how he might look in a dress and makeup, parents can and should calmly set house rules about attire, just as they do about other everyday activities. This should be done without browbeating, shaming, anger, ridicule or sarcasm.
- Work together as a team. If you and your spouse are not on the same page, you may want to seek professional marriage counseling. Once your relationship is on a firmer footing, you'll be in a better position to raise a healthy child.
- Encourage Dad to work on his own insecurities about masculinity. Most men have some struggles with their own masculine identity. A father can't pass on what he doesn't have, so working with other men to achieve healing in this area would be helpful to him in dealing with a son who is also struggling.
- If Dad is absent, Mom should enlist the help of other safe and healthy men. These could be relatives, friends or church members who are willing to reach out in love and meet her son's need for masculine companionship.
- Ask God for wisdom and help. Our Father loves us and is gracious to provide insight, wisdom, healing and encouragement.
If you would like further help and to discuss these principles at greater length with a member of our staff, feel free to give Focus on the Family's Counseling Department a call.