How can we be sure that our young son will grow up to be a healthy, fully masculine man? He's only five years old, but his mother and I are already concerned about certain aspects of his behavior and temperament. He avoids loud, rough-and-tumble play, and so far he hasn't shown much interest in team sports and other typical boyhood activities. To make matters worse, I've occasionally noticed him playing "house" and "dress up" with his sisters. In that context, I've even seen him put on a dress! What do you think? Is he becoming effeminate? Do you think he might even grow up to be a homosexual?
This is a very delicate issue, and as a result it's not easy to give you a simplistic, straightforward answer. The concerns you've expressed are reflective of a two-sided challenge many parents of boys face.
On the one hand, Mom and Dad need to be aware of and guard against the danger of embracing an overly narrow definition of masculinity. To be a man is not simply to be a clone of John Wayne or Arnold Schwarzenegger. There are, in fact, almost as many different ways of being a healthy male as there are boys and men in the world, some of which entail gentle strength, soft-spokenness, awareness of beauty, and benevolent sensitivity to the feelings of others. A wise parent looks for ways to nurture a boy's special inborn inclinations so that he can grow into the unique man God intended him to be, whether that means a linebacker, a veterinarian, or a gourmet chef.
On the other hand, it's important that every boy receive a certain amount of guidance and gentle nudging in the direction of developing solid masculine traits. The amount required will vary from individual to individual. While biology designates a child as either male or female, children aren't born knowing what it means to fully embrace and express this design. Boys in particular need a lot of careful and considerate teaching and training, especially from Dad and the other men in their lives, if they're to grow up to be healthy, well-rounded adult males.
From a certain perspective, then, your concerns are well-placed. You do have a responsibility to train up your son to become a good man, whatever that might mean in his particular case. At the same time, you don't want to shame him, slap a label on him, or overreact to behaviors and temperamental tendencies which, at five years of age, may mean very little, if anything at all. Such overreaction – for example, saying to your son, "No more 'playing house' for you, young man!" or "Don't ever let me catch you wearing a dress again!" – could actually have the effect of forcing the issue and focusing his attention on "problems" that don't really exist. All of this could turn out to be tragically counterproductive.
At what point, then, should you become seriously concerned about the possibility that your son may be exhibiting "effeminate tendencies"? What kinds of behaviors or attitudes might indicate that he has a genuine problem in this area? We'd respond that it's important to keep an eye out for persistent extremes. Look for marked antipathy to or fear of the male sex, over-the-top caricaturing of female behavior and speech patterns (kids often act out what they can't express in words), and an intense and obvious desire to identify with women and girls. In his book A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi says that there are five tell-tale signs of gender non-conformity to watch for:
- When a boy rigidly insists that he is a girl and holds fast to this idea over an extended period of time.
- When a boy shows a strong, inflexible, and persistent unwavering preference for playmates of the opposite sex.
- When a boy consistently and inflexibly assumes cross-sexual roles in make-believe play.
- When a boy displays an intense desire to participate in the stereotypical games and pastimes of the other sex.
- When a boy persistently or habitually engages in cross dressing, especially after the age of three.
To this we would add that family dynamics can often play an important role in the genesis of gender non-conformity or gender dysphoria. A boy who reacts against his biological sex-assignment and manifests this reaction in his behavior can sometimes be acting as a messenger or "symptom-bearer" for the rest of the family – or at the very least, indicating extra-familial stressors that he's absorbed from his world in some way. Whether he realizes it or not, he's calling attention to deeper issues embedded within the fabric of his environment in which he is growing. In essence, he's issuing a wake-up call to other members of the household. In such instances, the best plan of action is to get the entire family into family-systems counseling. This way the family and the entire context surrounding a child, including factors beyond the immediate borders of the home, can be considered. As the hidden needs are brought to light and dealt with, the behavior usually corrects itself of its own accord.
Gender non-conformity can also be a mechanism for coping with trauma. If you see any of the indicators we mention in your child's behavior, it would be a good idea to ask yourself if they might be connected in some way with a recent crisis. Are you and your wife struggling in your marriage? Has there been a death or a serious illness in the family? Has something happened to place unaccustomed strain on your son's relationships with family members, friends, teachers, or peers? If so, a sudden and intense interest in "becoming a girl" could simply be his way of escaping the pain or signaling some other facet of emotional connection or expression which is legitimately needed.
If the case isn't so severe – if your boy is merely quiet and retiring and exhibits no obvious desire to identify with the opposite sex – you may need to reconcile yourself to the fact that his temperament simply doesn't fit some of our culture's most popular masculine stereotypes. That's okay. In his book Galen's Prophecy, author Jerome Kagan examines the role of temperament in human nature and advances the theory that some boys come into the world with a tendency to be fearful, shy, reactive, and overly sensitive to perceived threats. With the right kind of training, says Kagan, even these youngsters can be steered in the direction of harnessing their energy and talents and growing toward resolute, confident, and productive manhood. It's purely a matter of providing them with the security and affirmation they need in order to overcome their anxious tendencies.
Here at Focus on the Family we have a staff of trained family therapists available to provide you with sound advice and practical assistance over the phone. If you'd like to discuss your concerns with one of them, you can call our Counseling department for a free consultation.