You don’t necessarily want to stop it – at least not at this very early stage in your son’s development. But you do want to monitor the situation carefully and make sure that he “hits the off-ramp” at the right time.
At three years of age children possess only the most rudimentary awareness of issues like sexuality and their own sexual identification. They realize that boys and girls are different, but the hows, whys, and wherefores of those differences haven’t yet registered on their radar. They aren’t thinking about appropriate male and female dress or behavior at this point in time. That will come later. Their major concern right now is to get in on the fun. A three-year-old boy who plays dress-up with his older sisters is probably doing it simply because that’s what’s going on at the moment, and he wants to be part of the action. For him, it’s a way of relating to his sisters and interacting with them within the context of their world. (It would be a different story, of course, if there were no sisters in the picture.)
For the time being, then, we don’t think you have anything to worry about. If this behavior continues and becomes a pattern as your son gets older – up through ages four, five, and six – you will probably want to step in and do something about it. But you should be aware that the issue usually resolves itself without any parental intervention. You should also remember that this is largely a question of nuance. A situation like this has to be evaluated strictly in relation to your child and your unique family configuration. There’s nothing black-and-white or hard-and-fast about it, nor is there any room here for comparison with other kids. So trust your instincts. You will probably have a good sense of whether you’re dealing with a serious problem or not.
Meanwhile, it might also be a good idea to pay attention to the level of your son’s enthusiasm for this kind of play. If you get the sense that its original purpose – connecting with his sisters – is taking a backseat to some kind of pure enjoyment in wearing frilly clothes, it may be time to start steering him in a different direction. There’s no need to make a fuss. Instead, when the dress-up clothes come out, ask your son if he wouldn’t like to play a different kind of character this time around – a cowboy, for instance, or a fireman or a knight. Dad could take the initiative by saying something like, “When I was your age I loved to dress up as a safari hunter.” Don’t overreact. Just give him the gentle guidance he requires.
We should underscore that Mom and Dad need to be on the same page here. Together, the two of you can provide healthy play-time alternatives for your boy, but you need to bear in mind that each of you has a different role to play in the process. Generally speaking Mom should be the “corrector” – the one who tells her son, “Boys don’t behave like that.” Dad, on the other hand, should take the part of the “inviter” – the one who gently entices and encourages his son to enter into the adventurous world of manhood side by side with his father. It’s important, too, to stay aware of the potential pitfalls associated with these respective roles: Mom may be tempted to coddle her boy too much, while Dad may easily fall into the trap of being too hard on him. You can avoid these twin errors by making a conscious effort to balance each other out. Remember, parenting a boy successfully is an art, not a science.
If you’d like to discuss this situation at greater length with a member of our staff, contact Focus on the Family’s Counseling department for a free consultation.
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Secure Daughters, Confident Sons: How Parents Guide Their Children into Authentic Masculinity & Femininity
Nurturing a Healthy Gender Identity in Your Child
National Center for Fathering
John Rosemond: Parenting with Love and Leadership
Your Child’s Personality