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Answering Parents’ Questions on Gender Confusion in Children

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To be human is to be gendered — male or female. And one of the most important jobs of a parent is to help their children develop as healthy boys or girls and into strong, confident men and women.

At the news of every child’s birth, what is the first question we ask about the baby — even before we ask if the baby is healthy? We want to know if it’s a boy or girl!

Knowing the sex of the child is the first way we seek to connect with and understand the new human being. To be human is to be gendered — male or female. And one of the most important jobs of a parent is to help their children develop as healthy boys or girls and into strong, confident men and women.

Here are answers to some of the biggest questions parents have about gender issues with their children:

Is it normal and healthy for young children to participate in cross-sex behavior?

Of course! The whole world of a child is exploration. The role of the parent is to make sure their children explore and learn about their world in safe and directed ways. My son has four sisters, and when he was very small he loved to play dress up with his sisters, even in their own dresses and sparkly shoes. This is fine at 2 years old. Not so much at 8 years old! It is important for parents to not overreact to such behavior but to slowly guide it in gender-proper directions. That is how kids learn.

Remember, most little boys and girls have never been men or women before, and they need both mother and father to show them what being one is like, as well as what it is not!

Is “tomboy” behavior in girls just as concerning as “sissy-girl” behavior in boys?

There are important differences here. Tomboy behavior in girls is more prevalent and often more short-lived than distinct feminine behavior in boys. It is more important for parents to lovingly, calmly but confidently steer fem-boys into more masculine directions. Make sure you find masculine things your boy is interested and can find identification in. All boys need to be intentionally welcomed into the world of men, and both mother and father play a key role here. Girls, likewise, need to be introduced into the world of women.

It is also important for parents to recognize that “tomboy” girls are much less likely to be teased for various reasons than “sissy” boys. Of course, teasing is always wrong, but parents must be aware of what things are more likely to attract harsh teasing and steer their children away from it.

What about boys or girls who display strong cross-sex behavior in pre-adolescence?

There are some children who, as they grow, will demonstrate stronger cross-sex behavior. Some of these boys will be obsessed with mermaids, frilly girl things and long hair. It is important for parents and extended family to look not just at the child, but the family system itself. Such behavior is typically a curious indicator of deeper problems within the family.

Dr. Kenneth Zucker, one of the world’s leading authorities on gender confusion in children, calls this dynamic “family noise” which he explains as unhealthy relationships between mother and father, parents and child, as well as sibling to sibling. He says allowing a boy to live as a girl might solve the immediate anxiety of such a child, but it would ignore the larger problem driving such desire, and it fails to serve the child and the family.

Is it true that cross-sex behavior and transgenderism in children have a biological root in the brain?

In a word, no!

New developments in brain research indicate that the human brain develops with distinct male and female characteristics, but there is no data showing this drives cross-gender behavior.

  • A 2014 book for clinicians, Treating Transgender Children and Adolescents, explains, in academic parlance, “No unequivocal etiological factor [i.e. causal root] determining atypical gender development has been found to date.” Translation: We’re just not sure what causes it.

    These Dutch authors explain that both brain and genetic factors could be contributors to gender dysphoria, but caution “this research is still very limited and the findings are sometimes inconsistent.” Although, “With the current state of knowledge, it remains most plausible that a complex interaction between a biological disposition in combination with intra- and interpersonal factors” are contributors.”Annelou L. C. de Vries and Peggy T. Cohen-Kettenis, “Clinical Management of Gender Dysphoria in Children and Adolescents: The Dutch Approach” in Treating Transgender Children and Adolescents: An Interdisciplinary Discussion, Jack Drescher and William Byne, (eds.) (Routledge, 2014), p. 10, 11.

  • Dr. Zucker explains, “Gender dysphoria (confusion) is increasingly understood [by some]…as having biological origins [in] small parts of the brain. In terms of empirical data, this is not true. It is just dogma.” Quoted in Hannah Rosin, “A Boy’s Life,” Atlantic Monthly, November 2008, p. 67.

  • Professor Eric Vilain, a UCLA geneticist specializing in sexual development, recently explained to the Atlantic Monthly that, “there is no evidence of biological influence on transsexualism yet.” If we ever do find some hard-wired biological component for gender identity, he says, “my hunch is, it’s going to be mild.”Quoted in Hannah Rosin, “A Boy’s Life,” Atlantic Monthly, November 2008 He indicates that family factors play a key role.

What is the best course for helping children who are gender confused?

It should be remembered that very few children who demonstrate gender confused behavior continue to do so in their later teen years or early adulthood. Most grow out of it and learn to live well in their masculinity or femininity. This fact also speaks against a biological foundation.

It is critical that both mother and father work together to provide loving but intentional direction. For boys, the mother should be the one to “push” the child from feminine behavior, and the father should “pull” the boy toward more masculine play and interests. One of the worst things is for dad to “shame” the boy for girl-like behavior. He should always work to welcome his son into the curious world of men. That is how healthy masculine identity happens.

Harvard professor Jerome Kagan has spent 4 decades studying such children and he finds that parenting style is critical for helping children move out of gender confusion. Kagan says parents who are particularly affirming of their children’s cross-sex identification ultimately have the worst outcomes in child health and well-being.Leonard Sax, M.D. Ph.D., Why Gender Matters, (New York: Doubleday, 2005), p. 227.

With children showing opposite-sex tendencies, mothers should deeply and carefully guard against overprotection and coddling, while fathers should guard against shaming and nagging. Again, mothers should become the pushers away from gender-discordant behavior and fathers the gentle pullers toward healthy gender-aligned attitudes and behaviors.

(NOTE: Referrals to Web sites not produced by Focus on the Family are for informational purposes only and does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of the sites’ content.)

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