Not all little boys will have GI Joe and Tonka Trucks on their holiday wish lists. Some may have their eye on the Easy-Bake Oven and Barbie. So much for snips and snails and puppy dog tails.
But while parents of so-called gentle boys may be accepting of feminine behaviors in their child, the question of future sexual orientation is likely to be on their minds.
Yet experts say there's little reason to believe that feminine play is a precursor to homosexuality in boys. Moreover, they say, sexual orientation is not really what concerns them. What does concern them are issues of gender confusion that may surface due to deeper psychological problems in the child.
"There is no support for the idea that any behavior will 'cause' sexual preference to move one direction or another," says child development specialist Judith Myers-Walls, an associate professor at Purdue University in Indiana. "Sexual preference seems to be determined independently of actions or experiences."
Myers-Walls points out that behaviors such as playing with dolls or playing house do not cause a boy to become gay, just as those same activities do not cause a girl to become heterosexual. "In most cases, it is not possible to tell a child's sexual orientation until at least adolescence."
Gender Identity Disorder
While experts say that displaying some degree of gender atypical behavior is quite common in children, excessive cross-gender behaviors could indicate a child is experiencing gender identity disorder.
Gender identity disorder is a psychological disorder in which the child may express a repeated desire to "be" the other sex or to exclusively spend time with the opposite sex.
David Sandberg, an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Buffalo, explains that when a boy's interest in female items and activities is "persistent and pervasive" and, most importantly, when there is an aversion to male behaviors, a diagnosis of GID may be warranted.
For example, a child may exhibit a strong preference for cross-dressing, cross-sex roles in play and playmates of the opposite sex. "We're not talking about a boy who plays with his Fisher-Price cooking set and also has his GI Joe," says Sandberg.
William Pollack, a psychologist and child behavior expert at Harvard Medical School, emphasizes GID is not just a matter of interest in feminine play but more a lack of interest in typically "boy things."
Pollack stresses that a boy playing with dolls is "absolutely normal." And even if the boy would rather play with Barbie over GI Joe regularly, it's still normal. The distinction, says Pollack, is if the child says, "I don't like being a boy" or "I want to be a girl."
Parents should be concerned about such desires because they may indicate underlying problem such as depression, self-esteem or self-development issues.
Most important, say experts, is for parents to be accepting of their boy's sensitive side. And rather than forbidding feminine behavior or forcing a boy to participate in stereotypically masculine activities, a better strategy for parents is to allow their child to play as the youngster wishes while watching for signs of GID.
If parents try to control play, Sandberg says, "kids may resent their parents and take this as a fundamental criticism of who they are."