As a child, I was a tomboy. I didn't own a dress until I was almost 11, and bought one only because my school demanded I wear one to my sixth-grade graduation. My parents, with little more than an occasional wistful comment, let me wear whatever I wanted.
I have tried to keep the same open mind about gender and dress with my own kids. I've been perfectly comfortable watching my daughters make choices similar to my own, opting for jeans and T-shirts over skirts and dresses. But the real test came when my daughters dressed their 4-year-old brother in girls' clothes — complete with high heels, lipstick and a wig.
For many parents, though, this type of cross-gender play can be disturbing. Some are concerned about how others will perceive such behavior and worry that their children will be teased and alienated by their peer group.
To be sure, cross-dressing is viewed differently for girls than for boys. These days, few people bat an eye when girls dress boyishly. Dresses and skirts, however, are basically in the purview of girls, and it can become a problem for boys when they show an interest in wearing them.
Some parents also wonder if cross-dressing means their children are gay, or if doing it persistently will actually cause them to become homosexual. Some are afraid their children won't outgrow the behavior and will continue to cross-dress into adulthood.
Research on this subject is sparse, but experts in childhood development say that most of these parents' concerns are unfounded. Cross-gender dress-up play is common and is considered a perfectly normal part of growing up. It's simply something that children experiment with at different developmental stages.
"It's fairly common in preschool- and kindergarten-age children," says Gregory Lehne, assistant professor of medical psychology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "It continues as an occasional practice into first grade."
Experts speculate that cross-dressing is simply a way for children to explore the differences between boys and girls. "They are trying to learn about sex roles," says Lehne. "What does it mean to be a girl? What does it mean to be a boy?"
But some children express a particularly strong interest in cross-dressing, appearing to go beyond exploratory play. Experts view their behavior somewhat differently. "It suggests that they're not trying to learn about other sex roles but trying to be the other sex," says Lehne.
The effect of such cross-dressing appears to differ between girls and boys. Studies have found that young girls who exhibit typical boy behavior, including dressing in a masculine manner, tend to grow up having higher levels of self-confidence and higher levels of achievement than girls who are more feminine. Boys, on the other hand, frequently have difficulty fitting in and trouble developing positive self-esteem.
According to experts, there's also a difference when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. For girls, cross-dressing is not particularly predictive. Among boys, however, a strong and persistent interest in it appears to be an early indicator. That's not to say that all gay men enjoyed dressing up as children, or that all boys who dress up will turn out to be homosexual.
So how should a parent react when a child cross-dresses? "Make light of it," suggests Barbara Korsch, a professor of pediatrics at the USC Keck School of Medicine. "If the behavior gets a tremendous rise out of parents, children are more likely to persist."
And stopping children from cross-dressing doesn't prevent them from being gay, Lehne says.
In fact, taking a strong-handed approach and prohibiting children from dressing up can backfire.
"Parents' misguided good intention is to help their children fit in," Lehne says. But it can "convey the idea that what they are is bad and damages their self-esteem. It can set the seeds of a self-hating identity."
Dr. Valerie Ulene is a board-certified specialist in preventive medicine practicing in Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The M.D. appears the first Monday of the month.