When boys play with Barbie

My son's taken to wearing his mother's high-heels. And, to give the boy his dues, for a 20-month-year-old he totters about the place better than I could if I pulled on a pair of four-inch heels. Thankfully, however, he's not yet accessorising, so we've not moved to the handbag, lipstick or the frock stage!
 
So far Luca's cross-dressing has bought mild amusement to his father and total aggravation to his mother as once he's done he tends to hide one of said shoes down the back of the couch.
 
As a dad I like to think I'm open-minded enough to admit I have no problems with my toddler dabbling in a spot of drag, all good, healthy fun, no? But sure, if it continues we may need to have a "quiet" chat if he's still wearing his mother's knickers at 18.
 
Yet, as much as we laugh and dismiss this kind of behaviour in our sons - as natural and harmless as it can be - for us dads it does contradict how we've been taught to raise our boys. After all, we're supposed to be showing them how to climb trees, kick footballs and keep a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity not how to prance about in his sister's tutu. It's not that it bothers us that much - however we can't help but take it as a bit of a slight at our fathering skills.
 
Nicki Kemp, a Sydney-based child clinical psychologist, agrees that it's quite common for us dads to worry we're failing our duties when our boys dress-up in their sister's school tunic. Kemp says it's merely a case of us dads wanting our boys to be just like us.
 
"It's a normal part of young boys experimenting with new things, different toys," Kemp says, "It's the parents' or the dad's reaction that's all important. Dad's need to chill out, it's all very natural."
 
If your boy does like more feminine things Kemp's advice is don't make a big deal out of it or one of two things are likely. One: he'll become embarrassed or ashamed. Or two: he'll use it as a way of attention seeking. Kemp's concern is that if it did persist, say into school, then there is a real worry of bullying. "In that instance I would talk to him about how society views these sorts of things or the possibility that other kids may not understand why he likes the toys he does," she says.
 
Having said that it would be dangerous to dismiss all this as mere harmless fun. Cross-dressing, playing with dolls can signify anything from the stress a toddler may be feeling at the arrival of a new sibling, a distant or absent father, right through to violence in the home.

If you do have concerns then check out the Parenting and Child Health website www.cyh.com which is a top source of information to all any question about why young boys want to play dress-ups or why girls want to climb trees. The site's poignant point is that kids - of either sex - don't really understand their sex until the age of six.

Adelaide-based author and child counsellor Mark Le Messurier agrees it's plain dumb for dads to try and draw any sorts of conclusions from boys who like playing with dolls. "I think it's fabulously healthy for boys to dress up in a pink tutu, to wear their mum's high heels, play with Barbies, it's all about being a gregarious kid," says Le Messurier.
 
"Some dads have a very strong 'script' about what it means to be a father, if their sons enjoy dressing up and that so offends the father's masculinity I think it's the adult that needs to ask, 'why that strong reaction? What am I really reacting to here?'" he says.
 
Le Messurier agrees that left unresolved the issue does have the potential to damage a father's and son's relationship and he stresses it's the adult's, the father's, job to ensure that doesn't happen. But he's quick to add: "I work with kids every single day and it's never, from what I've seen, been a huge issue."
 
He says we dads, in our attempts to "harden" our boys up for adult life, can actually be doing them a disservice. "That real masculine way of fathering," he says, "I think that could actually do some damage to our kids before they reach the big, bad world outside."
 
The problem here is this: women often dismiss what we men may see as a problem as a bit of harmless fun that he'll simply "grow out of". And with women being most boys' primary carers, could we be making too light of the situation?
 
"Maybe," says Le Messurier, "but in the end I think an overbearing father with a very strong script would be more damaging."
 
So next time we dads are in Toys R Us and our boys want the Barbie Camper over the GI Joe, what should we do?
 
"If that's what he wants, then fine," says Le Messurier. "Hey, get him a Barbie and a GI Joe, they make a great pair."
 
Concludes Kemp: "My advice to dads is not to get too emotional, it's not a blow to your manhood, it's not an indication your son's a sissy and you'll never get on and you'll never have common interests. Don't take it for more than what it is, just relax and go with it."

The site's poignant point is that kids - of either sex - don't really understand their sex until the age of six.