By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. How concerned should I be that my very imaginative 3-year-old son insists he’s a girl? I want him to express himself however he’s most comfortable, but I also want him not to be teased.

The kids in his pre-school class already seem to have rigid ideas about gender identification and I’m not sure how (or whether) to approach this with my son.

A. Without knowing your son, we can’t tell whether he is simply trying out different gender roles. Most children this age dress up like Mommy and Daddy, imitating familiar gestures with hats and high heels as props. Afterward, they switch back.

Gender identity, though, is an individual’s strongly felt, persistent sense of gender, which settles in surprisingly early, between ages 2 and 3, according to researchers.

Over the years, parents and mental health professionals have tried many strategies to change children who think of themselves as the opposite gender. When “success” is defined as pushing or punishing a child into hiding his deepest feelings about his gender, a miserable child and unhappy adult typically result.

The best possible outcome is for the child to understand himself, to accept himself and to know he is accepted by the most important people in his life.

At the same time, parents and teachers must help the child learn to protect himself from the judgments and mistreatments of those who don’t understand him or who feel threatened by him.

Even at 3, a child can be warned that certain actions are likely to lead to teasing, although it may be too much to expect him to succeed in limiting them to private times at home.

Teachers can help by upholding the standard that the teasing and bullying of any child will not be tolerated and that differences will be respected and valued.

If you were to bring up the gender issue with your imaginative son, your goal could be to let him know that you love and accept him no matter what, and that you want to be on his team, helping him figure out how to avoid teasing and how to survive it when it is unavoidable.

Gender resources

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.