Home page Psychology blog Child and Adolescent Behavior Relations Cars for Daughters, Dolls for Sons. Just Different Toys or Transgenderness?

Cars for Daughters, Dolls for Sons. Just Different Toys or Transgenderness?

28.05.2019 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

“It bothers me. All of my daughter’s games come to playing with cars. What she builds up with construction set are garages and tracks. What she draws are roads and vehicles. And, well, she plays store, but it is nearly always a car showroom. In addition, today she was watching F1 race for half-day with comments and enthusiasm. She even went to heat her supper saying: “It is high time, Alonso, to prepare meal for Petrov and Schumacher”. She has nearly no girlish interests. What should I do?”

— Maria, mother of Sasha, 6

Parents often worry if their child behavior differs from what was expected. And the reason may be not only kids’ misbehaving, but toys selection, interests and behavior supposedly not appropriate for a child’s gender. A daughter playing only with boys. A son preferring to play with dolls. Parents worry: “Is everything alright with my child? How to raise a girl feminine if she doesn’t like dresses? Won’t my son grow up a homosexual or a sissy because of his “girlish” interests? What if my child is a transgender?”

Such concern is natural and understandable, but is it justified? Let’s check if it’s true that “wrong” toys are dangerous, how self-identification as a woman or a man develops and what it depends on and whether it is possible that the absence of one of the parents may influence the child to change the gender.


What is gender, and what is the difference from sex?

To start with, let’s define the terms in order to avoid confusion later on. It is important to distinguish the concepts “sex”, “social sex” and “gender identity”. [1]

Sex is a biological characteristic, which includes differences on chromosomal, anatomical, reproductive and hormonal levels. For example, different morphology of genitalia and body size, ability to be pregnant and so on – these are the biological differences.

Social sex or gender is the social expression of sex, i.e. it is a set of behavioral features, which shows us what is to be a woman or a man particularly in this society. For example, a daughter should be calm and persistent and a son – active and mobile. A woman should love children, a man – beer and football. Surely, you will easily recall some more “musts”. Unlike sex, gender – a social set of male and female features – differs in various cultures and depends on what is conventional in this particular society.

Gender identity is an internal self-perception as a representative of one or another gender. This perception is connected with the cultural as well as biological peculiarities.

A child’s gender identity: how and when does it form?

A child’s gender identity

Self-perception as a boy or a girl normally happens in two stages

The first stage occurs at the age of 2 – 7. [2] Over this period children show intense interest to their genitalia, look at them and study them. By 3 years old, already 2/3 of all children understand who they are – boys or girls – although they often think, that sex may change if external attributes change, for example, hair length or clothes. By 6 – 7 years old, the ideas of sex broaden, understanding of permanence of own and others’ sex arises. Children understand that a man in a skirt may as well be a Scottish man, and short hair does not turn a woman to a man..

Researchers think that this initial sexual identification, i.e. knowledge of own sex, is the main and the most stable element of self-identity.

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It is important to support a child realizing his/her sex attribute and respect to children of another sex, therefore do not use expressions like “If you cry, you’ll become a girl”. “Do not fight, you are not a boy, boys are bullies and brawlers”. Such mindsets may disturb a child’s confidence in his/her sexual attribute and form a negative attitude to the opposite sex. Active accentuation of differences by adults and intense division by sex worsens the situation: children negatively treat children of another sex and refuse playing with them. [3]

“When I got pregnant, my entire family was wishing to have a girl. And we were so much happy, when Vickie was born. We were constantly speaking about it, praising overmuch. We went over the limits, apparently. We have a man-hater growing. All boys are bad, I refuse to befriend with them ever, and if I bear a son – I will throw him into garbage bin. I say that our father is a boy, but his is a good one. She agrees, but the others are still considered bad. She has already had some conflicts at school because of that”.

— Tatiana, mother of Vickie, 7

The second important stage is puberty or teenage. [2] Psychosexual orientation, i.e. the preference of partners of one or another sex develops. Of course, the development at this stage occurs not from scratch, but is based upon already established social norms and biological prerequisites. At this stage, it is also important to help children: speaking of the development and change of their body and what expects them. Prohibitions, concealments or punishments for natural curiosity may lead to shame and rejection of own sex. For example, girls may consider themselves as dirty and wrong because of periods; boys may despise themselves for pollution. Pollution is an uncontrolled evacuation of semen (sperm), which may be connected with erotic dreams or other factors.

Usually children behaving in accordance with gender roles do not have problems with gender identity since they receive constant approval. Active boy constantly hears that he’s a boy and that his activity is normal as he is a whistle-head and supposed to be like that. A girl who plays dolls may hear that she grows as a real woman since she aspires to maternity from the cradle.

Problems appear when children do not meet expectations. Boys suddenly want to do dancing and play family and girls play cars and war. Children act unexpectedly and parents begin worrying.

A boy acts like a girl, and a girl acts like a boy. Causes and peculiarities

A boy acts like a girl

Parents get more concerned by the situations when a child says about himself/herself in another gender, i.e. there is a girl calling herself a boy, she says “I am a good boy as I had supper and did my homework”, and a boy acts like a girl and speaks of himself in female gender – what are parents to do in such cases? To start, let’s address what are the reasons for such behavior.


Let’s identify children of this age as a separate group since such behavior noticed for children aged 5 – 6 is a usual thing. Children of this age sometimes study another sex through mimetic response. Children who are younger often confuse sex, and senior pre-schoolers may just play.

“My daughter before she turned 7 or 8 could wake up in the morning and declare: “Today I am an elephant, mommy, call me baby elephant Sonya”. And the entire day she might be playing an elephant: asking to read something about elephants, watering flowers, babysitting baby elephants, protecting her elephant family against lions and tigers. If I accidentally mixed up and called her by name, she got upset. Now, she is already 15 and nothing like biological sex reassignment surgery is in her plans”.

— Elena, mother of Sonya, 15

If however the aspiration to be of another sex appears and is demonstrated in prep school or in teenage, attention should be paid to it.

“A girl like a boy”, social features

Girls may refuse from their sex because of social mindsets.

  • Reason 1. Being a girl is boring, it is uninteresting to play girlish games. Girls are often limited, for example, they are prohibited to run, berated for clothes smudged during play, prohibited to play boyish games, which seem more interesting. Totally, a child concludes that being a boy is more interesting. You may easily get dirty and build up construction set, wear comfortable trousers and never braid hair.

“The entire childhood I was told: “Why are you running? Such an aggressive girl, awful! You are to be accurate! Wipe your nose! Where is your snowy handkerchief?! Therefore, when I was 10, I declared that I was tired to be a girl and from now on I am a boy. I even took another name – Yura. After a year I relaxed, read a book about the girl, who kids were prohibited to play with, and understood that it is possible to misbehave even being a girl”.

— Nathalie, 27

  • Reason 2. Subculture. There is a possibility of your daughter being carried away with books, movies or TV series, where it is accepted to address to everybody in male sex, i.e. a girl does not consider herself a boy, it’s just accepted, fashionable, to do so in her circle of contacts.
  • Reason 3. Interests and occupations for girls are perceived as something stupid, unworthy. Partly it happens because of public settings, for example: a teenager girl may hear that all women from birth are stupid, incapable of driving, and illogical and may only give birth to children and cook borsch. Naturally, nobody wants to be like that, therefore a girl considers herself a boy rejecting her sex. Such cases are accompanied with disdain to own sex and refusal from communication with other girls.

“For my entire childhood I was thinking that being a girl is a kind of curse. I kept to be told that my task is to get married and service husband and children. Understanding that I will receive never-ending cooking, housekeeping, dirty dishes and other wastes, I was getting crazy, especially as I was in an awkward age. I wanted to study. I was feeling abilities to math in myself! I was crying and blaming myself for being born a girl. For a long time I was sure that the nature just made a mistake and I actually a man, since I do not have a desire to keep hearth and home. I was very lucky; parents supported me and found a good psychotherapist. Now I accepted and loved myself. Being a woman is wonderful, even if I don’t fit standards and frameworks”.

— Tamara, 23

“A boy like a girl”, social features

Why on earth can a boy act like a girl?

  • Reason 1. Games for boys are too noisy or active. Not all children like active games and if a child prefers silent and calm activities, he may aspire to play with girls who are calmer, more attentive and sensitive.
  • Reason 2. A boy doesn’t want to behave “properly” as boys. The situations of competition and contest as often happens in boys’ groups are not pleasant for everyone. A child tries to avoid competition and fights, joining girls.
  • Reason 3. It is more advantageous and more comfortable to be a girl. If there’s a constant pressure on a boy, he is made to compromise to and share with girls, he doesn’t get help and is not protected against offenders since “a man must handle himself”, a child may conclude that it’s better to be a girl, since girls get protection, compassion and assistance.
  • Reason 4. Male sex is taken as unworthy, mean. A boy may begin thinking that it is bad and unworthy to be a man. For example because of the majority of familiar adult man and relatives who lead asocial way of life, fight, drink. In this case a child does not want to associate himself with a man, tries to separate from man sex, to identify “I am not like them”.

Family influence on the formation of boys’ and girls’ gender identity

gender identity

Correct formation of gender identity is not a simple knowledge that you are a boy or a girl. This is a healthy acceptance of own sex, own body, own peculiarities. Surely, a family plays a great part in this process. There are several main points in upbringing, which may lead to refusal from own biological sex. They are common for boys as well as for girls.

  • Reason 1. If a parent wanted a child of another sex, and the child knows that and constantly hears that – a natural aspire to be the one who parents wanted, i.e. to change sex, occurs.
  • Reason 2. A child experiences strong and painful love to a parent of an opposite sex and wants to be ultimately like him/her. Often such love occurs if relations with parents cause anxiety: a parent refuses a child, vanishes for a long time and so on.
  • Reason 3. Strict division of interests and temper features by sex attribute. Such division may contradict to a child’s interests, for example: a daughter likes robots and boxing, but parents says that only boys may like robots. Eventually, a feeling that her sex is mistaken, since interests are not these that should be, may arise.

May a single parent negatively influence gender identity?

“A neighbor recently said that my child is growing as a freak and gay. Why did he think so? Since I don’t have a husband. Like since I am a single mother, and I do not know for sure how to grow a child. Although I have a big family, relatives and parents, and support is sufficient. Indeed, will I not be able to bring up a deserved person only because that husband didn’t manage to pass the pampers test and ran away from us?!”

— Vita, 25

Mother or father, left without support on the part of a husband or wife, experience double load and double responsibility. She or he alone have to do the things usually done by two. Of course, in such situations anxiety of how to bring up a boy or a girl correctly without a father or a mother arises.

The opinion of some people regarding the fact that a boy without a father cannot be brought up as a real man, or that a father bringing up children without a mother is fated to fail, only makes anxiety greater.

Thankfully, such opinion is mistaken. The absence of one of parents cannot change sex or orientation of a child, make him/her infantile or irresponsible. Important is not the number of parents but their quality, figuratively speaking. A family with one good parent will give a child much more than a full family where one of parents is an alcoholic or a tyrant, although there are some peculiarities. How to bring up a daughter or a son without a father correctly?

  1. Do not blame a child for similarity with a parent who is not with you. Physical resemblance is not his/her responsibility.
  2. Do not denounce similar problems. “You will be an idler just like your father/mother”. Such expressions may trigger as self-fulfilling prophecy.
  3. Do not transmit your negative experience to a child. “All women are the same, do not trust them. Men need only one thing”. It may hinder a child in future to build up a happy family. Especially traumatic may be the case when a child has the same sex with a parent who left the family. For example, a mother constantly tells her son that “all men are jerks”, i.e. her son is as well a jerk. Totally, a boy may act as a girl in order to achieve approval form a mother, indeed, now he is not like “all men”.
  4. Do not patronize a child too much. Sometimes, for example, a mother is afraid that her son will grow up and start a separate family, or a father is afraid that he will be left without daughter’s care in old age. It leads to excessive patronage and development of infantilism in children.
  5. Do not sacrifice all for a child. True, bringing up children alone is difficult, and often a mother who brings up a teenage boy or girl without a father forgets about herself. But children will grow up and create their families, therefore it is good if you have other goals and sense in life, apart from children.

As you see, problems, which may occur, are not related directly to singleness of the parent, but are rather caused by mistakes in upbringing.

Of course, it is good and useful when a child has a worthy example of his sex before him. But how to teach a girl to be more girlish and a boy to be more manly, if a daughter grows without a mother and a son – without a father? The thing is that not only biological parent may serve as an example. [4] It may be grandfathers and grandmothers, your relatives, trainers or teachers, characters from movies or books – if you don’t live alone in the forest, you will find examples for sure. Many successful people grew up without a father, for example, Mike Tyson, a boxer [5], and Aleksei Nemov [6], the four-time Olympic champion in artistic gymnastics. Of course, their life was not always easy, but it is hard to call them irresponsible or unmanly.

Therefore, of course, a mother is able to grow up and bring up a son without a father correctly, if there are some men, who can be aligned with, in their circle.

Biological reasons, transgenderness and sexual orientation of boys and girls

Apart from social, there are biological reasons of such cases. In this case we may speak of transgenderness, i.e. mismatch of biological sex and gender identity.

Last year the WHO excluded transgenderness from the list of psychogenic disorders. [7] However, non-admission on the part of society, discrimination and violence towards transgender people may promote depression, anxiety, suicide thoughts or suicide attempts. [8]

In other words, transgender children may feel perfectly well, if it is possible to manifest themselves as they like, but they suffer stress, if they are deprived of such a chance.

Where does transgenderness come from? Role of biology and upbringing

Currently the scientific society holds on to an opinion that main reason is biological, namely – peculiarities of a child’s brain development during pregnancy [9,10], however social experience influence should not be completely excluded. [11] In any case, transsexual children appear not because of improper games and toys.

It is timely to tell one story, which now causes heaps of ethical issues, but, nevertheless, it demonstrates visually that upbringing alone cannot make a daughter of a son. [12]

In 1965, twins were born in the family of Janet and Ronald Ramer – Bruce and Brian. At the age of 8 months, by medial grounds, it was decided to do cutting for Bruce, however the surgery passed unsuccessfully, a penis was strongly harmed. Parents were shocked and in a year addressed to a psychologist – John Mani, who advised to bring up a child as a daughter, and in future to carry out a sex change surgery. Parents agreed and Bruce was renamed to Brenda. However, Bruce didn’t consider himself a girl, preferred rifles and cars, refused to pee sitting, was fighting in school. Bruce knew truth only when he became a teenager, after which decided to live as a man.

In order to understand what transgender people feel, let’s listen to their stories.

“I always wanted to be the one who I was feeling like. And I was feeling like a girl. And there’s nothing about toys, dolls, dresses and spangles. I liked cars and construction sets as well. But I always knew that I am a girl and nothing could make me change my mind”.

— Jazz, 18, a transgender woman

“It was very hard to me to accept myself. Up to about 25 I knew absolutely nothing about transgenderness. And it was so strange. I tried to feel as a girl, but nothing worked. I understood, that a woman may look as she wants, wear pants, cut hair short, but I still felt wrongly placed. “Ordinary” people, whose sex match with their gender, every day received confirmation of their existence – every time, when they are addressed as women or men, in the street or somewhere else. And we – do not. We are constantly refused in being who we are and it is sometimes very painful”.

— Victor, 47, a transgender man

Peculiarities of upbringing a child with problems of gender identity: psychologist’s advice

So, your child behaves not like he/she is expected to behave. A son wants to play dolls and befriend with girls, and a daughter fights with boys and prefers short haircut. What to do?

Of course, it is necessary to try to speak with such a child. Punishments and efforts to change situation forcedly will not help in solving the problem and only worsen a child’s condition [13], get him/her far from you, depriving trust and respect.

  • First step. Try to learn from a child, what caused this behavior? Is it just interesting to him/her to do what he/she does? Or does he like some girl, therefore he wants to befriend exactly with her? Or does he/she really feel as a person of the opposite sex?
  • Second step. If a child is aware of his/her sex, but games and behavior seem unnatural to his/her sex, analyze – you may even put down some notes for yourself – what exactly bothers you in your child’s behavior? For example, your son asks to buy a doll and likes to help you around the house. What bothers you in this situation?

There is an old joke. You prohibit to play dolls your son? Afraid that he will grow up as his father?! And in fact, stories about man’s parental failure are often anecdotic. Is it that bad, if a son will learn to cook, wash dishes and take care of own children himself?

  • Third step. If a child is aware of his/her sex, but dislikes it. Try to know which limits he/she sees in his/her biological sex? Why does he/she think that being the person he/she was born is bad? Possibly, he/she wants the things which are prohibited for his/her sex. For example, some girls want to wear boy’s clothes and cut their hair short, since boys seem stronger and faster. Tell a child that there are many ways of being a boy or a girl, that it is unnecessarily to refuse from being girlish in order to be dexterous and fast and that care of family members doesn’t hinder being manful.

Of course, we are accustomed to certain roles: man are like this, women are like that. But in many respects these roles are caused by cultural peculiarities and not by natural prepossession. For example, the concept of manhood is different in various countries. [14] Somewhere force and success are in favor, and somewhere – kindness and tranquility. The process of upbringing also plays an important part. Sons grow up less aggressive, if this feature is not promoted in them, meantime, they do not lose their manhood. [15]

“My older daughter played only cars. There was a lot of cars! Now she is a wonderful mother for wonderful children and she has got three sons”.

— Anna, 59

“I have got 3 sisters, 6, 8 and 14 years older than me. I was playing dolls and daughters-mothers with them for the entire childhood, and they even dressed me when I was smaller. I didn’t notice that it somehow influenced me negatively. My penis didn’t fall off, I didn’t start to love men. I haven’t got own children so far, but have good relationships with my girlfriend”.

— Kirill, 27

If after all you have serious grounds to consider that your child is a transgender, spend some time to attentively study the subject, consult with doctors, read books and scientific articles. Speak at thematic forums, read what other transgender people write. Also, TV shows about transgender children and teenagers may help, for example, “I am Jazz”. This is a good way to understand and accept your child and situation, gain support and understanding from people who as well faced it.

Think over the fact if social transfer possible in your situation, i.e. the change of external features without medical intervention. Such practice is the most optimal way for compensating innate peculiarities and it will help avoid psychological problems, such as depression and suicidal behavior. [16, 17]

Do not think that transgender child one day decides that he/she needs another sex, and on the next day he/she is already taken to “cut the unnecessary”. At first, parents with a child go to various specialists for a long time, collect a heap of certificates and conclusions and, unfortunately, sometimes get accusations that a child is a psycho and moral moron and his parents are thugs and violators. Especially a mother is considered guilty frequently. Therefore, support is needed not only to a child, but to parents. Think to have support from psychologist who works with transgender people and treats them and their families with understanding (normally such specialists note this feature in questionnaires or “About myself” sections).

We will teach harmonious gender relations

Make for consultation WATCH VIDEO

Do not forget that every situation is individual, reasons of unusual children’s behavior also may differ, therefore, if you feel like you cannot manage – address to a specialist for help, he/she will help understand what is going on in your family and what to do next.


  1. O poniatiiakh pol, sotsialnyi pol, gendernaia identichnost: M. L. Butkovskaia, «Antropologiia pola».
  2. Pro razvitie gendernoi identichnosti v vozraste 2-7 let i v pubertate: http://bono-esse.ru/blizzard/Detigyn/NPR/npsr1.html
  3. Razdelenie detei po polu ukhudshaet otnosheniia v kollektive: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21077864&sa=D&ust=1558601740015000&usg=AFQjCNGbrR-xzeB2gD1DwSN4qA_YArOTUQ
  4. Roditelskuiu figuru mozhet zamenit drugoi znachimyi vzroslyi: Igor Kon, «Malchik – otets muzhchiny».
  5. Biografiia Maika Taisona (https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taison,_Maik)
  6. Biografiia Alekseia Nemova (https://ria.ru/20160528/1439669926.html)
  7. VOZ iskliuchila transgendernost iz spiska psikhicheskikh rasstroistv (https://www.google.com/url?q=https://twitter.com/PinkNews/status/1008971423904419840?ref_src%3Dtwsrc%255Etfw%257Ctwcamp%255Etweetembed%257Ctwterm%255E1008971423904419840%26ref_url%3Dhttps%253A%252F%252F&sa=D&ust=1558617707520000&usg=AFQjCNHzqUu4z3ctK21w8Hs5z4LqtaW-8w)
  8. Statistika razvitiia depressii i suitsidalnykh namerenii u transgenderov https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.17060626?rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed&url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&journalCode=ajp
  9. Gendernaia identichnost i seksualnaia orientatsiia formiruetsia v period vnutriutrobnogo razvitiia: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21334362
  10. Gendernaia identichnost i seksualnaia orientatsiia formiruetsia v period vnutriutrobnogo razvitiia: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19955753
  11. Amerikanskaia Psikhologicheskaia Assotsiatsiia o prichinakh transgendernosti (https://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/transgender-russian.pdf)
  12. Istoriia Devida (Briusa) Reimera: https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Реймер,_Дэвид
  13. Vliianie nepriiatiia so storony roditelei i sverstnikov na psikhicheskoe sostoianie rebenka (https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2004-15557-009)
  14. Raznoe predstavlenie o muzhestvennosti v raznykh stranakh(http://clearlycultural.com/geert-hofstede-cultural-dimensions/masculinity/)
  15. O vliianii vospitaniia na razvitie «muzhskikh» kachestv u malchikov: Igor Kon, «Malchik – otets muzhchiny».
  16. O vliianii sotsialnogo perekhoda na psikhologicheskoe zdorove detei: (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5302003/)
  17. Perekhod, polza dlia transgendernykh liudei (https://whatweknow.inequality.cornell.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-about-the-well-being-of-transgender-people/)