Occasionally Acting Like the Opposite Gender Is Normal for Girls and Boys, UB Study Shows

By Lois Baker

Release Date: April 6, 1993 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Parents concerned that sons who occasionally play with dolls and daughters who roughhouse with boys will grow up to become homosexual or bisexual can be reassured such behavior is normal, a study by a University at Buffalo researcher has shown.

David Sandberg, Ph.D., UB clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics and principal investigator of the study, found that virtually all of the 687 children in his study participated at some point in at least one activity considered "gender-atypical" -- behavior thought to be very uncommon in one gender, but relatively common in the other.

Almost a quarter of the boys and more than a third of the girls in the study showed 10 or more such behaviors, although for most of the children the incidence of each behavior was rare, the results showed.

The study, which looked at the behavior of boys and girls ages 6-10 from four New Jersey elementary schools, was published in the March issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Sandberg said that when parents see a son or daughter acting in ways they don't consider "typical," they may become concerned and bring the child to a doctor for evaluation.

His advice to such parents? Don't worry about children behaving like the opposite sex unless they do it often and exclude activities generally considered more common for their gender.

"That 22.8 percent of boys and 38.6 percent of girls show 10 or more different gender atypical behaviors ("seldom" or "once every three months") is important to keep in mind when counseling parents who are worried about the occurrence of such behavior in their children," Sandberg stated.

"Only the child who frequently and persistently expresses many such gender-atypical behaviors relative to little gender-typical behavior needs to be evaluated for a gender-identity disorder."

Sandberg and his colleagues set out to assess the prevalence of gender-atypical behavior in a general population of children in middle childhood, and to find out if age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status had any influence on these activities. Previous researchers had studied only small numbers of children, and had excluded girls in their samples.

For its study sample, Sandberg's team chose children from a school district in New Jersey that included a mix of backgrounds -- 41 percent of the group was white, 38 percent African American, 14 percent Hispanic and 8 percent Asian, Native American or biracial.

The study was conducted over two academic years. Parents or guardians received a questionnaire describing a wide variety of typical and atypical gender behaviors and were asked to indicate how often their child participated in each activity.

Sample statements in the questionnaire were:

o "He is good at imitating females."

o "She is called a tomboy or similar name by other people."

o "He uses feminine gestures with his hands when he talks."

o "She imitates male characters seen on TV or in the movies.

o "He wears a shirt or towel around his waist as a skirt."

o "She likes to roughhouse (play-wrestle, play-fight) with other children. "

The 71 male questions and 67 female questions also covered behavior often exhibited by both boys and girls, such as dancing; playing house; playing baseball, football and soccer, and dressing sloppily.

The results showed few children repeatedly exhibited behavior not typical of their gender, but most had participated at some point in more than one such activity. Parents of less than 1 percent of boys and girls said their child had never behaved like the opposite sex.

Girls, almost without exception, took part in more types of gender-atypical behavior and exhibited them more frequently than boys did. Sandberg said this finding supports the consensus that society tolerates such behavior in females more readily than in males, giving females more latitude in expressing themselves.

Differences in race or socioeconomic background, as determined by parents' educational levels, were statistically significant for very few of the behaviors.

Co-investigators in the study were Heino F.L. Meyer-Bahlburg, Anke A. Ehrhardt and Thomas J. Yager of the New York State Psychiatric Institute and the Department of Psychiatry in the College of Physicians & Surgeons at Columbia University.