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Parenting a child who's toying with gender roles? You're not alone

When Beyoncé's Single Ladies comes on the radio, the little boy is just as excited to dance to the song as the two young girls beside him in the backseat of the car. All three wave their hands in the air and kick their tiny legs. The boy's smile is bigger than the car seat he's riding in.

But then his father delivers some bad news: "You're not a single lady, buddy." The tyke's arms drop. His smile vanishes. He starts bawling.

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The YouTube video of this scene has been watched more than 450,000 times since it was posted last Monday. In a message on the site, the father of the boy explains, "I was simply making a point that he, in fact, is not a single lady."

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Nor is Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's three-year-old daughter, Shiloh, a boy.

But that didn't stop gossip magazines from fretting recently that the girl's short hair and tomboy clothing were signs her parents were experimenting with gender bending. "Why Is Angelina Turning Shiloh into a Boy?" one magazine asked on its cover.

Some parents may raise a concerned eyebrow when their sons want to play with dolls or their daughters want to play army, but those who try to push their children into gender stereotypes may do more harm than good, experts say.

"It's fairly common that children experiment with cross-gender behaviour in their play. It helps them understand their own gender role better, as well as the gender role of other kids," says clinical psychologist Gregory Lehne, an expert on children's gender issues and an assistant professor of medical psychology at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore.

Parents who take a hard line against such behaviour can create a problem where none existed, Dr. Lehne cautions.

"The worst thing that they could do would be to come down hard on the child and traumatize the child over the type of experimentation, because that may raise questions in the child's mind about their gender, when really what they were doing is just play," he says.

Many parents are quick to try to change any atypical gender behaviour in their kids for fear that their children will be bullied at school or the target of ridicule from peers, Dr. Lehne says.

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For the vast majority of children, however, atypical gender behaviour is simply a passing stage that kids grow out of by the age of eight or nine, he says.

But even for parents of children who aren't going to grow out of it, no amount of trying to modify their behaviour is going to change their sexual orientation, says Alyson Schafer, a Toronto-based parenting expert.

"Nobody ever talked their kids out of being gay, that's just not how it works," she says.

In other words, turn up Single Ladies and let the kids dance.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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