Our playgroup of preschoolers recently attended a production of “Cinderella.” All the children were enamored with the costumes, music and beauty of the play. Since that day, my three-year-old son has loved whirling and twirling as Cinderella. He occasionally plays different roles, but his favorite is Cinderella. Should I be concerned about whether or not my son is experiencing gender confusion?
As soon as a child is mobile, he ponders his identity. Seeing his mirror image, he wonders if there is someone standing behind a glass wall who looks just like him. He’ll make silly faces, walk away and look over his shoulder, sneak out from behind the chair to see if the image appears. Fairy tales, whether about a hero or heroine, can provide a doorway through which a child’s identity can safely be explored.
Preschoolers imitate, have wild and vivid imaginations and adore the dramatic. Dressing up and adopting a role for a period of time is common for both boys and girls. For most, it entails a process of exploring an aspect of their own identity, based on qualities represented by the hero or heroine’s role in the story, not gender, that made such a huge impression on them.
“Cinderella” is a tale of virtue rewarded and evil punished, of true merit being recognized even when hidden under rags and dirt, of a humble little person being elevated beyond her wildest dreams. Cinderella, herself, may represent to your son qualities of kindness and goodness.
Delighted these qualities eventually prevail, he may identify with her, believing that his innocence and value will also be recognized and rewarded. “Cinderella” also demonstrates the conflicts of sibling rivalry, an “evil” from which both sexes may seek to be rescued. Children realize they are small vulnerable creatures, thus rescue themes in fairy tales may help them work through fears associated with powerlessness. If a child feels threatened by a sibling’s successes, physically or mentally inferior, rejected by a parent and/or sibling, and powerless to resolve these often guilt-producing conflicts, then his or her identity may be negatively impacted, even injured. Seeing the powerless Cinderella rescued from her evil stepmother and siblings may provide some children with hope that all is, indeed, well with the world. Hope for a child cannot be underestimated, for as Emily Dickinson so eloquently wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul,/And sings the tune—without the words,/And never stops at all,…”
Play is the work of children. Self-directed play helps them develop their own identity and work through everyday anxieties and fears—whether in the role of hero or heroine—using themes, props, and conversations with imaginary entities. They orchestrate and set their own stage to imitate characteristics or behaviors of those that make them feel, if not strong, smart, courageous, or powerful, at least worthy of being rescued by an entity that is.
The imagination at work in play can create a safe place to act out anger, happiness, fear, powerlessness, loneliness and even self-discipline. They pretend to be mothers, fathers, siblings, Batman, Superman, wizards, apprentices, Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, the Lion King, Beyonce and Cinderella. Typically, gender has nothing to do with it.
It is wise to accept your son’s play for what it is: play. Your approval will contribute to his self-confidence and pride. Indulge him by playing out the characters with him. This is his Cinderella time. He’ll move on to another character soon.