Family Almanac

A Boy And His Princess Obsession

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 1, 2006

Q. Our 3 1/2 -year-old son -- a bright and loving child -- does well in preschool , but he has been increasingly obsessed with Disney Princesses. Even his 2-year-old sister, who has a few small obsessions of her own, isn't crazy about them.

Our son has always been introverted -- as my husband and I are -- but children are drawn to him and he plays well with them. He does tend to gravitate toward girls, however -- all of our friends' preschool children are girls -- but he will also play with boys at the park or on play dates.

So far, my husband and I have tried to remain neutral and have even let him buy Disney Princess books or DVDs occasionally , but his obsession has grown out of control. Some days, he'd rather dress up in Disney Princess costumes than go to the park. He also asks incessantly for a Disney Princess birthday party and says he wants only girls to come to his party.

We don't want to make him feel bad about himself or his choices and we don't want to force playmates on him either , but we worry because children learn about gender roles from their parents. We're afraid that our neutrality might be setting a bad example or that he might be teased or bullied by his peers one day.

Should we grin and bear our son's obsession? Should we declare our house a Disney Princess-free zone? Or should we do something in between?

A.It's almost always better to choose the middle ground, but choose it for the right reason. To do that, you have to ask yourself these critical questions:

Are you mainly worried because your little boy obsesses so much -- or because he obsesses about such a girlish activity? Would you be upset if he danced around in a Superman cape? Do you worry because he likes to play with girls more than boys? Are you afraid he's gay?

If you're bothered simply because your son is so obsessive, you can rest easy. Introverted children can be intense, and if they're particularly imaginative, they may focus on one type of toy or one kind of animal or one friend with amazing force. That's their nature and it always will be.

Many children concentrate on Legos or dinosaurs or trucks just as passionately as your son concentrates on Disney Princesses, especially at ages 3 and 4. They may focus on this enthusiasm for a year or so, until they've learned all they want to know about it and imagined all that they can imagine, and then they drop it cold, in favor of dump trucks or dolls or guns (or penguins or insects or pandas).

Whether these interests last a long time or not, children usually start collecting something at age 8 or 9, just as their grandfathers collected stamps and coins and their big brothers collected baseball cards. The fun comes from the chase as well as a new instinct to sort and seriate and classify. This experience may seem silly to parents, but it's important because it will help children sort and seriate and classify ideas in their teens, so they can think in abstractions.

Usually their enthusiasms and collections reflect their sex, not only because of their conditioning at home, but because boys and girls have the same primitive need to create, to nurture, to provide, to build and to protect. Whether they're building a house out of blocks or rocking their dollies, they are trying to keep the human race going, just like their parents.

Most of all, they want to have fun. To do that, they want to play with children who like what they like and act like they act; they want to learn while they play and they want to follow their own interests and their own talents.

It's way too early to think that a love of Disney Princesses at 3 is a sign that your son will be homosexual at 13. But if, by chance, he is, homosexuality is an innate condition. Early brain studies have found that 5 to 10 percent of boys are more likely to be homosexuals when they grow up if a piece of the hypothalamus -- the piece that controls a person's sexual orientation -- is considerably smaller than it is for heterosexuals.

The subject is well explained in a splendid book, "The Wonder of Boys" by Michael Gurian (Tarcher; $14).

Questions? Send them toadvice@margueritekelly.comor to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company