When Henry Holmes picked up his 6-year-old son from the day-care center at the Social Security Administration's Woodlawn complex last week, he found the boy laughing and playing. And wearing a dress.
Mr. Holmes did not think it was funny.
"He was playing in this area they call 'housekeeping,' and he was wearing a shiny, white dress that resembled one a little girl would wear in a wedding," Mr. Holmes said. "I was told it was part of their curriculum, but I don't see how his wearing a dress is part of the learning experience."
Now, that incident has sparked a dispute over teaching methods at the Social Secur-A-Kiddie Child Care Center's kindergarten program.
An irate Mr. Holmes has taken his son, Gerald, out of the program. The center, meanwhile, insists that such dressing up is not unusual or harmful. And the state, asked to investigate, says that dressing up is an appropriate part of a child care curriculum.
After last week's incident, Mr. Holmes, a single parent, complained to officials at the center, which occupies space in Social Security's Operations Building but is not managed by the agency.
He also filed a complaint with the state Child Care Administration, which licenses day-care facilities, about his son being allowed to wear the dress. He alleged that the center's housekeeping area was unsafe and not properly supervised.
The complaint was investigated yesterday and found to be unsubstantiated, according to Linda Heisner, executive director of the Child Care Administration.
She also said that "dress-up" activities are considered an appropriate part of child care curriculum.
"Children have a choice when there is a dress-up activity," Ms. Heisner said. "That kind of play is developmentally appropriate for preschoolers."
Lindi Budd, executive director of the day-care center, said the facility provides clothing such as men's shirts and ties, dresses and high heels, and firefighters' and nurses' uniforms for children to use.
Parents should not worry about such activities, said Dr. Betty Smith Franklin, an associate professor of psychology and sociology at Goucher College. Young children frequently experiment with clothing as a way of "playing out positions of power" -- dressing up as grown-ups, she said.
"The idea that you play at a bunch of different roles is important when it comes to a child's development," Dr. Franklin said. "When people are concerned, it is usually based on fear of the confusion of sexual roles and identities, and if it gets to that point, the parent and the child need to sit down and discuss it."
Mr. Holmes said he discussed the incident with his son and explained that other children might tease him for wearing a dress.
To his dismay, he said, the boy responded, "I don't care."