The birds and the bees – Part 3: Gender identity in young childen

Learn how children develop their gender identities and how you can help them grow into their full potential.

Provide opportunities and give permission for children to explore many roles and activities.
Provide opportunities and give permission for children to explore many roles and activities.

From the second we find out that there’s a new baby on the way, we start thinking about gender. We buy blue decorations for nurseries for baby boys and pink for girls. Boys are gifted Legos and blocks, and girls are given dolls. When a little girl cries, it’s because she is sensitive and fragile; when a little boy pulls his mother’s hair, it’s because he is strong and vigorous. We make assumptions about children from infancy based on their gender.

These assumptions inform the opportunities and interactions that children will experience as they are growing up, and not always for the good. Sometimes our ideas about gender can mean that children miss out on opportunities to explore different sides to their personalities or work on learning different skills.

Gender and sex

Sex is biological and determined by the physical anatomy and genetic makeup of an individual. Gender, on the other hand, is self-assigned; it is something society has created for itself. We have assigned certain characteristics to each gender, male and female. For example, it is a commonly held and accepted belief that boys are better at math and building, and girls are better at nurturing and being creative. These abilities are not directly linked to one’s biology, but instead are “roles” we have assigned to each gender.

There is a huge social and societal influence when it comes to understanding and expressing gender for young children. Think about popular books, television shows, movies and games. It is not uncommon to see boys and girls playing out the stereotyped roles they see played out for them in our society. When children are only exposed to these traditional or accepted roles according to their gender, they are limited.

To prevent them from being pigeon-holed or boxed into a preassigned role, it’s important to give children opportunities and permission to explore and grow into themselves while respecting their own unique perspective. In order to do this, they need someone to model different ways of thinking and being.

How do children develop their gender identity?

Most children begin to understand their biological sex by the age of 2 or 3. They can identify as being a girl or a boy. Around age 6 or 7, children start to develop more rigid understandings of gender. They learn the “rules,” such as girls can’t be race car drivers and boys can’t wear dresses, or that pink is not a “boy color” and boys are stronger or more athletic.

Where do children get this information from? They learn it by living in our society through socialization. Socialization is the process where society tells us what or who we are supposed to be. We are socialized to interact with other people politely, saying please and thank you, opening doors for others and apologizing when we hurt someone. Children construct an understanding of their world from books, television shows, interactions and observations of the world around them and this is also true for their concept of gender.

Often times we see children behaving in traditional normal ways. Girls play dress up and boys build with blocks. We might call these gender norms, or sets of behaviors that we associate with a specific gender. For example, we might think of playing with trucks as an activity better suited for boys, while dress up is suited for girls. It’s important to remember that gender norms are not limitations. It is absolutely OK for girls to be interested in princesses and dress-up games and babies, but it is just as OK for girls to enjoy playing with trucks or digging for worms. In fact, it’s incredibly normal. These gender norms represent patterns of behavior, but should not be considered limits as to what children should or are allowed to engage in.

Michigan State University Extension has some tips for encouraging children to explore their own identities:

  • Let them explore. Provide opportunities and give permission for children to explore many roles and activities. Provide messy play and opportunities to build for little girls and allow boys to play dress up or princesses or whatever else they want to try.
  • Provide choices and options. Let your child decide if they want to participate in dance or sports or both. Children learn to trust themselves and the adults in their lives when they are allowed the freedom to follow their own feelings, drives and instincts.
  • Give them role models. Provide them with examples of men and women who do all sorts of things, especially some that are outside of their gender norm or gender stereotype. Read books or watch stories about female police officers or male nurses and teachers.
  • Own your discomfort. Dealing with situations that go against traditional or socially acceptable views of gender can make some people uncomfortable. That’s OK. The best thing you can do as someone caring and guiding children is to recognize it. When you catch yourself telling your child they cannot do something or making assumptions about what children will like, take a minute to think about what you are doing. Does it matter if your daughter would rather get a toy car with her birthday money than a new baby doll?
  • Read. Use literature to challenge gender norms and show children the many options they have when they are exploring their likes, dislikes, interests and strengths. Try “The Paper Bag Princess,” “William's Doll,” “Jacob's New Dress,” “The Princess Knight” or “Max.”

There is so much value in the act of letting children try on different personality characteristics or traits in trying to decide which ones will fit them best. Each individual is unique and special, and as a trusted adult, you can help your child discover themselves in a warm and supportive environment.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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