First up, what’s the difference between sex and gender?
Sex refers to biological traits, such as genitals and chromosomes. Our sex is assigned to us at birth based on our genitals. Gender, on the other hand, is a set of socially constructed ideas about femininity and masculinity. Gender identity is an individual’s internal thoughts, feelings and convictions about their gender. When someone’s gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth or does not fit into the binary male/female, they may be referred to as transgender or gender diverse.
Over the past few centuries, it may appear that gender has followed a binary system of ‘men’ and ‘women’. However, an understanding of the wider spectrum of gender identities has existed in many cultures around the world, all throughout history. For example, ancient Hindu texts from as far back as 400 B.C. refer to individuals who identify as beyond simply male or female.
So, to put it very simply, sex is a way of identifying anatomy, whereas gender is an entirely social construct that varies from culture to culture.
How is gender identity formed?
Young children begin constructing their gender identity from a very young age, based on the ideas and comments presented to them by their family, educators and peers. That being said, gender identity cannot be purposefully altered by external sources.
According to pediatrician and child psychiatrist, Dr. Jason Rafferty, most children develop a sense of physical differences between boys and girls around the age of two. By age three, they can usually label themselves as a boy or a girl, and by age four, they usually have a fairly stable sense of their gender identity. This includes children who develop gender diverse identities, who, usually, have just as clear and consistent an understanding of their gender identity as their cis-gendered peers.
This self-identification may, of course, have some limitations in communication, and children may talk about, for example, being a boy on top and a girl at the bottom, or express the feeling that the doctor made a mistake when they were born.
Not all children who appear to have alternative gender identities as young children maintain them into adulthood, but understanding as to why this happens is limited. Some children’s diverse gender representation may develop into gay, lesbian or queer sexuality as they near puberty - often around the age of 9 or 10. Others may learn to mask their gender identity as they become more aware of social and cultural attitudes towards gender.
However, according to the American Psychological Association, “gender identity is very resistant, if not immutable, to any type of environmental intervention”. As a result, attempts to suppress skills, talents and self-expression regarding gender in young children can lead to a wide range of serious mental and physical health problems in later life, including depression, anxiety, ADHD and oppositional defiance.
So how can I support my child’s gender identity development?
It’s really important to give children the space and information to explore and understand gender in all its diversity - not only for their own gender development, but for that of others, too. The majority of mental health issues in gender diverse people stem from negative societal reactions to their gender presentation. Raising children in an environment that is accepting and supportive of gender diversity will not only allow those children to feel able to fully express their true selves, but also accept others who do, too.
Things you can do at home to encourage healthy gender identity development:
- Provide a variety of toys.
As we often mention, play is how children make sense of the world - and this applies to gender, too. Allowing children to play with toys that may be classically associated with one gender, such as dolls or dinosaurs, can help them not only to understand their own identity, but also to become more understanding and accepting of other classically gendered activities. Dressing up clothes, too, are great for this kind of play!
- Allow children to choose their own style.
Whether it’s hairstyle, clothes, or accessories, allowing children to make decisions about how they present themselves is important for all parts of identity formation - not just gender.
- Provide access to a range of activities.
Not all boys enjoy football and not all girls like to dance! Allow children to choose the kinds of activities and hobbies they want to pursue. It’s also a good idea to check in with them regularly to see if they’re enjoying themselves.
Providing books and other media that contain both gender diverse people and those in roles that do not classically fit their gender identity are important for a child’s understanding of the world. A few of our favourites are:
My Shadow is Pink by Scott Stuart
Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
Made by Raffi by Craig Pomranz
Perfectly Norman by Tom Percival
I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty
Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl? By Sarah Savage and Fox Fisher
Gender is just one element of your little one’s special and unique identity. Allowing them the space and freedom to express their true selves will go a long way towards helping them grow into happy, healthy adults - whoever they may be.
So be proud of who you are, and Happy Pride!
Content Creator at MEplace
For more information on gender identity in children, check out these resources: