Gender identity begins to be established at a very young age

Gender Identity & Gender Roles in Child Development

by Karen Doyle

From the time parents hear the words, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” they likely have distinct ideas about how their child will behave, what they will wear and perhaps even what career they will pursue. But a child’s gender identity is based on a number of factors and develops throughout childhood.

Early Gender Identity

Gender identity, or the awareness whether you are a girl or a boy, starts as early as 8 to 10 months of age, according to the HealthyChildren website. During their second year, babies recognize that there physical differences between girls and boys. By the time they are 3, they can tell you whether they are a boy or a girl, and by age 4, their gender identity is fixed and they know they will remain a boy or a girl.

Gender Stereotypes in Play

By the time a child is 3, he can identify which toys are traditionally associated with each gender, such as trucks for boys and dolls for girls. He knows which activities are most associated with each gender and may pretend play with children of the same gender at these activities. Boys may play with cars and guns, while girls play house. During the elementary school years, children will tend to play and associate with children of their own gender and may express dislike or disgust with the opposite gender.

Parents' Influence on Gender Identity

A child’s sense of self is formed by his exposure to various behaviors, beliefs, attitudes and experiences, most of which are provided by his parents in early childhood. Parents often encourage their children to play with gender-stereotyped toys and participate in activities that tend to be associated with the child’s gender. When children get older, they may be assigned household chores that are typically associated with their gender. In families where both parents work, and in families where parents perform roles typically associated with the opposite gender, tended to have children who do not adhere strongly to traditional gender roles, according to a study by Weinraub, Jaeger & Hoffman in 1988.

Gender Confusion

Some children are confused about their gender role. Going beyond a disinterest in things considered typically masculine or feminine — for example, a boy who doesn’t like sports or a girl who never wears dresses — children who are gender-confused may actually wish they were or believe they are the opposite gender. This confusion can be upsetting for the child and subject them to teasing and ridicule from their peers. According to the HealthyChildren website, this gender confusion may have both biological and learned causes. Some, but not all, children who experience gender confusion may be bisexual or homosexual.

About the Author

Karen Doyle has been a writer since 1993, covering finance, business, marketing and parenting. Her work has been published in "Kidding Around" and "A Cup of Comfort." Doyle holds a bachelor's degree in marketing from Boston College.

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