An Introduction to Gender Identity in Children


From as early as age three, children learn to recognize differences and similarities among people such as gender, race, age, height, etc. Children then begin to develop ideas about what categories they belong to, based on what they know about themselves, and the way people treat them.

Gender identity is defined as a person’s internal experience of gender (girl, boy, neither, both, etc.). Gender is different from biological sex, which is a person’s physical traits (hormones, genitals, etc.). All children will develop a sense of their own gender identity, regardless of if their gender matches their sex.

The environment children grow up in gives them messages about what they “should” or “shouldn’t” do based on their gender. These messages give them ideas about what the people around them think about gender and the way they should behave, based on their gender. Sometimes, these messages about gender can be harmful, especially when a child’s feelings or behaviors do not line up with the messages they are hearing. For instance, if your son loves the color pink but is told that “pink is for girls,it may make him feel negative towards himself.

Here are some ways you can support healthy gender identity development in your child:

  • Provide a range of options for items such as clothes and toys to explore their interests. Being open to your children using any toys and clothes, regardless of their gender, may help your child feel like they can express their gender any way they like. This may help counteract the potential harm messages about gender can cause.
  • Don’t let a child’s gender define their behaviors. Give your child a range of activities and chores to do that focus on your child’s interests rather than their gender.
  • Use gender-inclusive language. For instance, saying things such as “anyone can play with any toy” can make the children around you feel more comfortable expressing their interests.
  • Give your children access to media with diverse gender representation. Reading books and watching TV shows with many representations of children or adults of many genders can help them learn about gender diversity. Here are some examples of gender-inclusive books.

If your child is expressing a different gender identity than you expect, there are many ways to support your child and yourself. The most important thing you can do is have open conversations with your child. For more information on these conversations, click here.

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