Gender identity refers to a person’s own sense of their gender – their feelings around being a man or woman, boy or girl. Gender is culturally and societally constructed and different cultures may have different ideas of how males or females should behave.
Do children naturally develop their gender identity?
A child’s gender develops naturally as they become more aware of themselves physically, and begin noticing the differences between boys and girls. Before the age of three a child will be able to identify themselves as a boy or a girl. Their gender identity is also affected by biological structures and social factors such as through observations of those around them. A female child who sees her mother being abused by her father, without standing up for herself, may develop the identity that females are submissive to men, and can be treated as such.
A child’s gender identity develops more complexly later on into middle childhood years. Children at this stage become aware of gender stereotypes (usually societal) such as how to behave or which jobs to do in the future. They will also identify certain tasks as masculine or feminine which may affect their decisions to participate in certain activities. For example, stereotypically soccer is a male sport, and females may be less inclined to participate as a result.
Gender identity confusion can take place as a result of a variety of factors – biological and social. If your daughter has a strong and almost unyielding aversion to girls’ clothes, girls’ toys and a sole interest in playing with boys, there may be some issues of gender identity disorder. She may insist that she would prefer to be a boy, or take on the male role in any role playing games. Conflicts regarding a child’s identity can lead to emotional difficulties at school, especially for boys. It may be necessary to seek help in order to assist your child in alleviating their confusion. However, there is little evidence proving that mental health interventions can change a child’s gender identity in later years.
Should gender be enforced through clothing, toys and the way we talk to our children at this age?
If your son wants the pink balloon from the local restaurant, let him choose it. If your daughter wants to wear shorts instead of dresses, allow her to. Praise your boy child for looking after and nurturing a doll, and allow your daughter to do woodwork at school, or spend time in the garage with Dad if she so desires.
Encouraging your child’s gender identity development is necessary, but enforcing it is not. Helping your child understand that he is a little boy is appropriate, but insisting he only play with boys toys is not. We need to act as role models for our children too – showing them that moms and dads are equal and can do the same jobs or tasks. Encouraging our sons to be rough and manly or telling them that “boys don’t cry” will only create difficulties for them with regard to expressing their true feelings.
Is it fine for children to play with gender-neutral toys such as building blocks?
It’s more than fine – it’s imperative! Children should be given the opportunity to play with a variety of toys – whether gender-neutral or gender-specific. They should not be prohibited from playing with certain toys because they are not typical toys for their gender. As mentioned, parents are often concerned about why their children want to play with certain toys, and not those ‘suited’ for their gender, but forcing them one way or another will only suppress their desires to do so, rather than change their behaviour.
Pre-Primary schools usually have a variety of different rooms – creative, cognitive, fantasy and garden (to encompass all areas of play). Karen Smith, a pre-primary teacher in Pietermaritzburg explains that while children are encouraged to spend time in all areas during the day, they are not forced to. These children are therefore given the opportunity to choose tasks to suit them – girls playing with blocks or on the monkey bars, boys playing house in the fantasy room or reading books in the corner. If girls and boy are to play together, which they invariably do at a pre-primary level, they will inevitably participate in tasks that may be seen as more suited to one specific gender.
A child’s gender identity cannot be influenced by his/her parents and cannot change based on what toys children play with. A little boy may choose to play with dolls because he has sisters, or because he experiences some nurturance needs, or sees his mother as a dominant nurturer in the family and may see her has a positive role model. Choosing to play with a doll does not make him ‘girly’ or feminine. A child should not be disciplined for playing with the ‘wrong’ toys – as this will create feelings of low self-esteem in your child as he will feel he is doing something wrong and should be punished for feeling that way. Acceptance of your child’s choices is paramount.
The question of encouraging gender neutrality?
Some research suggests that children who are allowed to develop more ‘neutral’ identities and make free decisions regarding their activities are able to cope better with life stressors later on, as opposed to those with strong masculine or feminine identities. Allowing your child the freedom to choose what they enjoy will encourage later schemas of freedom and equality, as opposed to, for example, your female child feeling she cannot become an engineer because “only boys are meant to build.”
There have been extreme cases where parents have avoided telling others the sex of their child in order to avoid others expecting certain behaviours or characteristics of their child. There is not enough research regarding this matter to ascertain the advantages or possible disadvantages of this. I am of the opinion that gender neutrality, or allowing your child to choose freely which activities they would like to participate in, or which colours they prefer, does not need to be achieved in such an extreme way (i.e. by not revealing the sex of your child). Children naturally become aware of themselves based on their physical characteristics and will begin to identify with others who are similar. Encouraging or even forcing them to participate in activities that are not specific to their gender, purely to show that it’s acceptable, will make natural gender identification difficult could possibly cause other difficulties later on.
The issue of gender identification and gender specific behaviours or toys is a very heated debate. There does not seem to be a right or wrong, and there is no specific consequence for allowing your child to choose neutral toys, same-sex toys or opposite-sex toys etc. Each child is unique and should be considered individually. Children need to be given freedom to make decisions, under their parents helpful and non-punitive guidance.
Written for Mamas and Papas Magazine