Tomboys and Tinkerbells

How does gender identity develop?

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.  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.

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.

Children display their gender identity in the clothing they wear, their hairstyle, nickname, social behaviour (aggression/dominance/dependency/gentleness), physical gestures and non-verbal actions that are considered either masculine or feminine, and their social relationships and choice of friends.

Understanding the differences

As children become more aware of themselves physically, they will begin to notice the differences between boys and girls. This identification can take place from as early as two years old although even earlier than this babies can differentiate between male and female voices and faces. Children will also learn the difference between ‘he’ and ‘she’ as they learn to talk.

Little children and toddlers are curious about the differences between boys and girls. And at this stage of development, the only differences they can understand are those that are tangible – the physical differences. They may ask when seeing you change your baby’s nappy, why their brother looks different, and children may engage in “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” to alleviate some of their curiosity. Parents need to assist their children in acknowledging these differences and answering questions if need be. As always, if your child is asking, they need to know something, but your responses need to be age appropriate.

Parental involvement

Parents are needed to create strong positive role models. They do not have to be gender specific, and fathers can very easily model nurturing behaviour for their daughter, as a mother can model independence for their sons. The key word is positive – parents need to role model positive behaviours and ways of being in the world. Their responses to conflict or how they treat members of the opposite (or same) sex are going to be learnt by their children. However, the behaviours a parent models may not necessarily translate to how their children feel about their gender. To stereotype, a father who likes sports and doesn’t show his emotion may have a son who is more emotionally in touch, doesn’t like sports, and perhaps prefers to play with dolls.

A child’s gender identity cannot be influenced by his/her parents and cannot change based on what toys children play with or what clothes they like to wear.  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.  Similarly playing with blocks or building tree houses while wearing shorts may make your little girl a Tomboy, but doesn’t mean there is any cause for concern.

Our society is driven by stereotypes which affect the choices our children make regarding sport, subjects and later careers. There is no reason a boy cannot take Home Economics or a girl cannot play soccer. Society has decided that these are not always acceptable when actually these choices encourage equality among males and females. A child should not be disciplined for playing with the ‘wrong’ toys – as this will create feelings of low self-esteem 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. While parents want their child to be accepted socially, parents need to assist them in finding places where they excel, even if they’re different from the norm and the societal standard.

Gender identity confusion can take place as a result of a variety of factors – biological and social.  If your daughter has a strong 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.  A little boy who insists on playing the mom or the sister in fantasy play, or only wants to wear girls clothes may be struggling with gender identity confusion. Conflicts regarding a child’s identity can lead to emotional difficulties at school, especially for boys as there is less tolerance for ‘girly’ boys in our society. At this stage 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.

Blue for boys and pink for girls

Children should be allowed to play with whichever toys they are drawn to (provided they’re developmentally appropriate and non-violent). If a little girl wants to play with Lego and a boy wants to play dress up, let them. Gender-neutral toys are imperative in a child’s development. Pre Primary schools should have a variety of areas where children can play. These areas include cognitive, fantasy, art and the garden. Here children are encouraged to play with a variety of toys – either gender specific or gender neutral depending on what takes their fancy.

Forcing a child to play with a gender-specific toy because you’re uncomfortable with them playing with toys for the other gender will not stop wanting them to play with those toys, but more suppress their desire to do so. Times have changed, and it is more acceptable for girls to take on ‘boy’ activities and vice versa. We know as a society that stereotypes only perpetuate an idea of difference, and suggest that there are specific ways that specific groups of people should behave and respond. As parents we need to avoid this for our children, giving them freedom to make some of these decisions for themselves.

The question of gender identity creates a lot of anxiety for parents as they worry whether their child is following acceptable developmental norms for their gender. It is important that children are encouraged to play with gender-neutral toys and to explore areas that are interesting to them. A parents’ opinion of their child’s choices will only make it more difficult for their child to express themselves and be a comfortable and happy person in the world.

Written for Mamas and Papas Magazine


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