Gender is established early in life. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most children have a stable sense of their gender by age four.
Even though gender-related behaviors and interests, gender expression, and even the language they use to communicate their gender may change, a child’s fundamental understanding of their own gender comes into view at a young age.
As a parent, there are many things you can do to create a safe and nurturing environment for your child to learn about and express their gender. But first, it helps to familiarize yourself with the developmental stages of gender, and how your child’s understanding of gender changes as they grow.
Please note: While ages are used to describe a general outline of the stages of gender development, these are not hard and fast age bands. Some children will go through these stages a bit earlier or later than their peers. That is natural and to be expected; don’t worry if your child is moving at a different rate- all will be well! Consider the ages below as guidelines, rather than rules, that speak to the general arc of gender development in young children.
Toddlers are already beginning to understand and define gender before they reach the age of two. They start looking for patterns that they can use as clues to understand gender and expectations associated with gender. They internalize messages from their homes, friends and family, and care settings. They begin to understand gender as a means to group themselves, which is an important part of their development at this stage.
Between the ages of two and three, children start to become conscious of the physical differences between boys and girls (physical in this case really means genitals). Most children at this stage can easily label themselves as either a boy or a girl. In addition, they start to learn the “gender” of toys, clothing and colors. They categorize people, animals and things they come into contact with in distinct categories, which are informed by the binary constructions of gender they learned in their families and communities. They look at same gender models to learn how to act, and may avoid or chastise others who “cross” the gender divide. At this age, gender diverse identities and/or expression may be clear; if they have been given language to understand gender in non-binary ways, they will use that language in developmentally appropriate ways as well. If a child does not have the language to communicate it, feels unsure, or is concerned about whether they would be safe sharing what they understand about their gender, they may keep these thoughts to themselves for some time.
Gender identity takes on more meaning at this stage, as children begin to focus on all kinds of differences. They start connecting the concept “girl” or “boy” to specific attributes, and establishing deeper beliefs and expectations about gender norms and roles. This is the age where stereotypes start to emerge, and gender segregation often begins. Children who don’t fall neatly into expected gender norms can begin to feel isolated as play and friends tend to fall along gendered lines.
As children become increasingly aware of gender rules and the pressure to comply with them, their thinking about gender becomes more rigid. They know the rules, but they’re not yet developmentally able to think more deeply about the beliefs and values the rules are based on. Their ideas about gender are scripted, and gender roles are strictly defined and adhered to. Phrases like “only girls play with dolls” become common. Even when exceptions to the rules are acknowledged, perceptions regarding gender persist. By age six, most children spend the majority of their playtime with members of their own sex.
Gradually, children begin to gain a sense of gender as something that is consistent but increasingly separate from expression. They become less attached to rules and may even begin to challenge stereotypes, which allows for a broader expression of self. Their interests and attitudes towards clothing and hairstyles begin to change and expand. For example, the girl who once insisted that only girls like pink and wanted to only wear pink may just as adamantly declare that she hates pink and will now only wear blue and green.
While children develop an understanding of their gender at a young age, they may not have the language or other tools to express their identity outwardly. For gender-diverse kids, including transgender and non-binary youth, the gap between when they understand their gender and when they are able to disclose it to family, friends or others in their community may last for years. A 2015 study by researchers Todd Savage and Leslie Lagerstrom found that while the average age of self-realization for gender-diverse children was 7.9, the average age when they disclosed their understanding to others was not until age 15.5. Those years in between self-realization and disclosure were a time often marked by fear and shame, making them vulnerable in their isolation.
By understanding where children are in the developmental stages of gender, we can more readily provide support for children who are in the process of understanding their gender. It’s important to meet every child where they are in their developmental journey – and to recognize that all kids, regardless of age or gender, are forming an understanding of their gender that will persist throughout their lives.
For information on workshops offered for parents, caregivers and other adult family members, please reach out to us at email@example.com. If you have a gender-diverse child or youth and are interested in resources for you and your child, please check out our terrific partner, Gender Spectrum.