Sex, Gender, and Identity Development
This week a friend asked me to write about boys and gender identity. Well, actually, she asked me for advice regarding s 3 year old’s classmate who wears pink skirts, sparkly shoes, hair in pig-tails -and is a boy. Honestly is it painful to try to lay this out in one blog piece because it is such a HUGE topic.
But it is easiest if we tease apart some terms first: Sexual Identity is whether you are a male or female. Gender Identity is a continuum of masculinity and feminity. You can be more effeminate man and still be a man. Self-concept is how one feels about their identity. We aren't really going to talk about Self-concept but it is my area of specialty so I figured I would throw that in too. Bonus for today.
In the literature, awareness of gender identity is something that emerges about age 3 or 4 and it becomes stable about age 7. It is strengthened throughout adolescence and recognized as a constant though adulthood until the later years of life. In late adulthood there is a tendency for both males and females to become more androgynous.
Back to the kids – In reference to the development of gender identity, kids first have gender awareness (boy/girls are different), then comes the recognition of gender stability (boys grow into men) and then gender constancy (what you do won’t change your gender – i.e. playing with dolls doesn’t make you a girl). Once kids gain an understanding of gender constancy, they typically try to align their behaviors with gender appropriate behavior.
So young children initially don’t care who plays with what, but as early as age 3 or 4 they some start noticing and preferring that boys play with boy toys and visa-versa. As they become away of their own gender and move closer to kindergarten and 1st grade, they become increasingly more concerned with what boys and girls do differently. This is because they are developing their own gender identities and trying to conform to roles for boys and girls. Once their own identity is established they start to lighten up again. An 8 year old is pretty intolerant (generally) of cross-gender behavior, but by age 9 kids loosen up again. They recognize that playing with a doll or having girls as friends doesn’t make you a girl.
Now many of you are going to say that parents are all responsible for this gender typing and all. Parents DO play a huge roll as does society at a whole. But even when parents don’t ‘push’ kids into certain gender roles kids notice and usually gravitate towards those.
Kids receive great internal rewards for acting in ways that are gender-consistent, and are self-critical of themselves acting inconsistent, even when parents don’t encourage it. Which is what makes it so confusing for kids and adults to see a child NOT seem to want to conform to gender roles.
It is a parent’s job to raise children. To role-model good behavior, to role-model hard work, and to guide them in ways that will help them be successful in all aspect of their lives. It is not a parent’s job to promote gender confusion in kids.
There are boys who like to play with dolls. When my oldest was 18 months he wanted a baby doll, so I bought him a baby doll. He would play with it occasionally over the next few years and he was generally, pretty loving towards it. He was a good “dad” and even tried to breastfeed it. And when he did, we talked about how mommies are different then daddies and that daddies can't breastfeed, but that they can still be loving. Both my boys are incredible kids with their little sisters…
And I had a son who also wanted me to buy him a skirt.
That didn’t happen. He was 3. He liked the skirt. But it wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to buy a 3 year-old boy a skirt no matter how cute it was.
My job as a mother is to help him navigate his gender identity.
Putting him in pig-tails, sparkly sneakers, and a twirly skirt for preschool does him a disservice. Did I let him play dress up? Sure.
At home, being the firstborn we really only had 'boy' costumes…
But at our friends home he was able to try on the princess role...
That was many years ago. Now 11, there are some a few boys on his soccer field with pink cleats. At this age the kids are firmly fixed in their gender identity. They want pink cleats – okay. No big deal. But how you as the parent respond to your preschooler, could save your child from a lot of gender confusion in life, not to mention a lot of playground taunting.
So what should you do when you have someone in your community who is really breaking the norms? It is a great opportunity for you and your children to discuss what actually makes a person a boy or a girl. Use these times as a tool for their own growth. *Does wearing a skirt mean he is a boy? No. *Well why doesn’t Daddy wear skirts? *Can Daddy become a Mommy? Etc. It is great for kids to have some concrete conversations that act as a guide for them in our crazy world.
Let them wear pink and have a baby doll when they are pretending. But in the real world help them recognize that girls wear dresses and boys don't.
Lastly, because I am sure someone is going to think it…whether a 3 year old gravitates towards pink or blue does not predict or indicate any later preference for sexual orientation. Don’t sexualize your 3 year-old or mine. That is gross. That is not what we are talking about. Sexual Preference is not something that could even possibly emerge until puberty. That is wholly another topic and it is irresponsible to mix the two.
Thanks for reading! I would love to hear your thoughts!!