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Toddlers, Trucks, and Tiaras: How (and When) Young Children Understand Gender

Photo by Rob and Julia Campbell / Stocksy United / 1301923
Photo by Rob and Julia Campbell / Stocksy United

By Cheryl Flanders

With all the stories about transgender kids in the news these days, you may be wondering what your young child really understands about the differences between boys and girls.

Those differences, as it happens, are more of a preoccupation with adults than with babies, toddlers, or even precocious preschoolers. Whether your three-month-old daughter wears a bow on that sweet bald head or your one-year-old son wears a baseball cap on his equally hairless noggin, your baby is clueless that he or she has a gender, no matter how you dress him.

Children become aware of the physical differences between boys and girls around age two, but they don’t have a full understanding of society’s gender roles and stereotypes until they are around age seven.

That journey of understanding is important for shaping both children’s identity and what they believe they can and cannot become, and how gender messages are internalized can have a real impact on your child’s life path. Although women are attending university at much higher rates than men, in 2009, women earned just 31 percent of degrees conferred in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

If you’re like most families, you want your children to believe they can follow their passions and dreams, no matter where they might lead. Every child, after all, is born with rich wellsprings of talent and potential—and those passions (at the outset) are not divvied up according to gender. For example, while your child has a preference for pink ponies (social influences do play a strong role here), she may demonstrate budding talents in engineering or building—so you also want her to love construction equipment or be inspired to construct the world’s largest ship!

Here’s some ideas to support your child’s identity at a young age: 

  1. Provide children’s books that show both men and women working in diverse gender roles, such as stay-at-home dads, female doctors, and male nurses.
  2. Give your baby or toddler a variety of playthings, not just stereotypically gendered toys. An assortment of cars, trucks, dolls, balls, and blocks will give her opportunities to discover and explore a far bigger world.
  3. Allow your child to dress in any color he loves. Consider this: In 1927, parents were advised to dress boys in pink and girls in blue. It wasn’t until the 1940s that retailers switched it up. So put that orange shirt on your baby and know that color will never define his gender identity!
  4. Encourage mixed-gender playdates, as this helps young children vary and expand their play outside of stereotypical roles.
  5. Challenge your own gender biases. There’s really no shame in having preconceived thoughts about your child’s gender role. After all, there’s a whole lot of social messaging that affects how we think children should “be.” But it’s wise to consider how your child might be short-changed in a world limited by gender—and the important role you can play in helping her become who she wants to be.
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