Ages 2-5Sex and Sexuality

A quick look at gender development

Watching a young child come to understand sex and gender is fascinating. The process varies greatly depending on the child’s conceptual development and what information is given to them, but in general there are a few distinct stages that people tend to go through as they figure out what this whole gender concept is about.

Babies seem to be able to categorize male and female voices and faces even in the first year of life: 9-month-old infants who were shown pictures of both a man and a woman, and then heard a female voice saying, “Look at me,” attended more to the woman’s picture, as long as the picture was stereotypically feminine in face shape and hairstyle. There is also some evidence that infants in the 9-12 month range have developed associations between males and females and certain objects, such as tools and articles of clothing. While study results are mixed and it’s hard to draw firm conclusions about what babies know and don’t know, the evidence seems to show that some level of gender categorization takes place even before a child’s first birthday.

In the toddler-to-preschool years, concepts of gender become more and more sophisticated. At different points in the 2-4 age range, children realize that 1) they themselves are either a boy or a girl, 2) a person’s gender stays constant over time (unlike other attributes like age or profession), and 3) a person’s gender stays constant even if they wear clothes or do activities associated with the other gender. (I realize that the whole concept of gender constancy is complicated by the fact that some people do, in fact, change gender, or view their gender as fluid and partly depending on their presentation that day. We’ll get to that in a bit.) These realizations usually come in that order, although it may vary.

One of the big unsettled questions in gender development is how much it’s dependent on social and environmental influences, and how much it’s dependent on innate predispositions. There’s definitely some of both, but it’s unclear what the proportions are — and, indeed, the proportions themselves might be different in different people. In general, though, children develop the ability to distinguish between genders and identify which gender they belong to before they start showing a preference for same-gender playmates. This suggests that knowledge and beliefs about gender help influence the decisions children make about who and what to play with. Further supporting this is a study in which children were given two boxes of toys and the experimenter told the child, “I think boys like the things in this box better than girls do” (or vice versa). The toys were all of a kind the child wasn’t familiar with, and the combination of toys and labels were varied in different trials. Preschool-aged children played more with the toys in the box that was arbitrarily labeled as matching their sex. Again, this suggests that socially-provided information about what’s gender appropriate has a strong influence on a child’s preferences, once they are aware that they belong to one gender and not the other.

Research indicated that, once children understand gender as an aspect of identity, they account for it in one of three ways. They might believe it’s based on external features, such as haircut and clothing style: “I’m a boy because I have short hair.” They might believe it’s based on genitals: “I’m a boy because I have a penis.” Or (more rarely) they might believe it’s based on some unspecified essential quality: “I’m a boy because God made me a boy.” Which one of these rationales a child adopts depends largely on what they’re taught. Children who believe gender is based on external features might take longer to realize that a person can’t change genders just by changing their clothing and hairstyle… although children who believe gender is based on genitalia might not realize that genitalia don’t change on their own.

Once they’ve gotten the gender-consistency thing down, most children go through a stage where they rigidly enforce gender roles and rules. This is part of the process of stabilizing the entire gender schema, and it usually peaks between ages 5 and 7. After that point, children become much more flexible in their rules about how boys and girls behave. (Until puberty, when changing bodies create a new set of instabilities, to which many young people respond by becoming more rigid in their gender stereotyping again.)

Of course, missing from the research so far is information about how intersex and gender nonconforming children conceptualize gender, and whether their process of understanding gender divisions is different in any way. Some children express a very clear and stable preference for clothes or toys associated with the other gender, before the age where gender identity and gender constancy are firmly established as concepts. If they’re lucky enough to have parents who don’t see a problem with a boy wearing a dress, they get to navigate the formation of gender concept with a little more freedom, sophistication, and critical thought. Some develop a firm sense of identity as a “boy who likes girl stuff.” Others decide, eventually, that they want to be called by a different name and pronoun. We are only now living in an era where some parents give their child freedom to define their own gender how they want, and I’m excited to see how that will impact social concepts of gender in the future.

(Aside: every time I talk about cross-gender identities in children, someone gets anxious and horrified by the assumption that I’m advocating “sex changes” for children. I’m not, and no one responsible is. Genital surgery for babies and children is a bad idea unless it’s medically necessary: it leaves a lot of scar tissue and decreased sensitivity as the body grows and changes. Most advocates recommend that surgery wait until adulthood, whether the child is intersex or transgender. Children entering puberty have the option to take hormone-blocking medications, to forestall the irreversible effects of puberty, but up until that point no medical interventions are necessary or relevant at all.)

For those children who conform to gender stereotypes, some do it because of a strong native liking for pink frills or construction vehicles. Some do it more because it’s what their peer group is doing and they want to occupy a socially accepted role. Either way is fine. We’re social creatures, and positive peer relations are a key part of thriving at all ages of life. As long as we work on both showing and telling children that gender roles and identities can be flexible, and encouraging empathy and acceptance of children who don’t conform, they’ll be just fine.

Featured image by flickr user evilpeacock.


Ginny Brown is a writer, speaker, and educator specializing in sexuality and relationships. She recently completed her M.Ed in human sexuality and is figuring out how to make a career out of it. On Twitter she's @lirelyn.

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  1. This is really interesting. My 16 year old is gender fluid. She always defied being sorted from really early. She wasn’t a girl who liked boy things or a girl who liked girl things. She liked things from either category, but didn’t like being restricted in any way, and would be severely irritated when playmates tried. Not sure that I can make anything of that, just anecdote.

  2. You have obviously read a lot of research on this, could you comment on the dates?
    Because I’m wondering: If this is recent research, how would this have looked in the 80s, when gender was much less salient?
    Because I sure remember a time when toys and cloths were for kids and adults were a bit more creative in forming two teams than boys vs. girls.
    What I find interesting is how easily kids are “tricked” into liking other stuff: A very “boyish” design* become girly by the virtue of adding pink, but at another time the fact that the girl leggins have freaking lace doesn’t top the fact that they’re grey and therefore “not for girls”.
    A frind of mine recently told me about his nephew: While he and his male friends would never ask for a Filly horse themselves, but they are very happiy to play with his sister’s Filly horses.

    *I usually pimp plain shirts with embroidery

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