How Children Acquire Gender
The distinction between sex and gender has never been more clear in the mainstream. While sex manifests prenatally, gender evolves as more of a day-to-day performance and a lifelong journey. Psychotherapist Acey Mercer clarifies the difference between how an individual is assigned at birth versus who they know themselves to be.
"Body parts and sex assigned at birth do not determine or define someone's gender identity," Mercer said. "Gender identity is how we see ourselves in our hearts and minds."
While awareness of gender identity is its own developmental milestone—with the acknowledgment that every child's development is different—a general timeline for gender identity and developmental psychology does exist. Author and marriage and family therapist trainee at the Los Angeles LGBT Center Chris Tompkins explained.
"By age 2 or 3, children start to develop a sense of being male or female, otherwise known as gender identity," Tompkins said. "By age 3 to 5, most kids have a strong sense of being a boy or a girl. Three to 5 is also the age children will learn important sexual attitudes from their parents….Child development experts refer to this stage as the most 'rigid' period of gender identity, and it usually occurs at around 5 to 6 years of age."
Mercer pointed out that the cultural conditioning to view gender norms as an unchanging facet of life has more to do with our economy than anyone's inner conscience.
'It is society that has constructed notions of gender, and deemed what's appropriate for boys or girls, or is acceptable for both.'
"Knowing that not all children like the same toys and colors, when and why have they become gendered?" Mercer said. "It is society that has constructed notions of gender, and deemed what's appropriate for boys or girls, or is acceptable for both. Societal influences—specifically, capitalism—have created and perpetuated gender stereotypes by labeling 'things' as being masculine or feminine and gender-specific. These categorizations have established gender norms as fact-based."
As Mercer clarified, things are, well, things, and a child of one gender can easily play with toys marketed for another gender. That has far less chance of influencing them than the schoolyard messages we receive explicitly or subliminally, and what supposedly defines a gender.
Tompkins made an argument for gender-fluid play—or in very simple terms, having kids take turns at who plays the princess and who plays the knight—as a useful outlet of creativity for all children, cis or trans.
"There are differences in children's genders, gender expressions and sexualities, just as there are cultural differences among the human race," he said. "Gender-fluid play helps instill a sense of autonomy in how children want to express themselves naturally—not because of how they think they should be based on the dominant heteronormative and gendered messages they get every day."
There's much more at stake than political correctness—children absorbing opinions as fact squashes individuality, raises childhood stress and may inhibit their later capacity for happiness as hinged on self-love.
"Research has provided evidence that a lack of acceptance and support from loved ones leads to poorer mental health outcomes in the future," Mercer said. "For example, misgendering or refusing to use the correct name and pronouns (he/she/they/hir/zir/x, etc.) a person has requested be used, leads to higher instances of homelessness, substance use, self-harm and suicidal ideation. The best thing we can do to help prevent negative future conditions is to follow the child's lead and [allow] them to explore and make safe and informed decisions they feel are right for them in the present."
While gender-bending creative play can be fostered as a means of early critical thinking, adults can also reassess the compliments paid to children. This can be as obvious as not telling masculine-presenting children assigned female at birth that they "look so pretty" or as paradigm-shifting as considering what exactly we're trying to let the child know is appreciated and valued. Tompkins proposes adults form compliments from the inside out. "I invite parents and caregivers to consider that there are ways of praising efforts without focusing only on external validation."
It's time to ungender
This advice is relevant beyond questions of gender and without age restrictions. Not only is it helpful to switch up the object of the compliments—like congratulating a seemingly feminine child on her bravery—but also the subject. Teaching children to value what is within their ability to control obviously relates to presentations of gender, but also applies later on to questions of work ethic and desired results.
Perceiving life as something you participate in and can influence rather than something that just happens to you bears something in common with vocalizing an appreciation for a child's choices over how well they conform to the expectations of their sex determined at birth.
Of the many secrets and surprises a developing child contains, gender is one of many truths only they can know. Ungendering compliments and supporting gender-fluid play are positive reinforcements to a child's overall autonomy, inside and out.