How Gender Roles Affect Child Development

Are you a new parent concerned about how gender roles affect your child’s development? Are there things you can do to help them along the way?

We’ll explain gender roles, how they are developed, how they are expressed, and what you can do to ensure that your child blossoms into their natural self.   

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What Is the Difference Between Sex and Gender?

When babies are born, they are assigned male or female based on their physical characteristics. This designation is referred to as their sex or assigned gender

Gender identity has to do with an internal sense that a child has of who they are that comes from many factors. 

Factors that influence gender identity include:

  • Biological Traits
  • Developmental Influences
  • Environmental Conditions

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How Do Children Develop Their Gender Identity?

Children typically develop their gender identity in stages:

  • At around two years old, children become aware of the physical differences between girls and boys.
  • Before they reach three years old, most children are capable of identifying themselves as either a girl or a boy.  
  • By four, most children will have a solid sense of their gender identity.

During these early years, children start to understand gender role behaviors, like what boys are supposed to do or what girls like to do. 

However, it’s not unusual for children to show cross-gender preferences. These activities are a normal part of exploring their gender development, regardless of how they identify in the future.

Children develop a clearer view of their personal identity and their gender over a period of time. 

Research suggests that children who develop a gender-diverse identity still know their gender as consistently and clearly as their peers at the same developmental stage. And they still receive the same levels of love, support, and acceptance socially.

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Girl Playing in Class


What You Can Do as a Parent

As a parent, you must allow your children to explore different types of play and gender roles. In addition, you can ensure that your young child’s environment encourages opportunities for children to explore diversity in gender roles.

A couple of things you can do to facilitate a diverse environment include:

  • Provide your children with a wide range of toys to play with, including dolls, action figures, toy cars, building blocks, and sports accessories.
  • Use gender-neutral terms around your children, like police officers instead of policemen or servers instead of waiters.
  • Read books, do puzzles, and play games with your children that show women and men in diverse gender and non-stereotypical roles, like female soldiers and male nurses.
  • Praise both girls and boys for the same behaviors. For example, a boy being kind, or a girl being good at a sport.

Usually, by the age of six, children spend the majority of their playtime with members of their own sex.However, they may also start to gravitate to activities and sports that are stereotypically associated with their gender. 

It’s essential to give them the freedom to choose the friends they want to play with, their activities, and the sports they play. It’s also important to talk to your child to understand their preferences and that they feel included without being teased or bullied by their peers. 

Ways That Children Express Their Gender Identity

While children can express their gender identity through their choices of sports, games, and toys, they can also do it in other ways, including:

  • The gender of their friends, the people they imitate, and their social relationships.
  • Their preferred nickname or name.
  • Their hairstyle of clothing.
  • Social behaviors show various degrees of gentleness, aggression, dominance, and dependency. 
  • Behaviors and manners with physical gestures and nonverbal actions are typically identified as feminine or masculine.

While a child’s gender expression at any moment seems to be influenced by their environment and stereotypes, they cannot change their internal sense of gender identity.

The Role of Gender Stereotypes in Gender Identity

Recent research indicates that a child’s attitude towards gender is entirely formed when they are seven years of age. Children attach themselves at an early age to stereotypes as a way to help classify and make sense of the world.  

When we start to impose rigid concepts of femininity and masculinity on children, we can limit their potential and cause harm to them later in life. For example, we teach boys not to show their emotions and tell girls always to be nice.

In recent years, our expectation of “things that girls do” and “things that boys do” has changed. For example, boys now pursue fields like cooking, art, and music, which are traditionally feminine. And girls now participate in mathematics, athletics, and first-responder roles that are historically masculine.

When the interests of a child run contrary to what society expects, they can be subjected to bullying and discrimination. So it’s natural for any parent to want to push their children to conform to protect their child from exclusion and criticism. 

However, it’s often better for parents to act as advocates for their children, support them in their choices, and be confident and comfortable with who they are.

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Child Coloring on Paper


Gender Plays a Large Roll in a Child’s Development

While children are assigned a sex at birth based on their physical characteristics, their gender identity isn’t fully formed until they are around seven years of age.

A child’s gender identity is formed by a combination of biological traits, developmental traits, and environmental conditions.

Parents can help their children develop their gender identity naturally by providing an environment with plenty of diversity in gender roles. And by giving them access to toys, games, and books that aren’t gender-specific.

While gender stereotypes still exist, it’s important not to force them on children as they develop. It can limit them and even harm them as they grow older.

It’s important to remember that your child’s development is a process and to let them grow naturally and to support and nurture them along their journey.

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