Gender plays a large role in shaping who we are and how we interact with the world. It is important for parents and caregivers to understand the distinction between sex and gender, as they are closely related but not the same. One’s sex is about the body you are born with, while gender is about the way one explores their own identity and the roles and behaviors society connects with being male, female, or other identities like transgender, non-binary, and queer.
Research suggests that children begin to understand gender as early as the age of 3 to 5 years old. At the age of three, children begin to acquire gendered behaviors and practices by observing and mimicking behaviors that get positively reinforced, and avoiding ones that receive negative feedback. Caregivers play a big role in shaping children’s understanding of gender through their own behaviors. For example, many children come to believe through observation that certain colors or clothing styles are tied to being masculine or feminine.
Caregivers also play a role in introducing gender through the toys they provide to children. Toy play is an important aspect of children's lives, impacting their physical, social, spatial, and cognitive development. Toys can influence a child’s body image, spatial skills, and perceptions of suitable careers, all of which are gendered. Research shows that toys marketed for boys often focus on fighting, competition, excitement, and risk-taking while toys for girls focus on looks, caring for others, and domestic skills. It's important to consider the attributes and messages conveyed by strongly gender-typed toys.
Overall, caregivers have a big impact on how kids understand gender. These understandings can shape how children perceive themselves, such as what they feel they can or cannot do and how they present themselves to others. However, these perceptions and behaviors may not always correspond to their gender identity. Gender identity is one’s deeply felt, internal, and individual experience of gender, and may or may not correspond to one’s designated sex at birth.
One of the most important roles of the caregiver is to serve as a source of support for children. Sometimes children may be facing conflicts between societal gender expectations and their own gender identity. They may feel like they don't fit in because of their gender identity or needs. These conflicts can have a negative impact on a child's mental health. Recent legislation, such as Texas Senate Bill 14, has imposed restrictions on gender-affirming care for transgender individuals under 18, including puberty blockers and hormone therapy. This care is considered very important to many transgender individuals who believe it will help improve their mental well-being and overall mental health.
To help your child, make sure to check in with them often and see if they're okay. Pay attention to the messages you send through your actions and talk openly with your child about their feelings. Meeting children where they are and providing a supportive environment can help them navigate their gender identity and expression with confidence and resilience.