So your son wants to wear a princess costume to school and paint his nails pink. Or your daughter wants to crop her hair short and wear boys’ clothes. Whether you’re A-okay with your child’s wishes or are panicked about what it might mean, here’s what all parents need to know about kids and gender.
A Starting Point
Experts agree that kids become aware of their gender at a very young age – amazingly even before their first birthday. Soon after birth, babies start differentiating between male and female voices, and between 6 and 12 months, they demonstrate an early understanding of gender, says Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D. a clinical psychologist, director of mental health and a founding member of the Child and Adolescent Gender Center, and author of Gender Born, Gender Made.
In their second year, kids start developing a sense of gender identity: They learn, “I’m a boy,” or “I’m a girl.” By 2 or 3 they begin to understand gender roles and what particular behaviours are typically associated with each – for instance, depending on home environment, they might learn that girls like princesses and dolls and everything pink, while boys prefer to rough house and play with toy cars.
Nature vs. Nurture
Most experts agree that our gender identities are shaped both by society and by biology. “There’s clear evidence of a biological genetic predisposition toward gender attitudes, behaviors and beliefs based, in part, on hormones and brain development,” says Mark Barnett, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Kansas State University and a leading expert on gender role stereotyping in children.
One study of 14,000 Dutch twins at age 7 and 8,500 twins at age 10 found that 70 percent of cross-gender behaviour could be linked to genetic factors at both ages, for both boys and girls. “But it’s a combination of nature and nurture,” says Dr. Barnett. “In our society, we often encourage boys and girls to be different – we bombard them with messages of what’s appropriate, whether through movies, books, role models or simply the way we act toward our children.”
When it comes to gender roles, the expectation of how a girl or boy (or woman or man) should look and act vary greatly by where you live and your family’s individual attitudes. In a big city, kids might be exposed to a wide range of diverse families and might not feel as confined by gender norms as, say, a child in a small traditional community. At home, mums are typically more comfortable than dads with boys showing feminine behaviours.
“What’s appropriate gender behaviour is in the eye of the beholder,” explains Dr. Barnett. “Certain communities and families simply have more relaxed gender roles.” What is normal: Kids will want to explore gender. “What makes it abnormal is adults’ perception of it,” says Dr. Ehrensaft.
A Lopsided Controversy
Both boys and girls can be gender nonconformists. And yet, if you follow stories in the news, it's always the boys dressing as princesses who get the attention, not the girls who only want to wear combat boots and pants.
"Girls have been allowed much greater latitude in sexual expression than boys have been," says Dr. Barnett. "Boys get a lot more flak for not walking the straight and narrow." For example, if a girl has three older brothers and wants to dress in a football uniform like them, most parents wouldn’t think twice about it. However, if you flip the scenario, and a little boy wants to wear dresses and play with Barbies like his older sisters, some mothers and fathers might have objections. "We've become a lot more liberal over time in terms of how we accept girls doing masculine things, but, as a society, we’re very resistant to the same changes among boys," adds Dr. Barnett.