It starts early. First your 4-year-old daughter begins to refuse to wear that badass navy blue skull sweatshirt you thought would look so cute on her. “Girls don’t wear blue. And girls definitely don’t wear skulls,” she says while a small part of you, the part that found your heavy metal haven at age 15, dies a little inside. Next, she’s turning her nose up at the Thomas the Train toys her brother loves — the same ones she was obsessed with just one month before. Again, it’s the same old song and dance: “Girls don’t play with trains.”
Moms and dads of little boys around preschool age will be familiar with similar declarations of gender knowledge — they’ll suddenly possess so much “wisdom” you might wonder if they’re moonlighting as child psychologists. Bring a doll to bed? Not anymore. Hug and kiss you or express their sadness to you while among peers? You might be disappointed to find them putting the brakes on that kind of emotional response a lot younger than you anticipated.
“Gender identity is generally formed by age 3 years,” says licensed psychotherapist Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., a program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center. “The primary way in which young children learn about gender differences is through socialization experiences. Such experiences are external to the child’s self-image or identity but strongly influence perceptions, whether reality-based or distorted. Children generally prefer to join others with whom they identify, thus they join peers whom they perceive as having commonality and with whom they can share experiences and interests.”
In other words, if almost every other girl in your daughter’s preschool class is walking right past the bin of trucks to play house or dress-up, she is going to want to do the same thing, no matter how many times her parents tell her trucks are a gender-less toy. That doesn’t mean peers are the sole source of gender knowledge and identity at this young and impressionable age — children pick up on gender cues through factors that include parental influences, peers, social information, media depictions and representations and interactions modeled by adults, Mendez says.
And it gets more complicated. How children relate to their gender has as much to do with nature as it does nurture. “Children also pick up on gender cues resulting from their own internal drives and preferences,” Mendez says. “During early childhood development, children have the task of integrating their internal preferences with external societal expectations.”
If all of this sounds depressing, particularly if you were hoping your cisgender daughter would grow up more in touch with her masculine side or your son would express his emotions more freely, rest assured it isn’t a bad thing. Children learn through modeling, social engagement and interactions as they take in learning and apply information to make sense of the world, and it is perfectly natural and inherent to identify preferences and join with those that children experience as similar or familiar, Mendez says.
“By identifying with their own gender, they are learning about themselves, gaining understanding of social norms, practicing application of those norms and discovering how they fit into society as they develop their own sense of self,” Mendez says. “Since children are socialized in male/female role differences, it is important for them to experience gender-specific norms. Children learn social rules, tasks and behaviors from associations with peers and, more specifically, same-gender peers.”
In fact, Mendez says, the one way you’re guaranteed to raise a firecracker who defies societal norms about gender is by first teaching her the rules she can break. “The learning of how to behave is externally learned, and the rules of social conformity must be learned before a child can exercise independent thought and decision-making regarding alternative behavioral choices,” Mendez says. “The developmental task of young children is to learn, build a strong foundation of behaviors and later take the tool kit of learned norms and behaviors and modify, change or substitute independent choices.”
Maybe you can’t help yourself from snapping back about pink and blue and trucks and dolls, but Mendez says a more effective approach to handling this might be to help children learn gender role norms and help them integrate into social expectations. First and foremost, encourage them to explore and engage with both genders in a positive way to reinforce their sense of appreciation and respect for themselves and others. Then, chill out a bit, and let them figure it out themselves — when they feel supported and loved by their primary caretakers, they will.
“When parents reinforce gender separation concepts, such as specific colors for girls and certain sports for boys, they promote stereotypes and biases that are not conducive to respectful collaboration or gender integration,” Mendez says. “When parents promote strong egalitarian gender values, they instill in children the knowledge needed later in life to make choices and decisions that are gender-neutral.”
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