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A Look at Young Children and Concepts of Gender

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child selecting clothes

“All dogs are boys and all cats are girls.” “My dad says boys can’t wear sparkle shoes.” “Girls can too be baseball players! My sister plays baseball!”  

If you’ve listened to young children, you know ideas about gender are part of their thoughts and conversations. Many adults, including early childhood professionals, have strong feelings about gender issues. The concepts are complex, and definitions are evolving.  

This blog post takes a brief look at gender, how children’s gender identity develops, and what gender expression can look like in young children.  

Assigned sex is generally based on visible anatomical characteristics – the genitals. For most of history, parents had to wait until birth for a baby’s sex to be assigned. Now, tests such as prenatal ultrasound and the NIPT blood test allow health care providers to know the sex of a fetus weeks before birth. At birth, a child’s sex is usually assigned by an attending health care provider. In some cases, the genitalia don’t fit into the categories of only male or only female. Sometimes genetic testing reveals that a person’s sex chromosomes don’t match their genitalia. The term intersex means having both male and female sex characteristics. 

“Gender binary” is the cultural notion that every person identifies as either a girl/woman or boy/man. In reality, gender is expansive and often fluid. People’s genders do not always fit into the categories of girl/woman and boy/man; they may fit into neither or both. The general term for that is nonbinary.  

The idea of the gender binary is the basis for many laws and policies. For example, public restrooms are often segregated by gender: “men’s” and “women’s.” Except for some athletic programs for children, such as youth soccer, sports teams are usually created for either girls/women or boys/men, not both. Laws and policies may also limit or protect people’s rights based on their gender.  

Gender identity is what a person “knows themselves to be,” such as “I’m a girl/woman (or boy/man ).”  

Child psychiatrist Dr. Jason Rafferty writes that children’s gender identity seems to develop in stages roughly related to age.  

At around age 2, they’re usually aware of the physical differences that figure in assigned gender. (Parents can attest that 2- to 3-year-olds may be curious about such differences in pets and other living things, as well as in people.)  

By age 3, most children label themselves and others according to the boy/girl gender binary. However, they might not think of gender as permanent. For example, you might hear a child assigned female at birth say, “I’m a girl, and I will be a daddy when I grow up.” (By the way, such statements are NOT a sure sign that a child will identify as nonbinary! Most likely, they’re still figuring out how gender usually works.) 

By age 4, most children have a firmer idea of their gender identity and what it can mean. They are becoming aware that growing up won’t make them a different gender. They continue to learn how gender can affect life choices. For example, you might hear a girl say, “Gran says there are no babies in space. So can you be a mom if you go into space?”  

Toddlers and preschoolers take in ideas about gender from a variety of sources. What do their family members say and do about gender? What messages about gender do they hear or see in books, videos, games, or advertising? What do they see that people are allowed to do, or not allowed, based on their gender?  

Gender expression refers to the ways someone’s behavior represents their gender identity. How “should” boys or girls play, or talk, or dress, or wear their hair? What are they expected to care about – sports, dolls, music, books, hunting, cars?  

Preschoolers learn options for gender expression from family members, peers, and the culture around them. They pick up on what’s acceptable or “normal” to the people who matter most to them. They begin to have preferences about their hairstyles, clothes, and what they play with. Children whose families have recently immigrated to the United States may find the ideas about gender they hear at home are different from what they see elsewhere.  

Pretend play in early childhood programs can allow children to try on many forms of gender expression. Any child can “be” a dad with a baby, or wear a sparkly dress while clomping around in work boots with a toolbox. There’s no evidence that such cross-gender play confuses children about gender identity.  

In fact, such play is healthy, especially in our culture, where children encounter conflicting ideas about “normal” gender expression. They need to play about such things as they construct their gender identities. We can let them do that in our classrooms.  

We need to recognize, though, that we, as educators, can hold misconceptions and biases about gender, just as the rest of society does. We don’t have all the answers, but we can be well informed. Organizations such as NAEYC, Zero to Three, and the American Academy of Pediatrics offer materials to help parents and educators support young children’s understanding of gender in their lives.  

Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza holds a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from University of Illinois, a master’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Illinois, and a master’s in counseling psychology from Adler University of Chicago. She served on the faculty of the early childhood teacher education program at Millikin University and worked with children and families for more than 25 years as a teacher, social worker, and counselor. She recently collaborated with Dr. Debbie Reese on a young people’s adaptation of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz). Her long-standing interest in children’s literature is reflected in her reviews of children’s books with Native content, which have appeared in A Broken Flute and on the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. Jean and her late husband, Durango, have four grown children and six grandchildren. She lives in Urbana, Illinois.


Rafferty, J. (2022, May 11). Gender identity development in children. Healthy Children.  

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Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
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Intended audience(s):
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  • Teachers / Service providers

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Reviewed: 2023