Kids Will Be Kids
Understanding gender developmentParents and caregivers have one of the most challenging jobs: raising children. Helping children navigate simple tasks is challenging enough, but add to it the possible struggle of gender development, and parents and caregivers can feel so overwhelmed. This struggle often leads to responses of fear and/or helplessness for the parent, and sometimes, the child as well. However, with proper knowledge, parents and caregivers can have better understanding of their child’s development so that they may respond with less fear and helplessness to questions and behaviors a child may have as related to gender.
First, understanding of gender development can help alleviate concerns for parents and caregivers. The following stages may be helpful in gaining more insight into a child’s development as related to gender:
18-24 months: Children, on average, develop a “gender label” such as girl, woman and feminine, and boy, man and masculine during these months. It is during this span that toddlers are receiving messages from their caregiving environments such as home and daycare to gain a sense of themselves as well as a sense of belonging.
3-4 years: The child’s next task is to learn how to “do” gender; they begin to categorize their own gender and focus on all kinds of differences. Children begin to connect the concept “girl” or “boy” and form stronger rules or expectations for how each gender behaves and looks. Also, it is common for many children to experiment with different gender expressions through play, such as in dressing up as a male hero figure when female or playing with toys that might not “fit” his/her gender. Exploring these roles is a healthy and normal part of development. Therefore, it will be important for parents and caregivers to limit their own desire to have the child evolve within their view of gender structure and norms.
5-7 years: During this time, most children have developed a firm sense of self and gender. Also, their thinking may be rigid in many ways, such as in clothing – “I have to wear a dress” or “I have to wear my Batman suit.” Some children learn to behave in ways that bring them the most reward regardless of how they may feel inwardly. Most children develop gender structures learning how to adhere to “gender norms” or expectations of their gender (i.e., Girls play with … And boys play with …). These feelings typically become more flexible with age.
8 years old to preteen: Most children will continue to identify with the sense of self developed earlier.
Pre-teens and teens: Most of this age group continue to develop their sense of self through introspection as well from gaining input from their social environment, like peers, family and friends. It is during this stage pre-teens or teens may make efforts to accentuate or disguise their body’s physical changes.
In addition to understanding development, understanding the language and terminology your child may use in discussing gender can help stifle confusion that may arise.
For instance, “gender identity” refers to an individual’s sense of self and gender, whereas, “transgender” refers to individuals whose birth gender is opposite of the gender with which they identify. Also, “gender nonconforming/variant/diverse” refers to individuals who do not conform to a gender role within the social norm (i.e., job roles, sports, etc.) or may not acknowledge “gender” in general.
However, even armed with this information, parents and caregivers may still have a sense of helplessness should a child bring up his/her questions about his/ her gender. So, what should one do if this conversation were to arise? Love. Loving a child through tough times does not equate acceptance of an act or belief system. Love lays the groundwork for the tough conversation to be had. If a child knows he or she is safe enough to ask the tough questions and will receive loving replies (not necessarily a reply of agreement), then he/she is more willing to be open and honest about more tough topics. Furthermore, when love is the central component of any conversation, it allows for each person to listen to one another. It allows for both truth and grace to be implemented into the conversation, even if all are not in agreement. Lastly, if parents or caregivers find they are unable to provide a reply that will enable safe conversation, it is OK to communicate with the child that you may need a little time to process before continuing the conversation. But reassure the child, as well, that he/she is still loved.
No matter whether it is a conversation about gender identity or some other tough topic, love is the best answer. But it may not always be the easiest answer to supply. If you or your child need help navigating the topic of gender identity, ask for help – no need to walk this journey alone.
Peri Gilbert-Reed, MS, LPC, Registered Play Therapist (RPT), EMDR Specialist for Children, EMDR Provider for adults, and is a counselor with Clint Davis Counseling & Integrative Wellness. You can contact her at Clint Davis Counseling and Integrative Wellness at 562-6903. www.clintdaviscounseling.com