Habitot Children's Museum
June 2017

Concepts of Gender Identity

We’ve all seen it - when a woman gets pregnant, the first thing most people ask is weather the baby will be a boy or a girl.  Invariably, the answer may help pick a color scheme for the baby shower or nursery, and influence what clothing and toys we buy for the baby.  This is one of the many ways that concepts of gender and gender identity can be placed on a child even before their birth.  

Children begin to form their own concepts of gender beginning around the age of 2.  Between the ages of 3 and 5 years, children develop their gender identity and begin to understand what it means to be male or female.  Almost immediately after becoming gender aware, children begin developing stereotypes, which they apply to themselves and others, in an attempt to give meaning to and gain understanding about their own identity. This is why the preschool years can be critical in how young children understand themselves and the idea of gender in general.  Stereotypes and sexism limit potential growth and development because internalizing negative stereotypes impacts self-esteem and ultimately, academic performance.  Therefore, the lessons we teach our children during their early years, both at home and at school, can set a strong foundation for their own self worth as well as their understanding of the world around them.

Toddlers and Preschool-aged children are more alike than different, curious about everything and eager to investigate through games, crafts, and tactile opportunities. They want to get messy and adventurous, to be physical and curious. They're hungry to try out everything at their disposal from dolls, to trucks, to games.  Most young children, when given the opportunity, willingly embrace toys completely outside of any gender-specific domain.  Activities for young children are less about gender and more about exploration.


Most experts, including the AAP, call early childhood the perfect time to experiment with all sorts of activities without restrictions by gender.  Offering a variety of experiences and toys while being open-minded about how your child chooses to play will inspire experimentation and cooperative play and will open your child’s mind up to a greater realm of possibility, now and throughout their lives.


  • Regardless of your child’s sex, fill their world with a wide variety of toys.  Both boys and girls should have access to blocks and cars as equally as dolls and play kitchens.  Offering a variety of play activities helps create well-rounded children and opens their eyes to their own personal interests and strengths.

  • Allow for open-ended experimentation.  Researcher has shown that behaviors and preferences of very young children is not necessarily a strong predictor of their adult gender identity or sexual orientation.  Your child’s play preferences may be telling you something about them, but it may just be simple exploration.  In either case, relax and let them explore.

  • All children should have access to books and role models that include gender non-conforming people.  These characters or role models will give gender variant children someone to identify with, and will give all other children a wider realm of understanding of the breadth of human experience.  Open minds are good for everyone.

  • Challenge the gender stereotypes your children hear and repeat.  If your child asserts that girls can’t be firefighters, for example, respond by saying, “Of course girls CAN be firefighters, and here's someone who is!”

  • While you can guide your child, you can’t change your child.  If your child is gender non-conforming, do your research, reach out to experts and other families like yours, and learn how best to support her, help her understand herself, and prepare her for success in whatever life challenges come her way.  


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