“BUT I AM NOT A BOY!”
Child’s Gender Identity Development
A short personal story: we are at friends’ place, we thought it would be raining all day and we would stay inside so I let my daughter, 3 year-old at this point, wear her nice ballet shoes. Finally, it stops raining, we let the children go out and play in the garden and I ask my daughter to take her shoes off and wear boots belonging to her friend (a boy)…. And then the crisis starts up: “NOOOO I don’t want these boots!!!” And why? “BUT I AM NOT A BOY!”
Tantrum? Yes, but there’s more than that. Let’s take a tour inside her brain…
She truly believes that if she wears boys’ shoes (or clothes), people will think that she is a boy. Asking a 3-year-old girl to wear boy’s boots is a real challenge for her.
“Children are convinced that being a boy or a girl is linked to socio-cultural features, like having short or long hair, playing with dolls or cars, etc.”
For us, as adults, things are simple. At birth, or even before with the ultrasound, we see if the baby has a penis or vulva, and done! We can celebrate “it’s a boy / girl!”
Babies and young children do not deduce their gender identity from observing their genitals. “Becoming a boy or girl of his/her own culture”¹, also called gender identity development is not a sudden revelation, it is a process that requires time and in which the child plays an active role. From birth, the baby turns into a detective and accumulates clues to understand that there are two categories, that he/she belongs to one of them, and finally to acquire the certainty that gender is stable regardless of time “I’m a boy, I will become a man “ or situations ” you’re dressed as Batman but you’re a girl “ and that it is determined physically. “This is developed around 5-7 years; previously, children are convinced that being a boy or a girl is linked to socio-cultural features like having short or long hair, playing with dolls or cars, etc. “¹
Gender identity development follows 3 steps.
This Cognitive-Developmental Theory was defined in 1966 by Kohlberg, an american psychologist. Far away from Freud’s unprovable theories of Oedipus complex, castration fear for boys, and penis envy for girls, this theory emphasizes the role of socialization and learning in the development of important differences between men and women.
Step 1: Gender labeling
The understanding of gender starts very early. 3-4 month-old babies can differentiate between male and female faces. When they are around 10 months old, they can identify objects which are generally associated with women or men. Then when they are 2 years old they are able to tell if a person is male or female based on clues such as hair or clothes. They can also tell their own gender.
Step 2: Gender stability
Then when they are 3 or 4 years old, temporality appears: Children understand that boys and men form are in one group, and that girls and women are in another group. A boy will become a “dad”, a girl will become a “mom”. However the child is still convinced that gender is built on external features and therefore he/she fully complies with the codes of his/her own gender and avoids anything that could be associated with the opposite group, so that anyone can identifies him/her as an individual of his/her own gender group.
Similarly, when they see a man wearing a dress, children will think he is a woman, but facing the same man in men’s clothes, the children will think he is a man.
Step 3: Gender consistency
Between 5 and 7 years old, the child becomes aware that a person’s gender does not change over time, does not depend on the situation but is usually based on the internal biology, and that the visible parts of gender are the reproductive organs, “willy” for boys and “minnie ” for girls. They will acquire gender consistency:
- First for themselves “I’m a boy whatever the clothes I wear”
- Then for the other members of their family “My sister is dressed as Batman, but she is still a girl”
- Gender constancy is fully reached when children are able to make the same assumptions about strangers
Therefore, before becoming 7 years old, the value awarded to compliance with codes for each gender is at its peak. “Because they think their gender and that of others is determined by the social context (appearance, toys, activities, etc.), they very carefully respect social conventions, both for themselves and for others, so that they don’t cheat and present to others as a child of the right gender group.” ¹
OK, what do we do now with all this knowledge?
As keen observers, children understand that gender is a structural pattern of our societies and they are fond of anything that can tell them to which category a person belongs. And the more society / TV / toys / clothes give them external signs, the more they collect, register and comply with them.
This is why gendered marketing, designed specifically to sell products “for girls only” or “for boys only” works so well. This is perfect for our little stereotype fans! However the more gendered marketing opposing girls and boys develops, the more it reduces freedom of choice and neutral attributes to the displeasure of parents of mixed siblings who would like to give the big sister’s Lego / bike / jacket to the little brother. Also at the expense of our children who build their gender identity on caricatured models: Girls = Disney Princesses; Boys = Avengers.
Up to 5-7 years old, children are so keen to adopt the characteristics of their group, that it is useless to force them to adopt one code of the opposite gender. However we can try to offer them ungendered clothing, games, books (yes it still exists … a bit …) and make sure that they see a wide diversity of models and heroes of their own gender.
Good news as a conclusion? First my daughter has grown up and can now wear boy’s boots without going hysterical. She also wears her little brother’s Batman costume!
More good news? Our children are not doomed to be “Gender-control-freaks” forever. From 7 to 12 years old, children enter in a phase of flexibility and accept much more easily some overlap between what considered suitable for each gender in terms of behaviors and appearances. This is the perfect time to open children to activities, entertainment, readings, heroes that are not traditionally associated with their gender, and to discuss and challenge stereotypes they encounter every day. Let’s get cracking!
¹ Dafflon Novelle Anne (dir.). Filles-garçons : socialisation différenciée ?
We would like to thank the website www.aussi.ch, well documented and very clear (in French only)