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Children and Gender Identity

“This is my purse,” my grandson said proudly when he was two, indicating a small cloth bag he was carrying with the strap draped over his shoulder. He loved walking through the room with his purse swinging by his side. At two, he didn’t know that purses are traditionally considered feminine. One day, when he showed this prized possession to a neighbor, the woman responded, “That’s not your purse, it’s your bag, your fishing bag.” That was the end of purse play.

Ironically, even during the period when this well-intended adult shifted my grandson’s play in a more “masculine” direction, the current fashion for businessmen was carrying leather bags to work, bags that looked identical to small purses.

Children are growing up in world where the old rules no longer hold, and the vocabulary about gender is constantly shifting and evolving. In the midst of change, there are countless pressures on children to conform to culturally defined gender stereotypes, and they come as corrections from adults and often from other children – “Boys don’t wear pink!” As they get older, additional pressures about how they express their identity will also be greatly influenced by social media.

Our children begin navigating the world of gender identity at a very young age, and develop concepts of what’s culturally expected by around age four. When they have to suppress certain behaviors and inclinations to conform to the current cultural rules for gender identity, they give up parts of themselves, parts that may never find expression.

For boys, it could be the love of carrying a beautiful bag or appearing in beautiful clothes, or the ability to show vulnerability or to choose friends who are girls. Girls often give up the ability to freely express anger, to feel empowered to speak up in a group, to gain physical strength and competitive athletic abilities.

In these changing times as society becomes more open, children have the chance to grow up to become more fully themselves. It’s important for the adults in their lives to grow in awareness of how gender identity develops and the role they can play in supporting children in ways that don’t enforce limiting stereotypes.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Praise boys for expressing emotion and allowing vulnerability.

  • Encourage boy-girl friendships. Many boys prefer playing with girls, but parents may feel awkward asking children of the opposite sex on playdates, even though this would aid positive friendships.

  • Talk about adults in non-traditional careers, like female firefighters.

  • Actively discuss gender stereotypes in books and in the media.

  • Role-model nontraditional roles for adults in the home, like mom mowing the lawn or working on the car.

  • Teach children to be kind and tolerant to everyone and to include those they think of as different.

Recently our staff participated in training from the organization Gender Spectrum. We plan to offer an online training for parents this spring. Parents might find it rewarding to seek training in the nuances children face in creating congruent gender expression in this age when everyone’s individuality can be fully embraced.


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