Researchers who have observed how children begin to understand
gender agree that children begin this process at a very early age. Children
seem to have an understanding of gender by about age 7, but there are
stages they go through along the way. It is important to have
realistic expectations about gender
related issues and to understand typical development and when
to get more help.
The following outline describes how children understand gender at different
Infants can begin to tell the difference between male and
female voices. Infants can tell the difference between their mother’s
and their father’s voices. They will often turn their heads toward
mother or father when he or she is talking.
Infants begin to tell the difference between male and female
faces. Infants will also spend more time looking at their mother and/or
father than other less familiar people. At this age, infants will turn
to a woman’s face if they hear a woman speaking. They will look
at a man’s face if they hear a man talking.
Toddlers begin to use gender stereotypes in their play.
Young girls begin to play with “female toys,” and young boys
play with “male toys.” Parents also may treat their children
differently. Many young girls are dressed in “pretty” clothing
and treated very delicately. Young boys are often dressed in “cute”
clothes that are easy to move around in. Boys are often encouraged to
be active and strong.
At this age, young children are developing “gender
identity.” This means that they begin to label themselves and others
as male or female. They can use words to label friends, family, and themselves
as a boy or a girl.
Children at this age begin to use “gender typing.”
They like putting things in categories,
and gender is one way to do that. For example, a three-year-old child
may think that trucks are male toys, because boys usually play with trucks.
Children at this age begin to understand and use “gender
scripts.” This is another way to put things in categories. Instead
of grouping things, they put events or activities in groups related to
gender. For example, a five-year-old child may think that a person putting
on make-up has to be a female. That child may also think that only males
lift weights, so everyone lifting weights must be a male.
Before this age, boys might think that they will grow up
to be women. Girls might think they will be daddies when they are older.
By age 6 or 7 though, most children understand and believe that a person’s
gender is constant. They know it will not change throughout life. Most
children this age also know that a man is still a man, even if he dresses
like a woman.
Go to: • Avoiding gender stereotypes
Dealing with difficult gender issues
on children's gender development