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Gender Development
 Authors: Jodi Putnam with Judith A. Myers-Walls and Dee Love

As a child care provider, how do you discuss gender stereotypes and gender identity with your children? Do you worry when boys dress up like girls? Do you know how to respond when a child says, “You throw like a girl”?  Does it concern you when a little boy believes he’ll grow up to be a mom?  Do children in your program—both boys and girls—have the chance to play with all kinds of toys?

Helping Children Understand Gender

As children grow, they learn that some people are girls and some are boys. They learn to say “he” or “she.” That is called learning to understand gender. Children begin to understand the differences between males and females around the age of two. It is one of the first ways that children learn to put people in categories.   Children also begin to learn gender stereotypes—narrow understandings of what males and females are like—at a very early age.

Stereotypes can be a problem. Many times, they are not accurate. They do not apply to all people. Stereotypes might make girls who like to play sports feel that there is something wrong with them. Boys who play with dolls may be called sissies. As a childcare provider, you can help parents and children understand gender. You can work with parents to help girls and boys develop in healthy ways, not following stereotypes. You and the parents can help children to explore new things and accomplish goals whatever their gender.

As a childcare provider, though, you have special challenges. You may want to give boys and girls many different experiences. You may let boys put on nail polish and let girls build things with styrofoam and nails. Some of the parents may not like what you are doing. They might think you are teaching bad things to the children. Which way is right? How can you balance their ideas with yours? How can you help parents to encourage their sons and daughters to try new things and excel at a variety of skills whether they are girls or boys?

Gender vs. Sexuality

Many people confuse gender with sex. Gender focuses on whether an individual is male or female based on how a person acts. It is related to what people expect from women and men. Sex, on the other hand, is related to a person's body. It has to do with whether an individual is biologically male or female. Sex includes a person's body parts, hormones, and DNA. Learning about sex and gender occur at the same time during early childhood. They influence one another, yet they are not the same thing. This section deals with children's understanding of gender, but you also may want to learn about children's sexual development and childhood sexuality.


Go to:  
Ages and stages
           • Avoiding gender stereotypes
           • Dealing with difficult gender issues
           • Influences on children's gender development
           • Tips
           • Learning activities
           • Resources

For more information, contact Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE at

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