Gender Identity in Children

Preschool girl wearing a firefighter's hat

At Bright Horizons, we know gender identity is a complex issue, deserving of thoughtful dialogue. As educators, we strive to “create a safe and reflective space for children to develop their identities and to counterbalance gender stereotypes.”

At Bright Horizons, we know gender identity is a complex issue, deserving of thoughtful dialogue. As educators, we strive to “create a safe and reflective space for children to develop their identities and to counterbalance gender stereotypes.”

In a preschool classroom, a girl skillfully hammers nails into a piece of wood at the woodworking center. Across the room, boys play with dolls, carefully wrapping their babies in blankets, rocking them, and putting them in cradles. These activities might challenge traditional expectations about gender, but children aren’t worried about stereotypes — they’re just learning and playing. 

At this age, children of all genders have similar interests and needs: 

  • They’re making sense of language, social interactions, and their own bodies.
  • They’re curious about the world, and eager to learn through games, arts, and tactile experiences. They want to get messy and adventurous and to be physical and curious.

Understanding Gender & Development

One of the most profound developmental tasks for young children is to understand who they are — to develop a sense of identity. Gender is a core aspect of who we are. However, gender is more complex than the binary categories of male and female. It is an interplay of sex, identity, and social influences. Our role as parents and educators is to support children on this path — as well as to actively work to counter gender stereotypes. 

From an early age, some children identify (gender identity) with a sex other than the one they were assigned at birth. “Gender expansive” children may explore and express their identity in ways that do not conform with gender norms, although young children may not articulate these feelings as they work to understand their identity. Many gender expansive children experience bullying and feelings of shame or rejection. Adults cannot control or change how young children feel about their gender, but how we respond to children can powerfully affect their sense of worth and emotional well-being. 

Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes

Young children naturally classify, sort, and look for patterns to make sense of the world. This is why your child may use external characteristics, such as hairstyle or clothing, to understand a person’s gender. As a parent, you can teach your child to understand that what people wear or how they style their hair does not define gender identity (though it may inform gender expression).

Challenge stereotypes with open discussion. Assertions like, “girls can’t be firefighters” or “boys can’t be nurses” are perfect teachable moments. Stop and ask why they might think these things are true, and then, together, search for images of female firefighters or male nurses.

Even very young children understand biological differences and can be influenced by cultural stereotyping. We give our children a gift when we allow for a broad range of interests and expressions in the early years as children learn about the world and their places in it. 

Supporting Identity Exploration at Home

All children, no matter their identities and regardless of unique likes and dislikes, need time to experiment with all sorts of activities. Children need freedom to move robustly, reflect peacefully, cuddle with soft toys, build, have rough and tumble play, explore books, and enjoy nature.

Our interactions and the language we use with children should model respect for all people as we encourage children to explore their interests, engage in thoughtful dialogue about gender, and teach social skills like collaboration and compromise.

Children of all gender identities benefit from loving, supportive adults in their lives, as well as a rich variety of experiences free from cultural stereotyping. In these environments, children have their best chances to develop healthy, balanced ideas about gender, and learn about their own interests and strengths. 

This open-minded, open-ended approach will inspire healthy experimentation and cooperative play throughout your child’s life, potentially remove restrictions from prescribed gender roles, and support their growth into caring and loving friends, partners, and adults. 

More on Identity in Childhood

Written by: Bright Horizons Education Team

October 1, 2020

About the Author

Teacher reading to a toddler boy and girl

Whether you’re looking for parenting advice, or trying to figure out how to bring learning from the classroom to the family room, let Bright Horizons early education experts be your trusted, knowledgeable resource. Get our weekly newsletter for all things early child development—from the benefits of pretend play to at-home STEM activities, and teaching kindness—along with encouragement for every stage of your parenting journey.