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Early Childhood Gender Identity and Sexuality

Angela Oswalt, MSW

One final realm, or channel, of child development is gender identity and sexuality. Many people believe that sexual development does not become an important issue until puberty and adolescence. However, children begin showing sexual behavior and interest in their sexual functioning starting in infancy. Development of gender identity and sexuality cuts across physical, cognitive, social, and emotional developmental dimensions. However, just as in all channels of development, it's important to remember that each child is unique and may develop more rapidly or slowly than other children.

Kohlberg's theory of gender identity development describes how young children learn to understand their gender, and what being that gender means in their everyday life. Kohlberg theorized that there are 3 stages to this process. Initially, during the early preschool years (ages 3 to 4 years), young children engage in gender labeling. Young children can tell the difference between boys and girls, and will label people accordingly. However, these very young children still believe that gender can change and is not permanent. Children of this age also have trouble understanding that males and females have different body shapes, but also share characteristics.

As young children mature, they obtain a better understanding of gender identity. Children understand that gender is stable over time; however, they often think that changing physical appearance or activities can change them into the other sex. For example, Amanda might believe that if she starts playing ball with the boys on the playground and cuts her long hair short, she will become a boy.

By the early school years (ages 6 to 7), Kohlberg suggests that most children understand gender consistency, the idea that they are one gender and will remain that gender for life. However, a small number of young children struggle with their gender identity, and continue to struggle with their true identity through adulthood. More information on helping someone who is questioning their sexual identity can be found in our article on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth (This article is not yet complete).

Piaget's theory can be applied to the development of gender identity by examining young children's day-to-day play and social interactions. By age 5, children tend to play with "gender-specific" toys. For example, girls tend to play more with Littlest Pets and Webkinz, while boys play more with Spiderman and Batman toys. Children of this age also begin to play separately. Young boys often play together in larger groups, while young girls tend to play more in pairs and smaller groups.

During this age, children become aware of stereotypical gender-related activities and behaviors. For example, Janey may see Mom cook most of the meals that her family eats. She also watches Grandma, Mom, and Aunt Nicole fixing Thanksgiving dinner while the men are in the other room. As a result, Janey soon learns that cooking is a woman's job. Meanwhile, Jake sees his Dad fixing things around the house, and repeatedly hears his mother ask his dad to repair something. Jake may start to believe that repairing things is a man's job and start "helping" Dad or pretend to fix things around the house. Early beliefs about gender roles will reflect children's observations of what they see around them. It will not occur to a child raised in a non-traditional family that there is anything odd about a man doing the nightly dinner cooking, or a woman fixing her car when it breaks down - at least not until that child grows to appreciate local traditions.

In today's society, the stereotypical divide between men's and women's jobs and activities is not as clearly defined as it was 40 or 50 years ago. Both men and women are government leaders, doctors, soldiers, stay-home parents, teachers, hair stylists, professional athletes, and so on. Many women and men also enjoy the same leisure activities, from dirt biking to crocheting. It will be interesting to watch how the development of gender identity unfolds as future generations of children are shaped by new gender role models.