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Gender roles and identity in children

6-minute read

It’s common for people to think of the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ as being the same, but they mean different things. Someone’s sex refers to their physical biology: being male or female. A person’s gender identity, however, is a person’s sense of who they are – male, female, both or neither.

Your gender identity is a deep sense of your own gender. In some cases, a person’s gender identity may be different from their biological sex.

When do children become aware of their gender?

Most children start showing their gender identity at around 2 to 3 years of age. They may do this by choosing certain toys, colours and clothes that seem to appeal more to boys or girls. By the time they reach 3 years old, most children prefer to play games which they think fit their gender, and with other children who are the same sex as them. For example, boys may play together with trucks and girls may play together with dolls.

However, children don’t start to think of their gender as being fixed, or ‘forever’, until they reach 6 or 7 years old. This happens when they are old enough to understand what gender actually means and they have fully ‘socialised’. This means they behave in the ways they think their environment expects them to.

What creates gender roles?

Gender roles are influenced both by our genes (a part of our biology) and our environment. Children often copy adult role models such as their parents or teachers. So if a boy sees his father mostly doing jobs like fixing the car, or a girl sees her mother doing most of the cooking, the child may think these are ‘men’s jobs’ and ‘women’s jobs’.

However, it’s important that children know that girls can do well at games, sports and school subjects like maths, which society has typically associated with boys. Likewise, it’s important for boys to have the freedom to follow their interests, regardless of whether it fits what people have traditionally thought is appropriate for boys.

Here are some things you can do to help prevent your child from developing gender stereotypes when they are young. (A stereotype is a commonly understood, but fixed, set of ideas and views about what it means to be a certain type of person.)

  • Give them games, media, books and puzzles that are gender-neutral or show men and women in non-stereotypical roles, e.g. a female fire fighter or male nurse.
  • Give both girls and boys a wide range of toys to play with, e.g. trucks, dolls, action figures and blocks.
  • Allow children to choose the sports or activities that interest them.
  • Let your child see you doing a variety of tasks that may not be ‘typical’ of their gender. For example, dad could do the laundry and mum could mow the lawn.
  • Praise both girls and boys for the same behaviour. For example, if they are neat, courageous, kind or physically active.
  • Encourage children to make friends with both girls and boys.
  • Try to use gender-neutral terms such as ‘fire fighter’ rather than ‘fireman’.

Gender inequality

Gender inequality emerges when people are treated differently and are discriminated against, based on their gender.

Australia has made some progress in supporting equality for women. However, women are still, on average, paid less than men; take on more low-paid or unpaid caregiving roles; experience more workplace discrimination and sexual harassment; and are more likely to be the victims of partner violence.

Gender diverse individuals include transgender, where their gender identity does not match their biological sex, non-binary (neither male nor female, or a blend), gender fluid (moves between gender identities) or agender (doesn’t identify with any gender). Youth and adults in Australia who are transgender or gender diverse can also experience high levels of discrimination, bullying and harassment. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation as well as mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts.

It’s important for children to learn how to develop social skills to communicate respectfully with each other and to learn appropriate boundaries, regardless of gender. At home, and through some school programs, children can be taught to:

  • understand their emotions and how to handle them
  • solve problems effectively
  • manage bad moods and stress
  • know how to go to friends or others for help
  • encourage relationships which are respectful and caring

What is gender dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria is the emotional distress experienced by transgender or gender diverse people, caused by feeling they were born into the wrong body.

At around 3 years of age or older, many children who are transgender or gender diverse will begin to express their identities, as other children do, through their play, behaviour and choices. This could mean dressing more like the opposite sex or playing games or with toys typically associated with the other sex.

However, it’s normal for all children to experiment with gender roles and make sense of their place in the world, as a girl or a boy. This exploration does not necessarily mean your child is transgender.

In younger children, gender dysphoria may show up in the form of emotional problems or behavioural issues. You may also notice the child repeatedly saying they belong to the opposite sex, or want to be the opposite sex, or will be when they grow up. They may persistently draw pictures of the opposite sex. For example, a boy might often draw pictures of girls or women.

Just over 1 in 100 Australian school-aged children identify as transgender. As gender diverse children reach puberty and the teenage years, their bodies undergo changes in line with their sex rather than their gender. This can cause them to become extremely distressed and they may experience mental health issues. In this case, it’s best to seek professional help.

Treatment of gender dysphoria in children

It’s important that a transgender child or teenager has supportive people in their home, school and community who will understand and affirm their gender identity.

In teens with gender dysphoria, the following treatment may be offered:

  • In early puberty, puberty blockers can prevent the usual growth of sex organs and hormones.
  • In late puberty, from 16 years onwards, hormone treatment using oestrogen or testosterone can change the body to match the teen’s gender identity.

In Australia, parental permission is required for any teen or child under 18 years old to receive hormone treatment. No child under 18 is legally permitted to have gender reassignment surgery.

Where to go for more information and help

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2020

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