Gender roles and identity in children
It’s common for people to think that the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are the same, but they mean different things.
Your sex refers to your physical anatomy at birth. You will be assigned male, female, or intersex depending on your external genitalia.
Your gender identity is your sense of who you are. This may be male, female, or another gender.
Gender roles are characteristics and behaviours that are socially constructed. There are expectations and rules based on your assigned sex. These can vary between places, and they can also change over time.
When do children become aware of gender?
Most children start understanding gender roles at around 2 to 3 years of age.
By the time they reach 3 years old, most children prefer to play games which they think fit their gender. They may start choosing certain toys, colours and clothes that traditionally have been associated more with their assigned sex. They may also prefer to play with other children who are the same sex as themselves. 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 5 or 6 years old. This happens when they are old enough to understand what gender means and they have been fully ‘socialised’. This means they behave in the ways they think their environment expects them to.
What creates gender roles?
Gender roles are behaviours and attitudes that our society feels are appropriate for a specific sex or gender identity. This can vary depending on cultural norms and traditions.
A gender stereotype is a commonly understood, but fixed, view about what it means to be male, female, or another gender.
Children learn from a very young age that they should follow rules based on their assigned sex and gender. This can impact their:
This can limit your children’s experience as they may chose certain toys, books and activities based on these rules.
How can I model positive gender roles for my child?
Children often copy adult role models such as their parents or teachers.
So, if your child sees adult males mostly doing jobs like fixing the car and mowing the lawn, they may think these are ‘men’s jobs’. Similarly, if they see adult females doing most of the cooking and cleaning they may think these are ‘women’s jobs’.
Let your child see you doing a variety of tasks that may not be ‘typical’ of your gender. For example, a male doing the laundry and a female mowing the lawn.
These links between biological sex and ability to do a job also happen in school environments. In the past, many people believed that males were better at sport, maths and science.
However, it’s important that children know that people of any gender can do well at sport, maths, and science. It’s important for all children to have the freedom to follow their interests. Even if these don’t fit traditionally held ideas of what may be appropriate.
How can I help break gender stereotypes?
Here are some things you can do to help your child break gender stereotypes when they want to be themself.
- Encourage children to be friends with everyone.
- Praise all children for the same behaviour. For example, if they are neat, courageous, kind or physically active.
- Try to use gender-neutral terms such as ‘fire fighter’ rather than ‘fireman’.
- Give them a wide range of toys to play with, e.g. trucks, dolls, action figures and blocks.
- Give them games, media, books and puzzles that are gender-neutral or show people in non-stereotypical roles, e.g. a female fire fighter or male nurse.
- Allow children to choose the sports or activities that interest them.
I think my child is gender diverse
Many children express their identities through their play, behaviour and choices. It’s normal for children to experiment with gender roles and make sense of their place in the world. This does not necessarily mean your child is gender diverse or transgender.
Some gender diverse and trans children express their diversity from a very young age. Others don’t express a gender diverse or trans identity until they are older.
Young people in Australia who are gender diverse can 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.
Diversity in gender expression
Your child might show diversity in the way they express their gender. This might include:
- a preference for toys typically associated with another sex
- a preference for clothes typically worn by another sex
- certain behaviours, for example a young female standing up to urinate (wee)
It’s important that you don’t rush to label your child. Over time they will tell you what feels right.
What is gender incongruence?
Sometimes your gender identity may be different from your biological sex. This is called gender incongruence. When your gender identity aligns with your sex assigned at birth, this is called cisgender.
People with gender incongruence may use the terms ‘transgender’ (or ‘trans’), ‘nonbinary’, ‘gender diverse’, or many other terms, to describe their identity. Just over 1 in 100 Australian school-aged children identify as transgender.
Gender dysphoria is the distress or unease someone with gender incongruence may feel.
How should I treat my gender diverse child?
If your child continues to show preference for a different gender identity than the one assigned at birth, talk with them. It’s important not to show judgement. Also, don’t:
- try to shame your child's gender expression
- allow others in your family ridicule your child's gender expression
- prevent your child from expressing gender in public
If you think that your child is gender diverse or trans you can support them by:
- using gender affirming language
- showing your admiration for your child's identity and how they express it
Letting your child share their preferences encourages positive self-esteem.
Using gender affirming language
Understanding and using your child’s preferred name and pronouns is gender affirming and respectful.
Pronouns are words that we use for people when we’re not using their name. The most common pronouns are she/her and he/him. These are ‘gendered’ pronouns.
Pronouns can also be ‘gender-neutral’, most commonly they/them. Neopronouns are newer gender-neutral pronouns, such as:
- ze/zir (said: zhee/zhere)
- xe/xem (said: zhee/zhem)
People may use one set of pronouns, or a combination of pronouns.
Gender-neutral pronouns (they/them) are also a polite way to refer to someone until you know what pronouns they use. Using the right pronouns to refer to a person shows respect and helps them affirm themselves.
Deadnames and deadnaming
A deadname is a name that a trans person was given at birth that they no longer use.
Deadnaming is when someone uses a trans person’s birth name, instead of their chosen name.
Where can I go for more information and help?
Children and young people can find more information about gender diversity at:
Parents can find support at Parents of Gender Diverse Children. Most youth services will also have information on local LGBTIQ+ support groups.
For additional support, you may like to contact:
- qlife.org.au for webchat
- call on 1800 184 527 (3pm - midnight)
Kids helpline, for young people aged 5-25 years:
- kidshelpline.com.au for webchat (24 hours a day)
- call 1800 551 800 (24 hours a day)
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: August 2022