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Childhood gender identity isn't always easy to understand. What does it mean when a child behaves in a way that doesn't seem to match their gender?

Childhood gender identity can be complex. Where does it come from, what does it mean and what should parents and carers do about it?

Gender can seem like it's simple. Most of the time, we certainly act as if it is. The first time you meet someone, you’ll use cues like hair, face presentation, clothing, body language, voice and verbal cues like the way they talk to figure out whether they’re a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. And from the moment a couple has a baby, it starts with the first question: is it a boy or a girl?

But the reality isn’t always so clear cut. For one thing, gender identity isn’t the same thing as sex. 

Sex is relatively easy to ascertain, though again, it’s not as clear-cut as many biological essentialists would have us believe. The existence of XYY men, carrying an extra Y chromosome, or of intersex people born with ambivalent physical sex characteristics, should indicate that. In the majority of cases, though, the answer to biological sex is visible between a newly born person’s legs. Gender, however, is between your ears, and figuring out gender identity can be more complex.

When do we start figuring gender out?

In fact it’s a process that starts at a very young age.

By 7 months: infants can tell the difference between male and female voices and will turn their heads to the parent who is talking.

By 12 months: Infants can tell the difference between male and female faces, and can apply the gender differentiation they learned from their parents to adults who aren’t their parents.

By 2 years: Gendering has usually begun by this age. Toddlers begin to gender play, with boys and girls selecting the “gender-appropriate” toys. The extent to which this is a result of socialization is still under debate but what is known is that socialization by peers and parents is accompanied by “self-socialization” in which toddlers internalize ideas about the gender they identify with.

By 3-4  years: Gendering is less experiential and more about creating and designating categories. Learning to classify the world around us is a vital part of learning to think and children use gender as one of these categories. They’ll often make statements that are really questions and there’s a significant amount of room for parental intervention and education.

By age 4-6: children are beginning to understand “gender scripts.” Scripts are a way of categorizing narrative into types. So around this age children will begin to see certain activities or narratives as inherently male or female, usually starting with what they regard as most characterisitic or those they’re most exposed to.

By about 7 most children have a clear understanding of gender: they understand that it inheres in the person, not the behavior or apparel, so that a woman who lifts weights or drives a truck isn’t a man because she does stereotypically masculine things, for instance.

That tells us when children go through some basic goalposts or changes, but not much about how identity itself is formed.

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