Before age 3
By the age of 2 or 3, most tamariki have an idea about whether they are a boy or a girl. This awareness is known as gender identity. Tamariki also start to understand the difference between boys and girls and identify with one gender. Which gender they identify with is most likely to be determined by both their body parts and by the environment they live in.
Through observation, conversations and play, both at home and out in the world, tamariki develop an understanding of the roles played by males and females in our society. Their ideas about gender roles are influenced by their culture — it depends on how males and females around them behave. Sometimes tamariki say they are a boy when their biology would indicate they are a girl and vice versa. Whānau can be relaxed about this and think of it as a kind of exploration.
During this time in their lives, tamariki usually develop a stronger sense of their gender identity and gender roles. They continue to explore their own bodies. The role of whānau here is to respond with sensitivity — there is no need to overreact. To avoid causing feelings of shame and guilt, whānau can quietly and in a relaxed way explain that touching yourself in this way should be done in private.
Many tamariki explore gender roles through pretend play. It’s perfectly okay for tamariki to wear clothes that are usually associated with another gender and to play roles that differ from their physical gender. It could be an important element in the development of empathy.
Gender nonconforming tamariki
Some tamariki identify with a gender that doesn’t ‘match’ the sex they were born with. Some tamariki identify with a gender that is in between male and female. Some tamariki may feel they have no gender. Whānau may be concerned about this and be wondering if their tamaiti is ‘just’ playing, if this is a phase or something permanent.
Signs that a child may be transgender or gender nonconforming are when they are:
- consistent — they consistently identify with a particular identity
- insistent — they feel strongly about their identity and get upset when other people say that they are not the gender they say they are
- persistent — the gender they identify with does not change over time.
It is important for a developing child to be treated sensitively around their gender identity. Nonconforming tamariki may choose to dress as the other gender, and to play games and do activities with the other gender. Whānau need to listen respectfully and respond gently. All tamariki need to be accepted and loved for who they are, if they are to develop in an emotionally healthy way.
If whānau are worried about the gender identity their tamaiti is expressing, they may find the healthychildren.org website helpful — it contains much useful information. It may also be helpful to seek advice from a trusted medical professional.
Whānau can expect a lot of questions from their tamaiti about gender — and they may need to remind themselves of the value of their child’s curiosity! Sometimes the questions can be ‘curly’ and can challenge whānau.
To encourage that curiosity and to avoid causing emotional harm, the most effective strategy for whānau to use is to answer in a matter-of-fact way, just as you would if the question was, ‘What’s for dinner?’
Whānau can answer briefly and to the point without getting into long explanations. Fobbing questions off with myths (for example, ‘storks bring babies’) is not a good idea as it disrespects a child’s curiosity and is false. Whānau can check in with their tamaiti — ‘Have I answered your question?.
Tamariki will be modelling themselves on what they see adults around them do. As with other behaviours like swearing and arguing, whānau need to mind what their tamariki see, hear and watch on media.
Ideally, whānau will model acceptance and tolerance of diversity. There are all sorts of people living in many kinds of families in our communities. It’s okay to be different.
Gender limiting or gender expansive?
There is a tendency for society to associate certain things with one gender: pink for girls, blue for boys; princesses and dolls for girls, and sport, superheroes and trucks for boys; some work suits girls, some work is for boys.
These ideas are really gender stereotypes and can be limiting for both boys and girls. However, this stereotyping is changing fast. Whānau may like to think about whether tamariki are making choices about clothes, games and activities because they really like them or because they are supposed to like them.
- A New Zealand Herald article about gender stereotyping
These useful articles and videos are available on the website below.
- How do I talk with my preschooler about identity?
- What should I teach my preschooler about healthy social skills and relationships?
- How do I talk with my preschooler about personal safety?
- What should I teach my preschooler about pregnancy and reproduction?
- What should I teach my preschooler about sex and sexuality?