When do children develop their gender identity?

By Vanessa LoBue

Gender is generally thought of as a stable trait: we are born male or female and we stay that way as we grow from small children to adults.

It turns out that for young children, initial concepts about gender are quite flexible. In my own research, I’ve found that children don’t begin to notice and adopt gender-stereotyped behaviors (e.g., preferring colors like pink or blue) until the age of two or three. A few years later, their concept of gender becomes quite rigid, and although it becomes more relaxed by middle childhood, even adults have trouble going back to thinking about gender as something that’s flexible.

So, how do children come to understand gender? When do they begin to think about gender as a stable trait?

What is gender?

We often tend to think about gender as the biological differences between men and women.

It is true that the path to gender development begins at conception. Each cell in our body has 46 chromosomes. A father’s sperm and a mother’s egg each has only half – 23 each. At conception, the chromosomes of the sperm and the egg match up into 22 identical pairs, with the 23rd pair being the sex chromosome. In most cases, XX chromosomes will become female and XY chromosomes will become male.

But this isn’t always the case. Gender is what actually gets expressed – how we look, how we act and how we feel. While sex is determined by what is written into the chromosomes or what is dictated by our biology, known as genotype, it is the interaction between the genes (genotype) and the environment that determines gender.

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