Identify ways families and caregivers influence children’s understanding of gender and the early formation of gender identity.
Describe some experiences of gender-expansive children as they move through developmental stages.
Reflect on sensitive ways to respond to gender-expansive children.
Gender Identity is Another Part of Human Development
As discussed in Lesson One, each of us has multiple identities, or multiple aspects of ourselves. Gender identity is one aspect of a person. In the Apply activity of Lesson 1 you were asked to examine your own gender identity by taking some online tests designed to see how much you align to the stereotypical attributes or behaviors associated with males or females. By living and interacting in the world, people develop an understanding of what is expected of the genders within their culture. Take a moment to reflect on your gender identity.
- How much do you align with the characteristics typically associated with men or women?
- Were you surprised by your findings on the Apply activity of Lesson 1?
- Did you feel constrained by what was expected or associated with your gender identity?
- How might these assumptions about the characteristics of males or females influence how children behave or their interests?
Where does one’s gender identity originate? Experts agree that gender identity is shaped by hormonal and societal influences, including families, schools, communities, and the media (Sperry, 2016). We know that gender-expansive children come from all types of families, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and cultures. In addition, gender fluidity or non-conformity to a male/female binary is not a new occurrence; gender fluid individuals have been known throughout human history (Levens, 2015).
Gender-expansive children often become aware at very young ages that they are not meeting the expectations of their families or culture. These experiences of feeling “different” come over time as they grow and develop. Due to society’s often rigid enforcement of gender rules, most gender-expansive children have experiences of rejection or conflict in some social contexts.
A child’s gender identity is often shaped and first challenged within family interactions. Think about all the ways families start assigning value to and assumptions about a child’s gender long before that child is able to self-identify. Families may learn through an ultrasound the genitalia of the fetus, or through prenatal testing the chromosomal make-up (XX or XY) of the fetus, and with this information, some parents begin choosing colors, clothing, and toys even before the child’s birth. Researchers have noted that adults, using gender stereotypes, perceive children differently based on the gender they believe a child is, and thus treat children differently based on their assigned gender (Eliot, 2010). Often adults are not even aware that they are doing this. This different behavior can frequently be observed in how adults speak to children, the kinds of words they use with them (e.g., “sweet” girl, vs. “strong” boy), how they physically handle children (e.g., engaging in more rough-and-tumble play with boys), and how they reinforce or discourage certain activities or toy choices. What may look like ‘natural’ or inborn child characteristics can often be a result of the interactions that take place with adults over the course of a child’s early development.
Child care centers and schools, where many children spend a great deal of time, also play a significant role in shaping gender identity and creating climates that can affect children’s growth and development. Early childhood professionals need to be aware of the goals of and potential challenges of the various developmental stages with an understanding of how gender-expansive children might experience these stages. This understanding helps caregivers and program staff create stronger environments to support healthy development.
Infants and Toddlers (to 24 months)
By the time children are 2 years old, they often recognize voices by gender and they assign gender to a person based on physical appearance. We also know from research with adults who are transgender, that around age two is often when individuals who are gender-expansive or transgender began asserting their experienced gender as opposed to their assigned gender in their home life. In fact, one parent whose child was assigned female at birth, reports that one of the child’s first sentences was, “I’m a boy.” (Whittington, 2016). Children at this age are interested in sorting their worlds. They respond to subtle and overt responses from adults about gender norms by asserting their budding sense of self, perhaps with a new favorite word, “no,” as in “No, not wearing dress.”
Caregivers and parents tend to see very young children as exploring their worlds, going through phases, and they often interpret gender fluidity or gender expansion during this stage as non-threatening. For most, but not for all children, this is true. Especially in the period of toddlerhood, children’s gender expression may be more fluid as they explore their worlds.
Older Toddlers and Preschool Children (2-5)
Preschool children continue to strengthen their sense of self. You can read more on children’s development of self in the Self & Cultural Understanding course. Children in preschool may be searching for more language to describe their gender-related experiences. Children who are gender-expansive may say things like, “You say I am a girl, but I’m not”; “When am I going to grow a penis?” or “I am part boy and part girl.” Families who may have initially found an infant or toddler expressing these feelings as entertaining may now feel differently depending on their beliefs.
In addition, the side-by-side play of toddlerhood is replaced by more interactive social groupings, often by gender. Peers may comment on gender expression. They may ask, “Are you a boy or a girl?” They may say, “Boys don’t do that!” Care providers who acknowledge, affirm, or advocate for children at this developmental age will be able to prevent some negative peer interactions.
School Age Children (6-10)
During these years, children continue to form stronger bonds with peers. Acceptance and inclusion by peers becomes increasingly more important. Children who are different for any reason are often ostracized if adults do not present information about the experiences of diverse individuals. Peers and adults often organize social groups by gender (e.g., in lining up to go outside, saying “girls get your coats first” or playing boys against girls in trivia). Child care providers who respond creatively by organizing children in other ways can better support and include gender-expansive children. Sharing literature that acknowledges diversity of all kinds is another way to support gender-expansive and transgender children. Many young school-age children experience a period of rigid rule enforcement, and they can apply rigid rules about gender and gender expression if there is no one available to challenge their assumptions. This can mean that without adult intervention, peers may be very judgmental about diverse gender expression. These slight adjustments can really benefit all children, not just children who are gender-expansive. All children benefit from environments that are inclusive and allow for individual differences.
The gender-expansive or transgender child may try to comply with gender norms at school due to personality, to please their families, or because of their own choice to hide their gender identity, often for reasons of safety. Behavioral problems may become an issue due to the stress of limiting or hiding their gender expression. If the child care provider has been unaware of the child’s gender expression up to this point, they can show themselves as a safe adult by making statements that affirm diversity, such as saying to a child assigned male at birth, “I see you drew yourself as a princess. What bright colors you chose for your drawing!” By acknowledging children’s greater personal expression, child care providers create an environment that values diversity.
Older School-Age Children (11 – 12)
Most adults remember puberty as challenging, and puberty can be an especially difficult time for gender-expansive children. During puberty, some gender–expansive children or transgender children may choose to show gender expressions that more closely match their assigned gender at birth. In other words, they may choose to dress and behave in ways typically associated with their assigned gender. They might do this as an act of self-preservation in an often hostile world. Remember, there is a lot of social pressure to act in a particular manner.
Transgender children may become very worried about their bodies changing during this time. Boys who were assigned female at birth may be very uncomfortable with the thought of having their period or growing breasts. Girls who were assigned male at birth may be uncomfortable with the presence of facial hair and voice changes. For children who have already been perceived by others as the gender with which they identify, these body changes might create a more difficult social situation as others begin to question and challenge their identity.
Many transgender children become depressed during this time, especially if they are experiencing conflict at home or at school. Fifty percent of transgender children report contemplating suicide with 25 percent saying they have attempted suicide. There is a significant reduction in suicidal tendencies among children receiving supportive, affirming treatment for gender identity concerns (Meier & Harris, n.d.). By providing resources to children and families, child and youth care programs are in a position to improve the quality of and possibly save lives.
Children’s Development and Caring Responses
Read the following situations. As you read each scenario, think about how you could respond, or how you would want the caregivers in your program to respond.
Then, review some potential positive responses caregivers could have in reaction to these scenarios. Think about how you could support these responses in your program.
Two-year-old Sarah is learning to use the potty. Your center has small toilets for the toddlers to use. When it is Sarah's turn to use the toilet, you help to remove her skirt and try to help her sit on the potty. She pulls away and says, "Stand up. Me Cole (her 4-year-old big brother)!" She wriggles away from you and stands in front of the potty. Urine runs down her leg and she happily says, "Big boy go potty!"
The staff member could use active listening to acknowledge Sarah's ideas and actions. This technique is discussed in more detail in Lesson Three. The staff member could say: "I see you are interested in using the potty like your big brother Cole." The caregiver could follow up with, "I see that your urine (pee) has run down your legs and is now on your clothes. How can we solve that problem?" For Sarah, the experimentation of being like her big brother Cole may just be about her exploring what she sees of her world. Additional observations and conversations with Sarah's family over time can help illuminate how Sarah understands her gender identity.
"Boys Can't Wear That"
You are a lead caregiver in an infant-toddler room. Eighteen-month-old Felix sees a teaching assistant wearing a sparkly boa from the dramatic play area. He reaches for the boa. She takes it off and hangs it back up on the hook, telling Felix, "That is for girls. You aren't a girl. Boys can wear the cowboy hat. Here you go!"
The lead caregiver, or perhaps the training and curriculum specialist, could intervene and use this as a teachable moment with the assistant. First, to validate Felix’s interest, an adult could gather the sparkly boa and say, “Oh, Felix, were you reaching for this? Here, do you want to try it on too? It’s soft and sparkly, isn’t it?” You can also follow up with the assistant caregiver regarding how to support her use of more gender accepting language. “I noticed today you told Felix the boa was for girls. In our program we emphasize that things don’t have gender—they are for everyone. People have gender and each person gets to define themselves.”
You have been trying to support 4-year-old Alex in your preschool classroom. Some days, Alex identifies as a girl, sometimes as a boy, and sometimes both. One day, three girls build a fort using cardboard boxes and blankets. Alex watches the girls for a few minutes then grabs another blanket and tries to add another room to the fort. One of the girls yells, “No! This fort is for girls only, Alex. Go away!”
This teachable moment provides an opportunity to reinforce for the preschool children that there are not things “for girls” or “for boys” in the classroom. The caregiver can intervene and say gently, “I’m concerned about the words you just said to Alex. Remember in our room, all things are available to all people; all children in our room can like and enjoy forts.” The caregiver can then use conflict resolution and problem solving techniques with the children to help develop a plan for adding to and using the fort (see more information in the Positive Guidance course).
While same-sex play that excludes other-gendered children is a somewhat typical developmental expression that occurs when preschoolers explore and assert their gender identity, it is important to pay attention to children’s interactions and language. Words like “Go away” can add a double layer of pain for a gender-expansive child. This situation may indicate that children need additional exposure to the idea that things are not gendered and what it might feel like to be left out of something because of one’s gender identity. For example, staff could read stories about a child who was excluded or teased by others because of how they looked or dressed to start conversations and reinforce ideas of empathy and kindness in the program. Remember that in other parts of young children’s lives, they receive many messages about what constitutes “girl” and “boy” behavior or what items should be for boys or girls. This means that they likely need repeated messages to see gender in a more flexible way. Lessons Three and Five will offer direct-care staff more information on what staff can do in classrooms and programs to affirm diverse gender expressions.
Maddox has been using the toilet regularly for over a year. Recently, he started wetting his pants, so much so that he typically soils the spare set of clean clothes his family has brought from home. Each time he does this you allow him to pick fresh underwear and pants from the basket of clean clothing you keep in the supply closet. You notice he tends to pick pink or flowered clothing. After this happens a few times, his mom tells you he has been asking to wear "girl underwear" and "girl clothes" at home, but his dad will not allow it. She suspects he is purposely wetting his pants so he can wear the "girl clothes" from the school. She tells you Maddox's dad is not happy about this.
The story indicates Maddox may be experiencing some stress. With the guidance and assistance of your training and curriculum specialist or program manager, the caregivers can observe Maddox over time to see how he expresses his gender and sees himself. These additional observations can also help to see if there may be other reasons for Maddox's regression in toileting. If, based on the observations and interactions with Maddox, it is clear Maddox has more fluid gender expression or sees himself as a gender different than the one he was assigned at birth, the training and curriculum specialist or program manager and the caregivers could offer some resources to Maddox's family to help them better understand Maddox's requests and behavior (see https://www.genderspectrum.org/resources/parenting-and-family-2/ as one possibility). Lesson Four will offer more resources and ideas for supporting families.
Work with your program andadministration to support Maddox and his family.
"Run Like a Girl"
You are observing outdoor play in the after-school program. As two boys run by, you hear one of them yell, “You can’t catch me. You run like a girl!” Soon, several of the boys are taunting other boys with this phrase. You notice one of the girls who was playing chase with them walks away and sits alone on the bench. She seems upset.
A staff member could ask the group of boys to come together. He or she can express concern about their statements. “When you were playing, I heard you say, ‘you run like a girl.’ What does it mean to ‘run like a girl?’” Allow children to respond. “I’m concerned that when you talk like that it doesn’t help all of us see the ways that girls are strong, fast, and powerful.” The staff member could point out some fast female runners or athletes in your own program and ask the children to ponder how such statements might make them feel. The program staff could also create some follow-up experiences that help all the children in your program learn about the skill and experiences of powerful women athletes, or expose them to campaigns such as #LikeAGirl by Always (see http://www.always.com/en-us/about-us/our-epic-battle-like-a-girl). Staff members could also create more experiences that help children find and call out gender stereotypes.
In addition, the staff member could follow up with the girl who moved away from the play. “I noticed you were playing chase with the boys but then walked away. Why was that?” The staff member could also make clear what bothered him or her about the situation, “I noticed they were talking about girls in a negative way and using a reference to girls’ speed and power to tease one another. I was able to talk with the boys about what their words mean and how those words do not belong in our program. I would like to help the kids in our program learn more about some strong female athletes. Maybe we could also help the group think about the ways girls are sometimes treated differently – Can you think of some examples? Would you like to research more with me and see what we can find to share?”
Your program director lets you know a new child will be joining your program. Breck was assigned female at birth but he has identified as a boy since kindergarten. His parents support him and want to make sure his transition to your program will be as smooth as possible. Although Breck has short hair and wear’s “boy clothing,” people at his last school often interpreted him as a girl, which caused a great deal of stress for Breck and confusion for the other children. Your director wants to work with you, and the other staff, to come up with a plan to support Breck as he enters the program.
The staff member, program manager, or training and curriculum specialist can work with Breck and his family to create a transition plan. They can ask for the family’s thoughts on the best ways to help Breck feel safe and accepted in the program. During this discussion, the training and curriculum specialist and/or program manager can ask Breck’s family if they would like to disclose his transgender identity to all the program staff, or a select few leads, or to keep it private between the family and the administrative team. If Breck’s family requests that only the administrative team, or a few lead staff are aware of Breck’s transgender identity, than it is important the rest of the staff receive adequate training on gender assumptions and stereotypes. The program staff can be prepared to assure Breck that they will call him by the name and pronouns he prefers (see more in Lesson Three). The program administration can work together to identify a bathroom that works best for Breck (e.g., using the male restroom or a unisex bathroom).
In addition, just as you would do for any new child or youth entering your program, the staff can also ask Breck about his likes and hobbies to help him find new friends who share similar interests. The program staff could make sure to offer some experiences that connect to Breck’s interests in the first few weeks he enters the program so that he has some early positive connection with other children. The staff should also monitor the program environment and check in with Breck and his family about how the transition is going.
Pants and Skirts
The program where you work is putting on a special performance for families. You know there are at least two gender-expansive children in the program. A newer lead staff member plans to send a memo home to parents indicating that girls should wear black skirts, boys should wear black pants, and all children should wear a white button- down shirt. You are having lunch when the lead staff member asks you to copy this letter for her, because she has a meeting. While making copies, you notice the clothing requirement mentioned in the memo.
You could approach the lead staff member with your concerns. “Hey Julie, as I was going to make copies to send home to children’s families about the program, I noticed that we’re asking girls and boys to wear different things. I’m concerned that we are asking boys and girls in our program to do different things. In addition, I’m concerned about how this might make Malin and Jole (gender-expansive children in the program) feel.” Then, the staff member could pause for thoughts.
“Do you think we could just ask the children to wear black on the bottom and white on the top?”
If you felt unsure how to approach this problem as a staff member, you could always involve your trainer, coach or administrator for help.
Listen as these early childhood professionals and families discuss the development of gender, and about their children's experiences in understanding their own identities. What do you notice about the difference between gender identity and gender expression? How is this information useful in your work with children?
How do I know if a child is transgender or gender-expansive? How should I treat each one?
Sometimes parents or caregivers struggle with understanding whether their child or a child in their care is gender-expansive or transgender. The information below, adapted from the National Association from Social Workers can provide a bit more clarity (http://www.helpstartshere.org/?p=1114):
Can a Child Be Transgender?
Children and adolescents can be transgender, just like adults. In fact, a small percentage of all children are transgender. Children understand gender differences from a very early age. And transgender children strongly identify with the other gender, often from age 2 or 3. Because we don’t talk about transgender people with children, adolescents, or even adults, children who are transgender lack basic information about who they are and struggle with feeling like they were born in the wrong body. And adults typically react as if there were something wrong with these children, as well.
In truth, there is nothing wrong with these children. But since very few people understand that it is natural for a small percentage of the population to be transgender, people don’t know that you can have male genitals and still be female or have female genitals and be male.
Transgender children who express their “real” gender identity can become extremely unhappy and depressed when adults try to prevent them being their true selves. Being transgender is not the cause of their distress. Instead, not being understood and feeling like there is something wrong with them causes them to suffer. And pressure to change their core sense of who they are causes emotional suffering, as well.
How Can I know If It’s a Phase?
Most people have a sense of their gender identity between ages 2 and 4. If your child expresses a transgender identity since early childhood, it is unlikely they will change their mind as they age. Their sense of themselves will only deepen. For example, a 12-year old child who was assigned as a male at birth who has consistently expressed ”I am a girl” since age 3 will most likely remain transgender throughout life.
Children and youth who are gender-expansive may not refer to themselves as a boy or a girl or may at times identify as a girl in some settings or during some times and a boy in others. Older gender-expansive children, especially if they have been exposed to language that helps better describe their own gender identity, may just assert that they are a person who does not need a gender label.
In terms of knowing how to address or best support gender-expansive versus transgender children, the truth is that key concepts discussed throughout this course help all children, regardless of their gender expression or identity. Here are two key points to remember:
- Ensure that gender can be expressed in a variety of ways. Children of all genders can enjoy, wear, like, and do the same things.
- Address people—children, youth, and families, as they wish to be addressed. This is discussed more in Lesson Three, but using the name and pronoun preferences that children and families ask for is important for acknowledging their experiences.
Complete the Gender Bias Reflection activity. This exercise invites you to think about the gender messages children receive throughout their development. Share your responses with a trusted colleague. Consider how you might use this attachment in training with your staff.
One of the best ways to learn about and better understand gender-expansive or transgender children is to hear more about their experiences and reflect on how these experiences may affect a child’s or youth’s development.
Review some of the links below and read about real children’s experiences. Use the Children’s Experiences and Development activity to reflect. Choose a story or two to review and answer the reflective questions. Share your responses with a trusted colleague.
- Hauser, C. (2017, February 9). “I felt like I belonged there”: Transgender Cub Scout Breaks Barrier. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/2kTTkGn
- Padawer, R. (2012, August 8) What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/2jCPjoG
- Debi Jackson, mother of AJ (a transgender child) speaks at the Unity Temple Plaza in Kansas City. https://youtu.be/-oIuw3yIyhI
- Raising a Boy in Pink by Sarah Hoffman http://www.themotherco.com/2011/06/raising-a-boy-in-pink/
- I Don’t Identify as a Boy or a Girl: This is my Story by Alok Vaid-Menon http://www.mtv.com/news/1962946/gender-non-conforming-identity-trans/
|Gender-expansive||children who do not conform to stereotypical gender norms. Gender-expansive children are exploring gender expressions counter to binary constructs; they may say they are a boy at one time and girl at another time or reject gender labels. Sometimes referred to as gender-fluid, gender-creative, or gender nonconforming|
American Academy of Pediatrics, Section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Health and Wellness. (2015). Gender Non-Conforming & Transgender Children. Accessed from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/Pages/Gender-Non-Conforming-Transgender-Children.aspx
Brill, Stephanie & Pepper, Rachel. (2008) The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press Inc.
Eliot, L. (2010). Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How small differences grow into troublesome gaps—and what we can do about it. Boston, Mass.: Mariner Books.
Gender Spectrum (2017). Parenting and Family Resources. Retrieved from https://www.genderspectrum.org/resources/parenting-and-family-2/
Levens, C., & Ault, A. (2015). Transgender and Transsexual Identities. In T.K. Wayne & L. Banner (Eds.), Women's Rights in the United States: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Issues, Events, and People, Vol. 4, pp. 209-213. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Online edition.
Meier, C. & Harris, J. (n.d.) Gender Diversity and Transgender Identity in Children. Retrieved from http://www.apadivisions.org/division-44/resources/advocacy/transgender-children.pdf
Procter & Gamble (2016). Our Epic Battle #LikeAGirl Retrieved at http://www.always.com/en-us/about-us/our-epic-battle-like-a-girl
Ryan, C. & Brill, S. (2018) How Do I Know If My Child is Transgender? Help Starts Here.org. Retrieved from http://www.helpstartshere.org/?p=1114
Sirois, M. (2017) Gender Creative Life Definitions. Accessed from https://gendercreativelife.com/definitions/
Sperry, L. (Ed.) (2016). Mental Health and Mental Disorders: An Encyclopedia of Conditions, Treatments, and Well-Being, Vol. 2, pp. 503-504. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood. Online Edition.
Whittington, Hillary. (2016) Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child with No Strings Attached. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.