When a 5 year old transgender child started asking about eggs (in the context of mammals), their parent knew she was in for an interesting discussion. In response to the “do you have eggs” question posed by the child, their parent (assigned female at birth) informed them that she does have ovaries with eggs in them. When the child asked if she also has eggs, the parent replied that most people do not have both eggs and testicles. To that, the surprised child said “WAIT! Mama, you don’t have balls?”
This conversation and this child’s surprise highlights the idea that children are flexible in thinking and if not taught a specific version of gender role concepts and expectations of gender conformity, a child has the potential to accept the world around them and to develop naturally without constraints in what is considered common social norms. Parental modeling and teachings have a significant influence on children’s own concepts of self (Bosacki, 2014).
If someone has never thought about their gender identity, it is probably because their gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. A doctor makes a determination based upon genitals or chromosomes at the time of birth as to whether to mark the “female” checkbox or the “male” checkbox at the time of birth, and while that designation will create an individual’s sex assigned at birth, that momentary designation does not determine a person’s actual gender identity (Winter, 2015).
Gender, as compared with biological sex assigned at birth, is a person’s psychological identification as either male, female or non-binary. Transgender is the term used to describe an individual whose biological sex assigned at birth does not match their gender identity (Goldstein, Corneil, & Greene, 2017). Research shows that individuals start having recognition of gender differences in their perceptions in infancy. These are based upon social constructs as to what is embedded into society as male or female gender-role identifiers (Dunham, Baron, Banaji, 2016).
Gender-related self-identification of a child starts at age 2-3 years old. By that time, it is common for parents to have immersed their child into gender stereotyping simply by way of clothing and toy choices thus creating an environment where a child is encouraged to conform to gender stereotyping associated with their sex assigned at birth rather than an innate development of gender identity (Winters, 2017). Their environment can significantly affect initial concepts of gender identity based upon the social feedback (both positive and negative) associated with choices and preferences a child shows in their environment such as color and play choices.
Within cognitive theories, children are viewed as internally motivated who construct their own concepts of gender. Those concepts then morph into gender conformity which children see as a way to conquer the concept of gender. Also, within this theory, children (ages 2 through 6 years old) may have phases of awareness, followed by rigidity, and then flexibility (Halim et al., 2014) associated with their gender identity based largely in gender expression. Utilizing clothing as a tool, children can use their learned gender stereotyping to express their own internalized gender concepts because the rigidity allows them to try to conquer this rather complex concept (Halim et al., 2014).
Within a concept of social learning theory, Albert Bandura opined that humans are neither entirely able to act inherently independently nor entirely controlled by external forces and are, instead, able to develop self-regulation to a degree that they have control over their own actions (Wulfert, 2018). Self-regulation is one’s ability to plan behavior but then modify based upon situational need to adapt (Montroy et al., 2016). This social theory as applied to gender development would lend itself to the idea that children are able to recognize their own gender identity even if they are exposed to social modeling and gender stereotyping.
There is, undoubtedly, a complicated
relationship between sex assigned at birth and gender identity. Social constructs have a significant
influence over defining gender roles and expectations and privileges associated
with a particular gender designation. As such, a child’s freedom to discovery gender
identity that is innate and self-determined lies significant with those adults
and peers creating the environment and modeling roles, gendered or otherwise,
for those children.
Bosacki, S. (2014). A Longitudinal Study of Children’s Theory of Mind, Self-Concept, and Gender-Role Orientation. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 6(2), 213-228.
Dunham, Y., Baron, A., & Banaji, M. (2016). The development of implicit gender attitudes. Developmental Science, 19(5), 781-789.
Goldstein, Z., Corneil, T.A., & Greene, D. (2017). When Gender Identity Doesn’t Equal Sex Recorded at Birth: The Role of Laboratory in Providing Effective Healthcare to the Transgender Community. Clinical Chemistry, 63(8), 1342-1352.
Halim, M., Ruble, D., Tamis-LeMonda, C., Zosuls, K., Lurye, L., & Greulich, F. (2014). Pink frilly dresses and the avoidance of all things “girly”: Children’s appearance rigidity and cognitive theories of gender development. Developmental Psychology, 50(4), 1091-1101.
Montroy, J., Bowles, R., Skibbe, L., McClelland, M., & Morrison, F. (2016). The development of self-regulation across early childhood. Developmental Psychology, 52(11), 1744-1762.
Winter, G. (2015). Determining Gender: a social construct? Community Practitioner, 88(2), 15-17.
Wulfert, E. (2018). Social learning according to Albert
Bandura. Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health.