Understanding gender and diversity for children
So much of our world is assigned to masculine and feminine. Toys, colours, clothes, sports, occupations. We have very narrow, traditional, stereotypical definitions of male and female. Think about our expectations of what males and females should wear to weddings, in sport – boxing is seen as a male sport and nurses are mostly female. Often roles and conformity are enforced i.e. girls having skirts as the only school uniform option, no pants or shorts.
Expectations around gender expression are taught to us from the moment we are born and communicated through every aspect of our lives, including family, culture, peers, schools, community, media, and religion. Gender roles, stereotypes and expectations are so entrenched in our culture that it’s often difficult for some people to accept things any other way.
In order to understand gender diversity, let’s start with the difference between sex and gender – they are not the same.
A social construct, our society defines behaviours and characteristics that are expected or associated with being on a gender scale or spectrum of feminine or masculine. SexBeing physical female, male or intersex. Humans are born with a set of sex characteristics (hormones, anatomy, chromosomes) that are typically expected of either physical female or physical male. Approximately 1.7-2.0% of humans are born with sex characteristics that are not what is typically expected of female or male, this is intersex. Physical sex is physical, it is not gender.
When a baby is born the adults in the room assign male or female to them based on physical characteristics (most times this is obvious by viewing the genitals). Their gender is then assumed to match that male or female-assigned sex. However, approximately 4% of people’s gender identity will not actually align with the sex that was assigned to them at birth.
Our gender is our deeply held, internal sense of self as masculine, feminine, a blend of both, or neither, or something else. Gender identity is our internal experience and our unique naming of our gender. It is an inherent aspect of our make-up. Individuals do not choose their gender, they cannot be made to change it. A parent once told me that their 3-year-old boy said to them: ‘Mummy and Daddy the boy has died and there is just a girl here…’ and that child has identified as a girl ever since. There are many names for gender identity, i.e. transgender, gender non conforming, non-binary, gender diverse, gender fluid etc.
Understanding of our gender identity comes to most of us when we are very young. According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, “By age four, most children have a stable sense of their gender identity.” This core aspect of our identity comes from within each of us. However, the words someone uses to communicate their gender identity may change over time; naming our gender can be complex and evolving and based on influences of our surroundings. Because we initially usually have limited language for gender, it may take a person quite some time to discover, or create, the language that best communicates their internal sense of identity.
Our Gender expression is how we present our gender externally, through dress, behaviour, demeanour, i.e. hairstyles, mannerisms, clothes. Society sets an expected spectrum of femininity and masculinity. Practically everything is assigned to gender and our society, culture and family will perceive, interact with and shape our gender based on these expectations.
By age three most children choose activities that are associated with their assigned gender, based on social conditioning and personal preferences. Fitting neatly into these expected roles is simple for many. However, expressing gender outside of the rigid expectations can be a different experience for others. Think about how people react when a little boy wears a tutu to kinder. Pressure to conform and mistreatment by peers can cause difficulties for those wanting to experience their individual gender expression. Parents play a key role in the safety and wellbeing of their children and others by being informed themselves and then teaching their children about human diversity and acceptance.
Vanessa’s book recommendations on Diversity: