8 min read

Helping children develop positive gender identity

Illustration of a mum talking to their child
  • The World Health Organisation defines ‘sex’ as characteristics that are biologically defined, whereas ‘gender’ is based on socially constructed characteristics. It recognises that there are variations in how people experience gender based upon self-perception and expression, and how they behave.

    When a baby is born in the UK their sex is recorded as, male or female, based on their body.

    Ideas about gender identity

    From the age of about 2 a child will have become aware of the physical differences between boys and girls. This is when gender identity starts to form.

    By the age of about 3 most children will identify with a gender and this is most often the same as the sex recorded at birth. This is their gender identity.

    For some children things are not so definite. They may identify with a different gender to the sex recorded at birth, or neither gender, or both, or something else. This is their gender identity.

    Not everyone agrees but…

    • Many people believe that gender is not a clear-cut ‘one or the other’ but more a spectrum with feminine (girl/woman) at one end and masculine (boy/man) at the other.

    • Some people feel they are a mix, and others feel like they don’t fit on the spectrum at all. Some people identify as ‘non-binary’ or ‘gender queer’ to describe when their gender falls outside of the gender binary system, or fluctuates.

    • Gender identity is seen as the child or adult’s internal sense of who they are, which may or may not correspond to the sex recorded at birth. No-one can assign a gender identity to another person.

    • According to this definition gender identity is shaped not just by biology but also by family and society.

    • Gender identity is different from sexual orientation which is a person’s emotional, romantic and/or sexual attraction to another person, or lack of. Gender identity does not predict sexual orientation.

    • Gender identity can change over time for children and young people as they grow and develop

  • There can be a lot of pressure on children to identify as the ‘either/or’ binary gender. Some of this pressure comes from society and some can come from family.

    Gender stereotypes such as ‘Come on, big boys don’t cry’ or ‘All girls like pink’ OR ‘Girls are not as good as sports as boys’ are unhelpful for all children.

    As parents we need to provide child-centred support to help our children develop a confident and comfortable gender identity.

    We need to recognise that:

    • However a child identifies in terms of gender, this is an important part of who they are.
    • Children who feel uneasy or ashamed about their gender identity can develop serious mental health difficulties
    • Children who are encouraged to understand that gender is a spectrum are able to form a confident gender identity that properly reflects who they are. They don’t get twisted by stereotypes.
    • Confident children who understand that gender is a spectrum are more open to supporting how other children identify.

    It’s our job to provide positive messages.

    The more openness there is in society to the flexible expression of gender and gender identity, the more possible it is for all children, young people and adults to feel included and accepted.

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