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Colleen Miller

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Healthy Gender Development

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Dear Parents,

There has been a substantial amount of play among our current students (especially PreK classrooms) regarding “marriage”.  Topics have included who they will marry and planning their weddings.  We’ve heard from several parents relating concerns about their child’s choice of a spouse or their child’s gender play. And when we hear from some parents, we know there are usually several other parents who are also concerned, but just haven’t said anything!  So I wanted to share with you a few age-appropriate developmental facts for preschool age children about Healthy Gender Development.

Children are naturally curious and playful. They learn by exploring, most often through play across all domains, including gender.   Preschoolers are aware of and interested about gender and body differences (therefore we have a large mirror in the children’s bathroom). They typically establish a firm belief during these years that they are either male or female – boy or girl. They enjoy bathroom humor, repeat curse words, and can be questioning about where they came from. It is typical development to engage in some “I’ll show you mine, and you show me yours” non-coercive play, as well as masturbation (response being, “I know that feels good, but that is for when you are in a private place”). All of this is a natural part of their development. 

While we (parents and teachers) may work really hard to only have gender-neutral or equal access to both “boy” or “girl” toys, research has shown that by age one, children show clear preferences for gender-consistent toys (e.g. trucks for boys, dolls for girls).  Side-note, toys that are basic, open-ended, and able to be used in multiple ways are best for development socially and cognitively. Yet, even at 3 years old (and sometimes longer) a child may still be confused regarding gender – for example, a girl thinking she will grow up to be a man, or a boy referring to his mom as “him”. Gender constancy – that is understanding that being male or female is a fixed personal attribute – does not develop completely until around age six to seven.

This developmental timeline is partly why 4-year-old boys love to dress up in “princess” attire and walk around in sparkly shoes (also because those outfits are just more fun than a suit coat or tie). While girls are more likely to have 2 or 3 close friends at any time and play “family” or “school”, boys are more likely to play in large groups and play superheroes or “righteous combat”; adults in their lives work to make sure all children have an opportunity to experience a variety of play themes and friends.  We want children to know that any expression of themselves (as long as it isn’t hurtful) is awesome! 

When preschoolers are thinking about marriage, they are thinking about being able to have access to their friend 24/7, or having sleepover parties each night. Because, they have not-developed gender-constancy yet, there isn’t any meaning to whether or not they have chosen a same-sex or opposite-sex “spouse”! When children are discussing this our response is “people get married to someone they love, after they have finished school.” Research says to be economically stable, a person should finish their education, then get married, before any children. Reality of current trends are that many of our students won’t ever have a wedding, but will have at least one long-term relationship, with or without children.  We also say a family is a group of people who love each other. Preschoolers assume that children are a key component of the family, but there can be 1 mom and 1 dad in the same home, or separate homes; 2 moms, or 2 dads; or 1 grandmother and grandfather; or any combination.  

Here are some ideas for when you hear children making comments similar to the ones below (in italics), you might consider these responses: (from “Healthy Gender Development and Young Children”)

“You can’t play in the kitchen area. You’re a boy!” 

  • “We can all learn together how to make a recipe and clean up the kitchen.”
  • “I’m going to play in the kitchen with any of the children who like to play there.” 

“Why does Diego always want to dress like a girl?” 

  • “There are lots of different ways that boys can dress and lots of different ways that girls can dress.”
  • “Clothes are clothes. He likes to wear the clothes that he feels comfortable in.” 

“Why does she always play with the boys?” 

  • “Those are the games that she likes to play, just as there are different games that you like to play.” 
  • “She can play with whoever she wants to, just like you.” 

“You’re a girl!” (said in an insulting tone to a child who identifies as a boy). 

  • “It’s not okay to call someone a ‘girl’ to make them feel bad.” 

“Boys are better at sports than girls.” 

  • “Some boys and girls are good at sports, and some are not. All children have different things that they are good at.”

On a closing note, whenever your child says something that is concerning to you…ask him/her to tell you more, or what does that mean? Often the child’s understanding is very different from the adult one. It is also one reason why you always want to use the correct anatomical words for body parts. This will help to clarify communication when and if the need arises to have that conversation with your child. 

As always, if you have any other concerns or questions, please let me know.  

Tami Havener, Director

879-5973 x11; or thavener@familydevelopmentcenter.org

Disclaimer: Information contained in this blog post consectetur adipiscing elit. Curabitur urna dui, finibus ac auctor eget, dignissim eleifend urna. Nullam mollis, risus id tortor eros mollis velit, eu congue massa dui in est. Phasellus mattis accumsan nisl, a elementum purus ornare eget. Aliquam imperdiet risus in magna sollicitudin rhoncus. Suspendisse malesuada iaculis sem vitae ornare. Praesent mauris turpis, sodales at lacus efficitur.

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