Gender Identity & Gender Roles in Child Development

By Erica Loop
Your child may choose an activity that society says is gender specific.
Your child may choose an activity that society says is gender specific.

If you ran out to buy your soon-to-be newborn a frilly pink onesie the moment that the ultrasound tech announced, "Looks like a girl!" you aren't alone. Sometimes it seems nearly impossible for a parent to separate society's notions of gender from the child's actual identity. If your Jane wants to play with trucks like her brother John, take some time to better understand child development through the lens of gender identity before stressing over her decisions.

Gender and Sex Basics

Before you announce that your 5-year-old is a homosexual because he prefers pink party dresses over sports shirts, keep in mind that gender identity and sexuality aren't the same thing. Although these two concepts are often confusing to separate, gender identity includes the roles that society places on men and women while sex is a facet of biology. Choosing activities that culturally belong to the other gender, doesn't necessarily reflect your child's sex or sexuality. When your son dons a pair of pink pumps during dress-up, it doesn't mean that he is any less of a male than his brother who aggressively tackles other kids on the football field.

Gender Neutral

With the mixed messages that gender roles may send to a child, some parents may not feel comfortable with their children being pressured to conform to society's view of a boy or a girl. As your child develops her own identity, you may want to shelter her from the predetermined cultural stereotypes of male and female. To that end, some early childhood education environments are going gender-neutral, allowing kids to explore their own roles. For example, Sweden's Egalia preschool program swapped out male and female pronouns for the gender neutral "friends," doesn't stock picture books with princesses and encourages students to play with whatever toys they choose -- even if it means that the girls pick trucks over dolls.

Grade School Development

While your preschool-aged daughter playing toy car isn't totally out of the realm of what society thinks of as normal, your grade school-aged girl playing football may be. Some parents, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics' Healthy Children website, begin to worry about gendered behaviors in a more serious way as the child ages. Although gender identity development starts early on -- during the toddler years -- it becomes a much more established part of the child's personality during the grade school years. During this time your child will begin to assume either a male or female role, choosing activities, friends and his appearance style based on the gender that he identifies with.


As your child moves into the teen years, her gender identity is becoming much more of a static trait than in previous stages. Although it's likely that your teen already knows if she truly identifies with the female or male roles, she may start to explore with the opposite gender. The teen years usher in a perfectly normal, according to the pediatric pros at the KidsHealth website, need to experiment with identity. While every teen won't necessarily explore a different gender role, doing so doesn't mean that your child has a problem. Instead of shutting down your teen's need to create her own identity, discuss why she is making gender role choices.

About the Author

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.