Gender Identity in Preschoolers

By Sara Ipatenco
Most preschoolers understand the difference between boys and girls.
Most preschoolers understand the difference between boys and girls.

By the time your child starts preschool, he'll have a firm understanding of whether he's a boy or a girl. Identifying with one's gender is part of growing, and usually the boys will be drawn toward trucks and superheroes while girls will gravitate toward dress-up and princesses. It's not always so clear-cut for all preschoolers, however. If you're concerned that your child isn't identifying with his gender, a clear understanding of gender identification is probably in order.

Gender Identity 101

Most children take notice of their genitals between the ages of 8 and 10 months of age, according to They don't understand how that makes them different from the other sex for two or three more years, but it's the first instance of your child identifying with a specific gender. By the age of 3 or 4, preschoolers understand that differences exists between boys and girls and can identify themselves as either a boy or a girl. This identification of one gender often motivates boys to choose traditionally masculine activities, such as sports, and girls to choose traditionally feminine activities, such as playing with dolls.

Nature vs. Nurture

Much of what preschoolers learn about gender identity comes from watching the adults in their lives, which is the nurture part of the equation. For example, little girls might watch their mothers breastfeeding a younger sibling, nurturing the family and cooking meals while little boys might watch their fathers fixing objects around the house, mowing the lawn and watching sports. While humans of the opposite sex can certainly enjoy any of these activities whether they're a boy or girl, preschoolers tend to imitate people of the same gender.

Don't Worry

Experimenting during the preschool years is normal and should be encouraged, according to the Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health. Allow your preschool boy to play dress-up and encourage your preschool girl to play with toy tools. Don't be concerned if your daughter shuns dresses and enjoys traditionally boy behavior such as playing in the mud and climbing trees. Also don't worry if your son wants to have his nails painted and wear jewelry. Children don't see gender identification like adults do, and this type of experimentation is an important developmental step in developing his own gender identity, the Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health notes.

Worry About This

While you should absolutely encourage your preschooler to experiment and play with whatever toys he wants to, you should watch out for some behavior. If your child is uncomfortable with his gender, it warrants an appointment with his pediatrician who might recommend a counselor to help your child deal with his feelings. If your child refuses to accept that he's one gender and repeatedly insists that he's the opposite gender, you should also consult with his pediatrician.

About the Author

Sara Ipatenco has taught writing, health and nutrition. She started writing in 2007 and has been published in Teaching Tolerance magazine. Ipatenco holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in education, both from the University of Denver.