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A psychologist explains gender development
A psychologist explains gender development

It's hard enough raising kids to be responsible, respectable members of society, but when it comes to gender norms, many parents worry that their child might display the 'wrong' traits for their sex.

Some are concerned because this could lead to bullying, or rejection by their peers, or because it does not fit with their moral or religious beliefs. 

At the end of the day, if you have a girl child who prefers firetrucks or a boy child who enjoys playing fairy dress up, this is not something that you should worry about. 

Given space and support, your child will grow into who they are, and there isn't very much that you as a parent can do to influence the ultimate outcome. 

We spoke to Lerato Diale, a Clinical Psychologist based in Pretoria, to dig deeper into this complex issue. 

When does gender develop? 

Therapists agree that gender is something that develops in early childhood contrary to most beliefs that it develops in adolescence, Diale told Parent24.

"In fact researchers have found that gender is not something that is inborn, rather gender is something that exists only through our recreation of it on a daily basis," she added.

Furthermore, according to social constructionists, gender is constructed by a variety of factors that include parents, society, and the child.

"It is from the age of roundabout three where children start observing the differences between boys and girls and the mannerisms that accompany this," she explained.

But there is still no understanding at this stage that gender is fixed.

Also read: INFOGRAPHIC: How to tell if a toy is for a girl or a boy 

Play is just play 

It is understandable for parents to have questions when they observe their children playing with opposite gender toys.

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist known for his theory of cognitive development that looked at how children develop intellectually throughout the course of childhood, explains in his gender development theories that from age five children tend to play with gender specific toys.

Typically, Diale says that girls will play more with dolls and boys with toy cars or action figure dolls. This was confirmed by an American study of 4th graders in 2003.

The study found that sometimes play is just play in children and holds no deeper meaning. For some children their play was quite intentional, whereby they chose to play with other children sharing the same gender as them.

"This is how children reinforce their gender identities through their choice of playmates, toys and clothing," Diale said. 

Is there need for concern?

For younger children and toddlers, there is still no understanding yet of what gender is, Diale told us.

"It is however important to remember the social constructionist take on gender, that a small child is not solely responsible for constructing their gender, but parents, even society, has a role," she added.

If a boy child is mostly exposed to an environment where girl children are mostly dominant, especially in play, then the boy child may join in on that play - but it does not mean that this will persist over time.

"If there is a male influence the child will also switch and play more masculine games, so to speak," she said.

A parent's role 

Parents have an important role to play here, Diale said, because at a later stage they begin socialising their children to different gender roles.

"Moms may spend more time with girl children, socialising them to more feminine roles (according to society) and the same for boys and dads," she described.

Generally, parents have no need for concern when children play with opposite gender toys or explore opposite gender mannerisms.

Parents should however be concerned after observing distress or impairment in their children, especially if this affects their behaviour at school, home and other environments, whereby the child cannot function due to anxiety sometimes experienced during gender development.

Shaming a child or ridiculing them for playing with opposite gender toys however is something that can be more destructive than effective, she stressed.

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