By Susan Kurlander, M. Ed. and Claire Fultz, DSW, MSc, MSW, LCSW-C, CCM
What if. . .
Your kindergarten son wants to wear a tutu around the house even when friends come over to play?
Your four-year-old daughter’s favorite toys are trucks?
Your first-grade son likes to try on your high-heel shoes?
Gender identity is one of the earliest forms of self-awareness. There are the usual stereotypes – girls have long hair, boys wear shirts with cars on them. But sometimes a child’s sense of self doesn’t match a parent’s expectations. Are you embarrassed at how to explain your child’s choices? Do you tell your son that choice is not allowed? Do you talk with anyone else about your concerns or do you take a deep breath and think about why your daughter may be choosing to act in ways that may not be what we think is the norm related to gender identity?
What is gender identity? While the answer is complicated, the CBSN Originals documentary, “Gender: The Space Between,” defines it as “a person’s innermost concept of self as man, woman, a blend of both, or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. Gender identity can be the same or different from one’s sex assigned at birth.
How excited and ready we are to wrap our newborn son in a blue blanket and buy a baseball glove. How thrilled we are to pick out a lacey pink dress and matching hair bow for our newborn daughter to wear for the baby naming ceremony. Our preconceived notions of our child’s gender expression whether in clothes, favorite toys, or activities oftentimes align with the stereotypes. But what do we do, if anything, when our young child is not expressive in the ways we think of as “the norm?”
Consider the following guidelines adapted from Gender Identity Development in Children – HealthyChildren.org
- Recognize that cross gender exploration prior to age 4 is a normal part of learning and development and is not inherently tied to gender identity.
- Help your children to thrive by creating environments which provide opportunity for children to learn through exploration of different gender roles and different styles of play.
- Avoid applying adult thinking to child’s play. Play with your children to be more in tune with their behaviors and interests.
- Choose books to read together and shows to watch which feature diverse gender identity expression.
- Embrace your child’s curiosity and interests, rather than trying to make them someone with whom you are more comfortable.
Celebrate your child’s strengths and know that whether or not they conform to society’s or your own expectations, those strengths will be a source for success. Remember that gender development is a normal process for all children, and while some will exhibit variations in expression of gender more than others, all children need support, love and care from family, school, and society for healthy development and to foster the ability to thrive. If, however, your child or you begin exhibiting any warning signs for emotional distress, is time to reach out for help.
Susan Kurlander is a Health & Wellness Educator @ JCS.
Claire Fultz is Director of Mental Health Services @ JCS.
Health and Wellness Educators from JCS offer a program for parents, grandparents, and educators, “Gender Identity Diversity,” which promotes understanding and conversations about gender identity and how it is expressed in young children. If you are interested in learning more about this or other JCS Prevention & Wellness Programs, visit jcsbalt.org/school-programs.
Jewish Community Services (JCS) provides programs and services for people of all ages and backgrounds, helping them achieve their goals, enhance their wellbeing, and maximize their independence. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.