Between the ages of 26 and 33 months, children make sense of the world around them through categories, including gender. Many children begin to identify as a boy or a girl during this time and notice more about gender and private parts. Sometimes they will alternate between boy and girl when describing themselves, and sometimes they will reject the labels altogether.
Researchers who study this topic find no link between a two-year-old’s play and their gender identity when they grow older; as two-year-olds, their play isn’t defined that way. When they’re three, your child may develop more rigidity in the way they label themselves. In the meantime, don’t be surprised if you see some experimentation.
HERE ARE WAYS OF SUPPORTING YOUR CHILD’S GENDER IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT:
Give them freedom
“Boy colors” and “girl clothes” are ideas that have been around for a long time, but in reality, those distinctions are arbitrary. It wasn’t too long ago that young children of all genders wore dresses, blue was “delicate and dainty” enough for girls, and pink was “more decided and stronger” for boys.
Your child will likely be interested in a wide range of colors, toys, clothes, and activities regardless of their biological sex. Your boy may want to try out dresses and your girl may want short hair. Consider letting them explore; they’re trying to figure out how the world works and who they are in relation to it.
The National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement at the University of Washington says: “while many clear categories exist—a color is not a fruit and a dog is not a tree—many things that may have traditionally been limited to one gender or another are not inherently male or female. We can help children develop an understanding of categories that can include both boys and girls by such simple, straightforward responses as ‘toys are toys’ and ‘clothes are clothes.’”
Your two-year-old boy wanting to be the “mommy” in a game of pretend, for example, isn’t a window into the future. Lise Eliot, professor of neuroscience and author of the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, says that the toys children like, the roles they try out during pretend play, and the clothes they want to wear are good for them in the moment: “none of it is predictive of anything, and the most important thing is that they have this ‘free to be me’ childhood.”
Encourage girls to take more risks
Adults tend to encourage boys to take more risks than girls. “Studies out in the playground find that parents will caution their daughters more than their sons if they’re climbing too high on the play structure,” Eliot says. “They encourage sons to play outside more than daughters, they take boys to the park more than they take girls to the park.”
Risky play environments can make adults uncomfortable, but they’re extremely beneficial for cognitive, emotional, and motor growth. They teach children their physical limits, like how fast they can run or how high they can comfortably climb, and they also teach resilience: what happens when I get hurt and how can I get through it? We adults may unwittingly undermine this learning when we caution girls to be more careful after an injury, and tell boys “you’re okay; shake it off.”
Nurture, not nature, causes the language gap between boys and girls
Aside from a small gap in physical size, there are virtually no differences between the brains of baby boys and those of baby girls. Pediatricians don’t use separate developmental charts because boy and girl development, while it differs a little here and there, is not statistically relevant enough to standardize.
Yet small differences in nature, when combined with more significant ones in how we nurture, can grow into what Eliot calls “troublesome gaps.” These gaps are the result of the way adults talk to children, the messages children receive from the broader world, and the interactions children have with their peers.
For instance, girls typically learn to talk a little earlier than boys. That difference, though small, can start out as an apparent language delay and widen into something more troublesome. Research shows that parents tend to use more language with girls than they do with boys—more words, more books, more vocal responses. This helps explain why girls are often ahead of boys in language-related subjects, particularly reading and writing, despite there being no natural reason for it.
The traditional narrative that boys are slower and less adept than girls at speaking, reading, and writing sends a problematic message to parents of boys: that they shouldn’t worry about a language delay because it’s inevitable. In fact, Eliot says, “they should do the opposite: go all in on their son’s—or daughter’s—verbal stimulation.”
- Talking to Boys the Way We Talk to Girls (New York Times)
- The ‘Baby Talk’ Gap (Today)
- Gender Differences in Emotion Expression in Children (National Institutes of Health)
- Child Gender Influences Paternal Behavior, Language, and Brain Function (APA)
For more resources on supporting your child’s gender identity development, including some commonly-asked questions, we recommend reading this article from Caring For Kids.
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