I'm a Girl, I'm a Boy -- What Do Gender Differences Mean to Preschoolers?

Eliza Clark
June 19, 2008

We admit to being daunted by this topic. It's kind of huge, and kind of controversial.

But we are dedicated to exploring the Me-ness of little people this month, and there's no denying that being able to say "I'm a boy" or "I'm a girl" -- otherwise known as gender identification -- is a big part of how the preschoolers we know understand themselves.

Interestingly enough, being able to make gender distinctions is often listed on developmental checklists for two-year-olds. This may seem odd, but what this so-called "milestone" really touches on is how well young children are learning to decode their social environment. In case you hadn't noticed, they tend to be very, very good at it -- too good, sometimes.

They pick up on everything, these little ones. How girls tend to have long hair, wear skirts and dresses and anything pink, play with princess items and dolls, and on and on. How boys mostly have short hair, and wear pants and anything with a superhero logo, and usually carry a matchbook car on them. And in these early years of literal thinking, preschool-age kids often show how well they "get it" by enacting these roles to the hilt.

As parents, we often have mixed feelings about the whole thing. So many aspects of girlishness and boyishness are fun and nostalgic (for us) and charming. Yet partly due to the relentless marketing of everything from Cinderella toothbrushes to Spiderman underwear, the boy/girl differences can easily become exaggerated in the minds of our preschoolers. And it's hard to see that as a great thing for children.

Also, none of us, not even the scientists and sociologists who study this stuff all day, fully understand the nature vs. nurture balance when it comes to gender and the developing identities of little children. (Though scholars are getting closer to figuring it out. For a readable and nuanced take, see the latter chapters of Lise Eliot's How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Yeas of Life -- a fascinating read for parents, truly!)

So how do we deal with these questions, as parents? Readers, we don't have the answers on this one. What is your approach? How do you help your child understand what it means (or doesn't have to mean) to be a boy or a girl? Please tell.

From the Parents

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