Gender Identity Development in Early Childhood

Gender identity refers to the deep and intimate feeling a person has of themselves. Children begin to understand and express their gender identity early in life. They may express their gender through their choices in clothing, social relationships with peers, choice of toys, or preferred nicknames. However, their gender expression in these ways is different from their gender identity, which is who the child knows themselves to be on the inside (Caring for Kids).

During this same time of life, children learn gender role behavior—that is, do­ing “things that boys do” or “things that girls do.” However, cross-gender preferences and play are a normal part of gender development and exploration regardless of their future gender identity (Healthy Children). From a young child’s perspective, playing with a toy or wearing certain clothing simply means “I like this.” Children do not yet have the understanding of how their choices’ may be commonly associated with one gender or another (Office of Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center).

Parents can support healthy gender identity development by loving and accepting their children through their developmental stages. Unconditional support will reduce the feelings of shame that may occur when a child isn’t able to express their gender identity.

Gender Identity Development at Each Age

Gender identity typically develops in the following ways at each age.


18 to 24 Months

Two to three years old

  • At around two years old, children are aware of differences between boys and girls.
  • Most children can identify themselves as a “boy” or “girl”. This term may or may not match the assigned sex at birth.
  • Some children’s gender identity remains stable over their life, while others may alternate between identifying themselves as “boy” or “girl”, or even assume other gender identities at different times (sometimes even in the same day). This is normal and healthy. (Caring for Kids)

Four to five years old

  • Children become more aware of gender expectations or stereotypes as they grow older. For example, they may think that certain toys are only for girls or boys.
  • Some children may express their gender very strongly. For example, a child might go through a stage of insisting on wearing a dress every day, or refusing to wear a dress even on special occasions. (Caring for Kids)

Six to seven years old

  • Many children begin to reduce outward expressions of gender as they feel more confident that others recognize their gender. For example, a girl may not feel that she has to wear a dress every day because she knows that others see her as a girl no matter what she wears.
  • Children who feel their gender identity is different from the assigned sex at birth may experience increased social anxiety because they want to be like their peers, but realize they don’t feel the same way. (Caring for Kids)

Eight years old and older

  • Pre-teens and teens continue to develop their gender identity through personal reflection and with input from their social environment, like peers, family and friends.
  • Some gender-stereotyped behaviors may appear. You may notice your teen or pre-teen making efforts to “play up” or “downplay” some of their body’s physical changes.
  • As puberty begins, some youth may realize that their gender identity is different from their assigned sex at birth.
  • Because some children’s gender identification may change, especially around puberty, families are encouraged to keep options open for their child. (Caring for Kids)

Ways to Show Support

Gender development is a normal process for all children. Some children will exhibit variations―similar to all areas of human health and behavior. However, all children need support, love, and care from family, school, and society, which fosters growth into happy and healthy adults (Healthy Children).

Sometimes parents and caregivers unintentionally expect and encourage particular behaviors and traits based on a child’s gender. For example, adults tend to comment on a girl’s appearance, saying things like “Aren’t you adorable?” or “What a pretty dress!” On the other hand, comments about boys tend to center on their performance with a focus on abilities, such as “You’re such a good climber!” or “You’re so smart.” 

As an adult supporting healthy development, you can develop a habit of commenting on who they are as individuals. You can foster self-esteem in children of any gender by giving all children positive feedback about their unique skills and qualities. For example, you might say to a child, “I noticed how kind you were to your friend when she fell down” or “You were very helpful with clean-up today—you are such a great helper” or “You were such a strong runner on the playground today.” (Office of Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center)

There are a variety of other ways that parents can support their child through development, and engage them in healthy, developmentally appropriate ways about their gender expression and identity.

  • Talk with your child about gender identity. As soon as your child is able to say words like “girl” and “boy,” they are beginning to understand gender.
  • Ask questions! This is a great way to hear your child’s ideas about gender.
  • Ask your child’s teachers how they support gender expression and what they teach about gender identity at school.
  • Read books with your child that talk about many different ways to be a boy, a girl, or having another gender identity.
  • If accessible, provide a variety of toys for your child to choose from, including baby dolls, toy vehicles, action figures, blocks, etc.
  • Don’t pressure your child to change who they are.
  • Be aware that a child who is worrying about gender may show signs of depression, anxiety, and poor concentration. They may not want to go to school. If you are concerned about your child’s emotional health, talk to your child’s family doctor, pediatrician, or other mental health professionals

Series Navigation

The Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Series highlights several early childhood topics to support parents and caregivers who are caring for young children. Use the list below to navigate through each series topic:

Learn more about the series.

Request free printed materials from our Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Series.


Picture: A young baby looks up at the camera.
Line separator