Why are all my children male

Early Childhood Gender Identity

Margarete Blank-Mathieu


Anyone who thinks that a child only acquires its gender identity in late childhood or even as an adult will surely be surprised that we should talk about early childhood gender identity here. But a child is also a gender-bound being from the start. Already in the womb it is endowed with its final sexual being. Today's brain research goes so far that it regards statements as scientifically proven that boys and girls get a different brain structure through the action of sex hormones. But the parents' ideas about the expected birth of a boy or girl also have an impact on the basic mood that a child can experience before it is born.

Most people understand that socialization plays an additional role when a child is born.

But what does "gender identity" mean?

By this we mean the subjective assessment of a person of himself in contrast to the judgment of himself by others. This also includes gender. In order to be described as successful, this subjective assessment must result in a coherent self-image. Only when I feel at home in my body (which is either male or female) can I speak of a successful gender identity. It is a logical conclusion that this does not occur at the beginning of life and has to be redefined over and over again. Puberty in particular is another phase in which one's own self-image also has to be rediscovered with regard to gender. Even adults are not immune to having to redefine their identity, which is essentially related to gender, over and over again.

Gender identity does not designate a completed process, but begins before birth and has to be worked on and redefined over and over again throughout life.

When we speak of early childhood gender identity, we have to consider three dimensions: the biological components, the psychological components and the sociocultural components, which in each case intertwined and mostly not consciously interact in the attainment and stabilization of gender identity.

1. The biological aspects of gender identity

The fetus in the womb is initially gender neutral. It is only through the action of sex hormones that the secondary sex characteristics develop, which shape our image of gender affiliation. After birth, children are assigned to one or the other sex on the basis of their external sexual characteristics. In some cases this can be problematic because the external gender characteristics, for example, do not match the gender-related "personality structure". A child can feel like a girl despite having male sex characteristics. In quite a few cases, this sets in motion a dramaturgy of life that makes a successful gender identity extremely difficult.

People who have to live with such a mixed gender affiliation will seldom experience understanding of their environment, since most people can be assigned to a gender both in their external appearance and in their internal structure.

There are at least ten genders, as one scientist once put it. This means that people can (and are) different in terms of their biological sex. This means that women are sometimes experienced as male and men appear more feminine. This is usually not a problem for gaining gender identity. The fact that boys within their gender and girls within the same gender group have different forms of behavior and experience is not decisive for most in order to be able to clearly assign themselves to the boys or girls group.

"A boy was lost to her" is often used for girls who have boyish behavior, either behave like boys or have special talents that are more likely to be assigned to the male gender. In most cases, however, it is not yet possible to research whether this has biological causes.

The biological gender cannot be changed. In the case of very dramatic personality dissonances, gender reassignment is the only way to achieve an approximation of a successful gender identity.

However, since a successful gender identity does not depend solely on biological gender, other components must always be taken into account.

2. The psychological aspects of gender identity

Today, future parents know relatively early on about the gender of their expected child. This is not insignificant with regard to the gender identity of this child. Since the knowledge of the sex of the fetus in the womb sets both parents in motion fantasies and unconscious ideas, this is "communicated" to the child even before it is born. A girl who is expected with joy or the anticipation of a little boy is felt by the child in a positive way and can therefore develop well. However, parents' fears also make the fetus anxious. The mother's feelings are transferred to the unborn child. Fathers who accompany the mother in a positive and supportive way during this time also do the same for the unborn child.

Women who have had or are having negative experiences with men will find it more difficult not to influence their child negatively on this emotional level. Women who have developed insecure or negative gender ideas about themselves will also pass on excessive or negative ideas about the girl to be expected. It is very important for parents-to-be to deal with their own gender as soon as they know what gender their future child belongs to.

Many unconscious experiences with men and women play a not insignificant role in the expectation with regard to boys or girls and must, as far as possible, be uncovered and dealt with. This applies not only to the prenatal phase, but also to all lifetime to be spent with children.

3. The socio-cultural aspects of gender identity

Growing up in a certain culture has a very decisive influence on the development of gender identity. There are serious differences between a child's self-image in a tribal culture in the South Seas and in an industrialized country.

How people live their gender role in a certain culture is often adopted by children through imitation. Even children as young as two years old prefer to mimic their own gender than adults of the opposite sex. Boys are interested in the father's activity, girls in the mother's. Since often only the activities that fathers and mothers do at home are experienced, these roles are integrated into one's own imagination. Therefore the behavior of father and mother and their mutual acceptance is very important for children of both sexes. Wherever they experience that all the activities of father and mother are seen as important together and are alternately taken over as required, children do not experience negative gender roles.

However, the influence of the family is very limited. As soon as the child takes a step into the outside world, it is also confronted there with different male and female roles. It also hears comments about the assessment of its own behavior: "You are behaving like a boy!" or: "A boy is not grouchy!" make an "impression" on children. Even if a child hears well-intentioned sentences, it will always also hear the idea of ​​what is "right" for a girl or boy.

Very soon the peer group also plays a socializing role here. Especially with boys who grow up in a predominantly female environment (without or only with a temporarily available father or another male person), the big, strong, overly masculine boy (or fantasy man from the TV show) plays a role worth emulating gender orientation.

4. But what does this mean for gender identity development from birth?

The biological gender, the unconscious communications, the socio-cultural experiences of a child - all of this ultimately leads to some kind of gender identity. For children to grow up healthily today, it is extremely important to offer them many opportunities to experience different manifestations of male or female behavior. This is the best way for them to get closer to their own identity and to pick out those elements in adult life that are coherent for them and their own life. The fact that a negative evaluation of a single gender, be it male or female, also has a negative influence on the way people live together, means that we do not base the behavioral evaluation on male or female, but on all positive behaviors, both male and female People can be shown. The health of our children, which is always linked to a successful gender identity, must be important to us.

Further reading by the author on the subject

Small difference - big consequences? Freiburg: Herder 1997; Munich: Ernst Reinhardt Verlag 2002

Boys in kindergarten. Frankfurt / Main: Brandes & Apsel 1996, 2nd edition 2006

Dissertation on "Socialization, self-concept and development of gender identity in boys of preschool age". Tübingen: University Library Tübingen 2002. At: http://w210.ub.uni-tuebingen.de/dbt/volltexte/2002/470 (also as text version)

Educational Sciences, Volume II, Chapter "Sexual Education". Neusäß: Kieser 1999; 2nd edition by Bildungsverlag EINS 2006 (in preparation)

Different aspects of the topic are dealt with in further specialist articles at www.kindergartenpaedagogik.de.


Dr. Margarete Blank-Mathieu is an author and trainer for parents and educators on "Gender Mainstreaming in Kindergarten". She has published specialist articles on various topics in the field of day-care centers. Dr. Blank-Mathieu works as a lecturer at the Evang. Technical school for social education in Stuttgart-Botnang. Email: [email protected]