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Gaining a Sense of Self

A mother in New York nearly expired from embarrassment the day her 3-year-old daughter told a neighbor, "I have a vagina, but my daddy has a penis."

Most children begin to process gender differences around their first birthday, according to Carole Beal, Ph.D., author of Boys and Girls: The Development of Gender Roles. In studies, year-old babies notice a difference between men and women. By the time they're between ages 2 and 3, they've figured out their own gender. So 3-year-olds who make loud observations about anatomy may merely be verbalizing something they've pondered for almost two years.

Confirming, then conforming

Genderwise, "toddlers see the world as divided into two camps," says Beal. "Once they know which camp they belong to, their sense of self quickly becomes tinted pink or blue and they begin to infer how to fit in."

That's why around age 3, a child's behavior is likely to become noticeably gender-specific. Girls may become less aggressive and choose "girl" games, such as playing house. Boys may turn rough-and-tumble and become interested in "boy" toys, like trucks and action figures.

Rational reactions

This development may alarm parents who want to raise bias-free kids—boys who help around the house, girls who pursue any profession they wish. Not to worry, says Beal: Toddlers aren't able to consider exceptions to the rules they perceive. As with learning anything, they need to get the basics right before trying variations. In time, they'll be more willing to step outside the boundaries.

Parents can help by making kids feel good about the differences between boys and girls.

To that end:

  • React casually to her observations and discoveries about sex differences. After your daughter says "Daddy has a penis," calmly respond with "Yes, all boys have penises, and all girls have vaginas."
  • Model the behavior you want your child to learn. If stifling sex-related stereotypes is important to you, make sure he sees Mom mowing and Dad dusting.
  • Offer gender-neutral toys, but be aware that your influence may be slight. Toddlers are learning as much from their peers' behavior as from their parents'.

In the meantime, expect your child to stick close to gender roles until about age 8 to 10. Support this self-discovery and understand that figuring out what sex he is means he has found one more way to fit into the world.