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Let's Talk About Gender & Gender Development

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Language can act as a tool to help us better understand ourselves and the world around us. Here are some terms and definitions that might aid you in the process of discovering who you are or simply supporting a loved one in the community.

Let's Talk About Gender & Gender Development

Gender vs Sex

At birth, babies are assigned generally as male or female based on their biological characteristics (e.g. reproductive organs and chromosomes). However, people’s genetics and bodies can be much more complex than that of male and female. There are many ways to be intersex. Some intersex people are born with hormonal and chromosomal patterns that don't fit into a male/female sex binary, while others may have the physical characteristics of both sexes. Once a sex is assigned, we presume the child’s gender. Gender is culturally and socially defined. In the binary society, each gender comes with its own set of expectations, like how to behave, dress, feel emotion, and interact with other people.

Gender Identity

Your internal sense of self/gender - a man, a woman, non-binary, gender fluid, etc. One's gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.

Gender Expression

External appearance of one's gender identity, usually expressed through behaviour, clothing, body characteristics or voice. It may or may not conform to socially defined behaviours and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.

It is different from gender identity - you cannot assume a child’s gender identity based on their gender expression.

Sexual Orientation

It is a pattern of who we are physically, emotionally and/or romantically attracted to.

An individual’s sexual orientation is independent of their gender identity.

Transgender (or Gender Diverse)

It is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Gender Dysphoria

The level of discomfort or distress that can exist when a person’s gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth. Some trans children experience no distress about their bodies while others may express significant discomfort.

Stages of Gender Development

For parents/carers, it is helpful to understand what gender is/can be (i.e. outside of the binary) in order to provide your kids with the necessary language to explore their identity. It is also helpful to educate yourself on the stages of gender development and how your child’s understanding of gender changes over time. Please note that this is just a general outline. It is completely natural for your child to be moving at a different rate.

18-24 months

Before children reach the age of two, they are already starting to understand and define gender. They start noticing patterns and internalise messages from their homes and from their friends/family. They start to learn about expectations associated with gender and gender as a means to group themselves.

Age 2-3

Between the age of two and three, children start to become conscious of the physical differences between boys and girls. Most children at this stage can easily label themselves as either a boy or a girl.

They start to learn the “gender” of toys, clothing and colours. Informed by the binary construction of gender learned in their families and communities, they also start to place people, animals and things they come into contact with in distinct categories.

They look at same gender models to learn how to behave “accordingly” and may avoid/chastise others who “cross” the gender divide.

At this age, gender diverse identities and/or expressions may be clear.

If your child has been given language to understand gender outside of the binary, they will use that language in developmentally appropriate ways as well.

If your child has not been given the language or if they are not sure if it is safe for them to communicate what they know about their gender, they may keep these thoughts to themselves for some time.

Age 3-4

Gender identity takes on more meaning at this stage, as children begin to focus on differences beyond the physical.

They learn what it means to be a girl and a boy in terms of gender norms and roles. Stereotypes start to emerge, and gender segregation often begins.

Children who deviate from these gender rules can begin to feel isolated.

Age 4-6

As children become increasingly aware of gender rules and the pressure to conform, their thinking about gender becomes more rigid.

Developmentally they are unable to think more deeply about the beliefs and values the gender rules are based on.

By age six, most children spend most of their playtime with peers of the same sex.

Age 6-8

Children begin to gain a sense of gender as something that is consistent but increasingly separate from expression.

They become less attached to rules and may even begin to challenge stereotypes, allowing a broader expression of self (e.g. clothing/hairstyle).

Most children have a stable sense of their gender identity by age four.

Preventing children from exploring their gender identity and expressing themselves in ways that come naturally to them can negatively impact their development and mental health

When children develop an understanding of their gender at a young age, they may not have the language or other tools to express their identity outwardly.

For gender-diverse kids, including transgender and non-binary youth, the gap between when they understand their gender and when they are able to disclose to those around them may last for years. According to Savage & Lagerstrom (2015), the average age of self-realisation for gender-diverse children was 7.9, while the average age when they disclosed was not until age 15.5. Those years in between are marked by fear and shame, making them vulnerable in their isolation.

For further information, please refer to Parents of Gender-Diverse Children (

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