- Research has shown children as young as 3 can identify their gender.
- In my experience, children know who they are and need adults to support them.
- Trans and gender-nonconforming children are just as confident as cisgender children.
Whenever I discuss working as a gender specialist with trans youth, the question I’m asked is, “But aren’t they too young to know?” My short answer is: No.
I’ve studied child gender-identity development, read the theories, and combed through studies, but the confirmation I’ve gotten has been in witnessing the embodied joy and authenticity of trans children.
I’ve seen kids as young as 3 years old know what their gender is and how they identify. This is supported in the research, but so often adults are afraid and are more comfortable believing that children are too young to know. Parents, in a desire for certainty, prefer to believe the doctors got it right.
Children know who they are
In graduate school, I volunteered for Camp Aranutiq, a camp for trans and gender-nonconforming youth. Their family weekends included children as young as 3, and any time with them would challenge disbelief in trans youth.
Parents described their children to me as “confident,” “social,” and “alive” since coming out and honoring their identity with a social transition — change in gender presentation, name, pronouns, etc. These children knew who they were. I only wish more adults could know themselves as well and be so unafraid of authenticity.
Research suggests that by a child’s third birthday, they are clearly able to label and identify their gender. Often before school age, children begin to experience more gender stability; their basic gender identity doesn’t change over time, according to a widely researched psychological theory originally proposed in the 1960s. This stability increases in children in early elementary school as they experience greater gender constancy, meaning their gender remains the same across changes in gender expression.
A great example of this is playing dress-up or other imaginary games in which a child can know their own gender regardless of the garments they are wearing or the role they are playing.
Gender develops between ages 3 to 12 in all children
Gender development of transgender children between the ages of 3 and 12 years old is, at the most basic level, the same as cisgender children’s gender development. More and more studies have shown that gender-nonconforming and transgender children are just as confident and consistent in their own gender identity as cisgender children.
Any identity confusion a caregiver witnesses is more likely due to societal expectations and a desire to conform than a child doubting their own identity. Many studies have suggested that preschool-aged transgender children aren’t significantly different from their gender-typical peers in their development. In one small study of 3- to 12-year-old trans youth, the transgender children’s preferences for toys, clothes, and friends were more typically associated with their expressed gender. They also expressed greater feelings of similarities to peers of their own expressed gender.
Studies also show that gender-nonconforming children who identify as transgender later in life show more extremity in their nonconformity than other children.
Simply put, the more a child identifies with gender and expresses that, the more likely they are to transition. Results further suggest that children who socially transition at early ages are likely to continue to identify as transgender.
Kids know themselves a lot more than adults tend to give them credit for, and we need to listen.
It’s entirely possible that your child will go through a phase of wanting to wear certain clothes or style their hair a certain way, and that does not mean they are transgender. It means they’re exploring their identity, and it’s essential they have the space and support to do that. If they don’t, they will likely do it anyway but in secrecy.
As much as it might feel as if it’s your job to know — it isn’t. Your job is to provide unconditional love and support. When it comes to gender, there are no guaranteed outcomes. Your best bet is to listen to your child.
Rebecca Minor, MSW, LICSW is a queer, Jewish clinician and associate professor at Boston University specializing in the intersection of trauma, gender, and sexuality. As a gender specialist, Rebecca partners with trans and gender-nonconforming youth through their journey of becoming and is a guide to their parents in affirming it. She also offers coaching and online classes for parents and families who are looking for guidance to support their children in becoming their authentic selves.