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Early Childhood Gender Identity and Sexuality Continued

Angela Oswalt, MSW

Gender-based beliefs, attitudes and behaviors come from a combination of biological/ internal reasons and external/environmental reasons. For example, research suggests that sex hormones influence children's play styles. Androgens (male sex hormones) promote more rough, noisy play among boys. Girls, in contrast, tend to adopt more calm gentle play styles. As a result, as mentioned above, children across the world prefer to (and seek out) playmates of the same gender.

boy climbing on rock wallMultiple environmental factors, such as a child's family, teachers, peers, and the media, also influence gender-based beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. Parents and family members are typically the source of "gender-appropriate" toys. Girls are given pastel colors, princesses, stuffed animals, dolls, and so on. In contrast, boys are given trucks, tractors, etc. Caregivers, family members, and teachers also tend to consciously or unconsciously reinforce gender-stereotyped behaviors. So, a caregiver might react more positively when a young boy plays with cars or trucks, or "roughhouses" with other children. Similarly, caregivers are more likely to talk to young girls about their emotions, and offer them help or direction during daily activities.

The media is filled with gender stereotypes depictions of males and females. Even though children's television shows, movies and book are less gender-stereotyped than previous eras, frequently, males are shown as strong and brave, powerful and dominant. Female characters typically appear submissive, emotional, and primarily focused on romantic relationships. Female characters are also much more likely to wear revealing clothing.

Beyond just exploring their gender and what it means to be a boy or a girl, young children also begin exploring their sexuality. Once upon a time, people believed that children did not begin to develop sexually until puberty. Even though it may seem uncomfortable or embarrassing to think about, some sexual exploration is normal and perfectly healthy for young children in the Preoperational stage of development.

Young children often ask lots of questions about their bodies. Many questions focus on reproductive and elimination organs, as well as how babies are made. Children of this age are also interested in examining their own genitals; it is common for them to masturbate periodically as they learn how their bodies react to stimulation. In addition, young children may also become interested in their caregivers' bathroom and bedroom behavior. Many children also engage in sexual touching behavior with children their own age, as they start to explore how they are alike or different from their friends.

Caregivers should try to react calmly to children's sexual exploration behavior. Each family will need to decide how best to handle these situations. However, generally speaking, it's best if caregivers can avoid reacting in a highly emotional manner, so that children can learn that sexuality is normal behavior rather than something that's "dirty" or shameful.

One strategy involves teaching young children about "private" versus "public" activities. Caregivers can redirect children to other activities and simply and calmly explain that sexual exploration (or whatever term is most comfortable) is a private activity that should be saved for home rather than public places like school, the playground, or the family dinner table. Likewise, if children interrupt their parents' bedroom activities, calmly redirect them back to bed without making a huge fuss. If caregivers interrupt children's games of "body show and tell", redirect attention by suggesting a new game.

As mentioned previously, some level of sexual exploration and play is normal and perfectly healthy for children of this age. However, extreme sexual acting out or behaviors coupled with other abnormal or fearful symptoms are unusual, and can be signs that a child has been sexually abused.