All children learn that they are either male or female, but what meaning do they give to the fact that they are one sex and not the other? In all cultures, boys and girls are expected to behave differently, and thus it is likely that children worldwide occasionally reflect on questions such as these: Am I living up to the expectations of my sex? Am I fortunate or am I disadvantaged to be the sex I am? Must I limit my actions to same-sex-typical behavior, or am I free to explore cross-sex options? Children’s answers to these questions affect their adjustment and their development.
Here we summarize the ways that children’s gender identity has been conceptualized, review the development of several major components of gender identity, and discuss the implications of gender identity for children’s adjustment and development.
What Is Gender Identity?
Different theorists have conceptualized gender identity in different ways. A classic approach is that of Lawrence Kohlberg, who viewed gender identity as simply knowing one’s sex. Gender identity has also been defined as the degree to which one perceives the self as conforming to cultural stereotypes for one’s gender, as the degree to which one internalizes societal pressure for gender conformity, or as a fundamental sense of acceptance of, and of belonging to, one’s gender.
Susan Egan and David Perry proposed that it is useful to conceive of gender identity as multidimensional. In their model, gender identity has five major components: (1) membership knowledge (knowledge of one’s membership in a gender category); (2) gender typicality (felt similarity to others of one’s gender); (3) gender contentedness (satisfaction with one’s gender assignment); (4) felt pressure for gender conformity (pressure felt from parents, peers, and the self for conforming to gender stereotypes); and (5) intergroup bias (the belief that one’s own sex is superior to the other). Thus, gender identity is defined as the collection of thoughts and feelings a person has about membership in a gender category. Note that gender identity concerns more than people’s self-perceptions of specific sex-typed attributes, such as competency in math, possession of instrumental or expressive traits, or sexual orientation; it is concerned with the overall sense people make of the fact that they belong to one sex and not the other.
Development Of Gender Identity
The membership knowledge component of gender identity begins early. By age 3, most children attain “basic gender identity,” or can answer correctly the question, “Are you a boy or a girl?” However, children do not attain “gender constancy,” or understand that their gender is fixed and does not depend on superficial factors such as the clothes they wear or the toys they play with, until about age 6. Shortly after children attain basic gender identity, they show signs of three other components of gender identity—gender contentedness, felt pressure for gender conformity, and intergroup bias. Thus, preschoolers usually voice happiness with their gender, feel it is imperative to behave like others of their gender, and develop “intergroup cognitions,” such as hostility toward the other sex and the belief that their own sex is superior. A few years later, the final component of gender identity—an estimate of one’s gender typicality—develops. Gender typicality reflects children’s idiosyncratic weighting and integrating of diverse information about their sex typing, with different children of the same sex feeling gender typical (or atypical) for different reasons (e.g., one boy may derive a sense of typicality from athletic prowess, another from competence in math or science). At the same time as children are developing a sense of gender typicality, they usually relax their intergroup bias (i.e., voice less negativity toward the other sex) and relax their felt pressure for gender conformity (i.e., become less inclined to view cross-sex-typed activities as strictly prohibited).
Implications Of Gender Identity For Children’s Development And Adjustment
Considerable controversy surrounds the implications of gender identity for children’s development and adjustment. Kohlberg argued that gender constancy (attained at about age 6) was necessary before children would show “self-socialization of gender typing,” or the tendency to adopt behaviors perceived as appropriate for one’s gender. However, it appears that basic gender identity (acquired at about age 3) is sufficient to set in motion a number of sex-typing processes (e.g., imitation of same-sex models, preference for play with same-sex peers) as well as cognitive processes (e.g., intergroup cognitions) that encourage gender differentiation.
Much argument has centered on the question of whether a “strong” gender identity carries positive or negative implications for adjustment. The classic position, beginning with Sigmund Freud, has been that a strong and secure sense of gender identity (a stable and confident sense that one is a typical and adequate member of one’s gender category) is good for mental health. Consistent with this view is evidence that children who are diagnosed with gender identity disorder (who have a strong desire to be the other sex and who exhibit marked cross-sex behavior) are decidedly distressed. The source of these children’s distress, however, is unclear; it may be that the negative social reactions these children incur (from parents, teachers, and playmates) are the problem.
In the 1970s, a challenge to the traditional position that strong gender identity is healthy was offered by Sandra Bem, who argued that the more an individual’s membership in a gender category is a salient feature of the individual’s psyche (i.e., the more an individual conceives of the self as either “masculine” or “feminine”), the poorer will be the individual’s mental health. Her argument was that a person who feels strongly masculine or feminine (someone she labeled “gender schematic”) must be experiencing strong internalized societal pressures for gender conformity that limit the person’s options for happiness and undermine the person’s sense of autonomy, thereby undermining mental health.
Evidence bearing on the Bem hypothesis is inconclusive, perhaps because Bem did not directly assess people’s felt pressure for gender conformity; instead, she inferred it from the degree to which people fail to perceive both male-typed and female-typed personality traits in the self-concept (e.g., if a person reported many instrumental traits and few expressive traits in the self-concept, it was assumed that the person was experiencing strong internalized pressure to be male typical). Thus, although Bem’s conceptualization of gender identity was in terms of felt pressure, her measure of it was closer to a measure of gender typicality. Egan and Perry’s work shows that felt pressure for gender conformity and felt gender typicality are uncorrelated. Another problem is that Bem’s measures of male and female typicality relied too strongly on self-perceived instrumental and expressive traits. People’s self-perceived gender typicality is affected by more than these traits (e.g., appearance, recreational activities, academic competencies).
Recent work on the relation of gender identity to adjustment suggests a more complex picture than that suggested either by a simple “gender identity is good” or a simple “gender identity is bad” hypothesis. Whether gender identity is a favorable or an unfavorable influence depends on the component of gender identity in question. In research in which the several Egan and Perry components of gender identity have been assessed, feelings of gender typicality and of gender contentedness have been found to be favorable influences on adjustment (e.g., self-esteem, acceptance by peers, absence of internalizing symptoms), whereas felt pressure for gender conformity has been found to be detrimental to adjustment. Thus, both the traditional view that gender identity is good and Bem’s view that gender identity is bad receive support, depending on the component of gender identity assessed. In summary, children who feel gender typical, who are happy with their gender assignment, and who do not feel anxious at the thought of exploring cross-sex activities (a combination that might be labeled “secure gender identity”) enjoy optimal adjustment.
Contextual influences on gender identity need more study. Some aspects of gender identity are relatively stable parts of people’s psyches (e.g., the Egan and Perry components), but contextually elicited gender identity might be important, too (e.g., being the only female member of a group may make being female salient). Situationally elicited gender identity may have consequences, such as causing gender stereotyped behavior.
Finally, to understand how gender identity affects adjustment and behavior, researchers should assess not only each individual’s gender identity components but also the idiosyncratic meanings that each individual accords to gender. If, for example, some girls define being female as being a compassionate leader, whereas other girls define being female as being subservient and dependent, it may be that gender identity will bear different relations to adjustment for the two sorts of girls. For example, feeling content with one’s gender assignment may be associated with agentic competencies (e.g., assertion, leadership) for the former girls but with helplessness and depression for the latter. Thus, measuring children’s “gender relevance beliefs” (the attributes people view as relevant to each gender role) need to be studied hand in hand with gender identity.
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