Gender constancy


A child's realization that gender is fixed and does not change over time.


The concept of gender constancy, influenced by the cognitive development theory of French psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980), was introduced by Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987). In 1966, Kohlberg presented a revolutionary new view of early gender role development. Parting with previous views generally held by psychologists, Kohlberg emphasized that children actively self-construct their gender through a conceptual pattern in the mind called a schema. Gender schema models stress the roles of children's selective attention to gender and their internal motivation to conform to societal standards and stereotypes of gender roles. These cognitive-developmental models of the development of gender roles are perhaps best known, however, for the introduction of the construct of gender constancy. Gender constancy has been defined as children's understanding of the irreversibility of their sex, which develops in stages between about the ages of two and seven years. Kohlberg acknowledged that some awareness of gender roles emerges in children before full attainment of an understanding of gender constancy, although he argued that once children attain full understanding of gender constancy, they become increasingly motivated to observe, incorporate, and respect gender roles.

Addressing the formation of gender identity in terms of cognitive development, Kohlberg advanced the idea that the development of sex roles depends in large part on a child's understanding that gender remains constant throughout a person's lifetime. Children realize that they are male or female and are aware of the gender of others by the age of three. However, at these ages they still do not understand that people cannot change genders the way they can change their clothes, names, or behavior. Kohlberg theorized that children do not learn to behave in gender-appropriate ways until they understand that gender is permanent, which occurs at about the age of seven. At this point they start modeling the behavior of members of their own sex.

Kohlberg's idea of the prerequisite significance of an understanding of gender constancy for gender typing has been controversial, and empirical support for the notion has been mixed. Kohlberg's exact claims about the prerequisite importance of gender constancy understanding for gender-typing to take place have added to the controversy. Although it has been supported by some research studies, Kohlberg's theory has also been criticized on the grounds that children do show certain types of gender-associated behavior, such as toy and playmate selection, by the ages of two or three. This observable pattern points to the fact that there are others factors, such as parental reinforcement, that influence the adoption of sex-typed behavior. The significance of gender constancy understanding on early gender-typing remains unclear, both theoretically and empirically.

A gender constancy interview is often used by psychologists to determine a child's level of gender constancy. Although questions used in the interview can vary, the interview generally consists of 13 questions and counterquestions. Previous research indicated that, based on their responses to questions in the interview, children may reliably be assigned to one of four levels of gender constancy understanding. Children who failed to express any understanding of the 13 questions in levels two through four are classified at level one and are considered pre-gender constant. Level two has four questions and examines children's understanding of their own sex and the sex of a pictured person. Level three has two questions and verbally measures children's understanding that sex is permanent over time despite changes in appearance, desires, or activities. Level four contains seven questions that measures children's understanding that pictured people do not change sex through changes in hair length, clothing, or both.

Infancy and toddlerhood

There is a growing amount of scientific research that suggests gender identity develops at a very early age. Several studies show that infants can discriminate between male and female faces and associate faces and voices according to gender by the time they reach one year old. However, gender-labeling tasks, such as toy identification, do not occur until about age two. Gender identity and awareness of sex differences generally emerge in the first three to four years of a child's life. However, children begin to demonstrate a preference for their own sex starting at about age two.

Gender identification is often associated with the choice and use of toys in this age group, according to a number of studies done in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Sex differences in toy play have been found in children as young as one year of age. By age two, children begin to spontaneously choose their types of toys based on gender. Several of these studies show that by age one, boys display a more assertive reaction than girls to toy disputes. By age two, the reaction of boys is more aggressive.

Between the ages of 18 and 24 months, children know whether they are boys or girls and can identify adults as males or females. However, they do not develop a sense of gender constancy for several or a few more years. This means that they do not fully understand that they will be a boy or girl for the rest of their lives. At this age, children are unsure about whether gender remains constant from childhood to adulthood.


By age three, most children know that men have a penis and women have breasts. Also at age three, children begin to apply gender labels and stereotypes, identifying gentle, empathic characteristics with females and strong and aggressive characteristics with males. Even in the twenty-first century, most young children develop stereotypes regarding gender roles, associating nurses, teachers, and secretaries as females and police officers, firefighters, and construction workers as males.

School age

By the first or second grade (ages six or seven), children's thinking becomes more logical, and they come to realize and understand that they will either be a boy or girl for the rest of their lives. They will draw upon what they have learned and what they see in the world around them as they continue to refine their ideas about what it means to be either a girl or a boy.

Common problems

While most children follow a predictable pattern in the acquisition of gender constancy, some develop a gender identity inconsistent with their biological sex, a condition variously known as gender confusion, gender identity disorder, or transsexualism, which affects about one in 20,000 males and one in 50,000 females. Researchers have found that both early socialization and hormonal factors may play a role in the development of gender identity disorder. Children with gender identity disorder usually feel from their earliest years that they are trapped in the wrong body and begin to show signs of gender confusion between the ages of two and four. They prefer playmates of the opposite sex at an age when most children prefer to spend time in the company of same-sex peers. They also show a preference for the clothing and typical activities of the opposite sex: trans-sexual boys like to play house and play with dolls. Girls with gender identity disorder are bored by ordinary female pastimes and prefer the rougher types of play typically associated with boys, such as contact sports .

Both male and female transsexuals believe and repeatedly insist that they actually are, or will grow up to be, members of the opposite sex. Girls cut their hair short, favor boys' clothing, and have negative feelings about maturing physically as they near adolescence . Inchildhood, girls with gender identity disorder experience less overall social rejection than boys, as it is more socially acceptable for a girl to be a tomboy than for a boy to be perceived as a "sissy." About five times more boys than girls are referred to therapists for this condition. Teenagers with gender identity disorder suffer social isolation and are vulnerable to depression and suicide . They have difficulty developing peer relationships with members of their own sex as well as romantic relationships with the opposite sex. They may also become alienated from their parents.

Parental concerns

Children with gender identity disorder refuse to dress and act in sex-stereotypical ways. It is important to remember that many emotionally healthy children experience fantasies about being a member of the opposite sex. The distinction between these children and gender identity disordered children is that the latter experience significant interference in functioning because of their cross-gender identification. They may become severely depressed, anxious, or socially withdrawn. Most children eventually outgrow gender identity disorder. About 75 percent of boys with gender identity disorder develop a homosexual or bisexual orientation by late adolescence or adulthood, but without continued feelings of transsexuality. Most of the remaining 25 percent become heterosexuals (also without transsexuality). Those individuals in whom gender identity disorder persists into adulthood retain the desire to live as members of the opposite sex, sometimes manifesting this desire by cross-dressing, either privately or in public. In some cases, adult transsexuals (both male and female) have their primary and secondary sexual characteristics altered through a sex change operation, consisting of surgery followed by hormone treatments.

When to call the doctor

Gender identity disorder (GID) is generally diagnosed when children display any four of the following symptoms:

  • They repeatedly state a strong desire to be, or insist that they are, of the opposite sex.
  • They show a preference for cross-dressing.
  • They display a strong and long-term preference for fantasies and role-play that allows them to see themselves as members of the opposite sex.
  • They participate in or want to play stereotypical games of the opposite sex.
  • They show a strong preference for friends and playmates of the opposite sex.

GID is typically diagnosed by a psychiatrist or psychologist, who conducts an interview with the patient and takes a detailed social history. Family members may also be interviewed during the assessment process. Most children diagnosed with GID eventually grow out of it but some psychiatrists try to speed up the process, usually using psychotherapy. This treatment itself is controversial and has received much criticism within both the psychiatric and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered communities. For children, a clear diagnosis may not be possible until the teenage years since most children grow out of GID problems. Some psychiatrists are critical of gender identity disorder being classified as a psychiatric condition at all, saying it is more a social stigma. To prove their case, some psychiatrists point to the fact that boys are up to six times more likely to be diagnosed with GID and singled out for treatment than girls. This is not because the disorder is more common in boys, but because most parents tend to worry more if a son starts wearing dresses than if their daughter starts playing with toy trucks.

See also Gender identity .



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Cohen-Kettenis, Peggy T., and Friedmann Pfafflin. Transgenderism and Intersexuality in Childhood and Adolescence: Making Choices. London: SAGE Publications, 2003.


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Gender Identity Research & Education Society. Melverly, The Warren, Ashtead, Surrey, KT21 2SP, United Kingdom 01372–801554. Web site:

National Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 3615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016. Web site:

Ken R. Wells

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