Transgender kids: What do they know and when do they know it?

Gender may be the earliest identity and social category to emerge in development, research suggests, and acquiring knowledge about one's gender is considered a critical part of early childhood development. In one of the first examinations of early gender development among transgender preschoolers, a new study has found that these children were just as likely as nontransgender children to have preferences associated with their gender, and to have as strong and clear a sense of their gender identity.

Whenever the subject of transgender children arises, there is someone who invariably says, "Children that young can't possibly know anything about gender." They then go on to say that the parents clearly are desiring transgender kids, so they are imposing their will on their children.

I wonder what actual scientific investigation has to say on the matter? So did researchers at the University of Washington. But instead of relying on preconceived notions of what children know or don't know, they gathered some children into three distinct groups: 36 socially transitioned transgender children between the ages of 3 and 5, 36 cisgender children, and 24 siblings of transgender or gender nonconforming children.

An increasing number of transgender children--those who express a gender identity that is different from the sex they were born with--are transitioning socially, which means they use pronouns, names, and clothing associated with their identified gender in everyday life. In this study, we asked whether these children differed from their nontransgender peers on basic tasks related to gender development at an early age.

--Anne A Fast

The researchers focused on the preschool years because this is when gender begins to strongly motivate children's preferences (e.g., for toys and clothing) and behavior, and when children's understanding of gender stability emerges. It is also the youngest age gender-nonconforming children make the social transition to present in everyday life as a member of their identified gender.

In the study, the researchers asked children to complete gender development tasks to gauge their understanding of gender constancy, their preferences regarding gender, and their beliefs about gender. Children were also asked what they feel like they are "on the inside," in their minds, thoughts, and feelings.

The transgender children did not differ from children of the same gender in the control group or the sibling group on preferences, behavior, stereotyping, and identity, the study found. For example, transgender girls (who were born as boys and identified and lived as girls at the time of the study) liked dolls and pink dresses, and preferred female friends as much as cisgender girls and sisters of transgender children.

However, researchers found differences among the groups in children's beliefs about the stability of gender. While children in the control and sibling groups tended to say that their gender as a baby and their gender as an adult matched their current gender, children in the transgender group tended to say that their gender as a baby was different than their current gender, but that their gender as an adult would be the same as their current gender. Considering stability of gender in others rather than in themselves, while children in all three groups tended to believe that most other people's gender in childhood remained stable through adulthood, transgender children and their siblings were less likely than children in the control group to believe that everyone's gender was stable. And they occasionally indicated that someone's gender could change between childhood and adulthood.

The size of the sample is small, so generalizing the results is not advised.

However, Dr. Kristina R. Olson adds the following:

We are increasingly aware that there are individuals who identify early in development as a gender other than the one aligned with their sex at birth. Such children should be included in work on basic gender development to expand our knowledge of gender developmental experiences and strengthen theories of gender development.

Then Dr. Olson does that generalizing thing, perhaps unfortunately:

These new findings show that, for example, transgender girls believe they will grow up to be women just as much as other girls believe they will grow up to be women. Same thing for transgender boys. Our groups were equally confident about their future gender being stable.

Published in the Journal of Child Development, the study is Gender Development in Transgender Preschool Children by Fast, Anne A., and Olson, KR (University of Washington). Copyright 2017 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc.

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