As an adult, understanding gender differences between boys and girls or men and women can seem pretty cut and dry. But for your toddler, the idea of gender is a new and somewhat more elastic concept. That’s why parents and caregivers should not be alarmed if toddlers show an interest in cross-dressing or engaging in behaviors that are largely associated with the opposite sex.
According to Purdue University, children truly start to understand gender and gender differences by age 7. At the toddler stage of 2-3 years old, toddlers may start to categorize themselves or others as a boy or girl. However, they do not typically begin to categorize certain toys or clothes as traditionally “male” or “female” until ages 3-4 years old.
At toddlerhood, parents and other caregivers in the child’s life often start to define the child’s gender identity. As a parent, you likely dress your child in clothing a girl or boy child may wear. Others may encourage your boy toddler to be a “strong” boy or your daughter to wear a “pretty” dress. These are the start of reinforcing gender roles in your child, but remember that your toddler is typically not fully grasping the concept.
Cross-dressing as play
Cross-dressing in children is most often a way for your child to have fun. It is helpful for parents to understand their toddler might not truly understand the idea that he or she will always be a boy or girl until age 6, according to the Women’s and Children’s Health Network. Until then, your child may see gender as something more fluid.
Although children certainly do not need a reason why they find cross-dressing fun, keep in mind they may like to cross-dress because:
- They’re trying to be like Mom or Dad.
- They’re trying to be like a sibling.
- They think a friend of that gender has better toys or clothing.
Some parents may be concerned that cross-dressing in a child signals a larger issue: that their child does not wish to live as a boy or girl or that they may be homosexual or transgendered. For the most part, cross-dressing as a toddler does not represent a deeper and long-lasting desire to be the opposite sex. However, there are always exceptions. If you are worried or concerned about your child’s cross-dressing or any expressions of gender frustration, talk to your child’s doctor or a counselor.
Remember that children want to be comforted and loved. While parents can shape a child’s personality by simply being around him or her, parents cannot shape a child’s underlying gender identity, which is imprinted before birth. The best approach is to show acceptance and love, regardless of if you suspect your child has difficulty being a certain gender.
Reviewed by Dr. Eva Benmeleh, September 2020
- Toddlers are only beginning to understand gender differences. Your toddler may not fully understand that he or she will stay the same gender until age 6.
- Cross-dressing can be a way for a child to be like a parent, sibling, or other caregiver. Children typically develop other interests as they age.
- Showing a child acceptance and love helps foster a sense of security.