Experts suspect that gender is one of the earliest parts of identity to develop, and it doesn’t always match an individual’s biological sex. Though the idea of a 3-year-old describing themselves as a cis white male can seem funny, it’s an important reality to consider as more and more children come out as transgender. In one of the first studies on early childhood gender development from the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), researchers have found that the gender development of socially transitioned trans and cis children is similar to that of other kids.
The study, published today in the journal Child Development, looked at three groups of 3- to 5-year-olds: 36 who identified as transgender, 36 who identified as cisgender, and 24 siblings of transgender or gender-nonconforming children. A majority of the children identified as female, were primarily white, and came from a range of economic backgrounds. Researchers asked kids to complete several gender development tasks to determine their understanding of gender constancy, as well as gender preference, and general beliefs about gender. They were also asked what they feel like they are “on the inside.”
Results indicated that transgender kids approached preferences, behavior, stereotyping, and identity the same way as siblings and cisgender children. Transgender girls (who were assigned male at birth but identified and lived as girls during the study), were partial to traditionally feminine things like dolls, pink dresses, and gal pals just like cisgender girls and sisters of transgender siblings were. Kids will be kids.
The most notable differences between groups were beliefs about gender stability. Children in the cisgender and siblings group reported that their gender as babies matched their gender presently, whereas transgender kids understandably did not. Regarding other people, transgender children and siblings were less likely to believe that gender was stable throughout life. Some believed that gender could shift between childhood and adulthood as well.
Given the limited sample size, researchers are cautious about generalizing and note the for more studies of transgender kids. “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,” Kristina R. Olson, professor of psychology and the study’s senior author, said in a news release. Once development experts get a handle on this, they can catch parents up. Until then, assume that all kids love dolls.