We come into life downloaded with a sex and gender.

Defining the issues

Our sex refers to our biological and genetic makeup, including hormones and body parts, especially our sex and reproductive organs.

Gender refers to one's own and society's expectations about how we should think and act as boys and girls, men and women. Gender defines our biological, social and legal roles, status and rights.

Gender identity refers to how we feel about our gender, and how we express our gender roles, such as personal appearance and behavior. Gender identity begins to form as early as age 2. If one's gender identity does not correspond to one's biological sex, this defines transgender. If gender identity does not correspond to one's gender, one may express as gay or bi-sexual.

Cultural Impact

Our culture creates gender norms, which are definitions of how males and females typically act in those roles. Some words that typically describe or define females are nurturing, empathetic, emotional, accepting, soft and dependent. For males, words such as aggressive, competitive, rational, hard and independent are used. These descriptors can be accurate in describing a person or gender, but they can also be used negatively to stereotype a person or a gender.

Research in the field of social psychology indicates that about 75 percent of both males and females express personality and behavioral traits that match their sex and gender. Of the remaining 25 percent, half express traits and behaviors of the opposite gender, and half express as a balance of male and female in their traits and behaviors.

Back in the day, males were the doctors, and females were nurses, and this division was partly related to the belief that males were better suited to be the "rational" caregivers, and females were better at being the "nurturing" caregivers. We now know that it works very well to flip those roles, and this has helped us to live in a more balanced way relative to gender and gender identity, and to eliminate limiting stereotypes.

The role of parents

We as parents have very important roles in helping children to be comfortable with their gender and gender identity, supporting them relative to who they are, and counteracting remaining cultural stereotypes.

Here are a few tips to help raise healthy and happy children in the world of gender and gender identity issues.

  • Educate yourself relative to issues of gender and gender identity.
  • Pay attention to how your children are feeling. Learn more about who they are, and who they wish to be.
  • Be a good role model. If you love and accept your child for who he is, he will be much more able to love and accept himself.
  • Get professional help if you or your child is struggling with gender and gender identity confusion and pressure.
  • Most importantly, be open and accepting.

David Van Handel, LCSW, is a psychotherapist with North Shore Center in Mequon.

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