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To make things clear, I want to state that I have no doubt about whether people are transgender and what that means. I simply am asking about what age children are able to comprehend their personal situation.

The family of an adult who recently came out as transgender sent me the PDF by PLAG titled Our Trans Loved Ones: Questions and Answers for Parents, Families, and Friends of People Who Are Transgender and Gender Expansive.

As the parent of two young toddlers, I found it interesting that it states that children with gender dysphoria are aware of it as young as age two. See page 26-7:

"These children.... can start telling us as early as the second year of life, maybe even with their first toddler sentence..."

I related this to my husband, who expressed doubt that a two-year old would be able to understand that and felt it would happen more around age six. The rest of the PDF doesn't help with specifics much, as pages 17-8 just state,

"[O]ur sense of self (including gender) becomes apparent at a very young age; for most this is between the ages of two and four years old, and this awareness remains stable over time."

The document just treats this as established fact.

So where are the studies about this? How do we know that children understand not just that other people can be a boy or a girl, but that they themselves are one and that it will stay "stable over time"? Or, even better, are there studies that show that these children who tell their parents "with their first toddler sentence, 'Me not boy. Me girl.'" overwhelmingly identify as transgender (or gender expansive) at any point after they can hold an intelligent conversation? I mean, for months my 3.5-year-old has been correcting me and telling me that he's "not a little boy" but "a truck." I don't think he's going to identify as nonhuman when he grows up (but I could be wrong, and I would love him just the same). We want data, not anecdotes, even though I know hard data are tough to come by with young children.

Some related research was linked to from an article here: When do children develop their gender identity? but that article is more interested in studies that show children have a more fluid concept of gender and it only becomes rigid later on, which is in some ways the opposite of what the PFLAG document claims.

  • SE.Skeptics is about establishing bases for doubt about notable claims rather than answering general questions. For example, if you find a claim that it's at Age 2, then that claim can be analyzed. This question could be improved by clearly focusing on a particular claim, rather than the open-ended question in the title. – Nat Aug 11 '17 at 7:43
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    With regards to the issue, there seem to be plenty of examples of people who don't develop a strong sense of gender identity, even through adulthood, while other people go through multiple gender identities during their lifetime. So, any claim that alleges a universal age for gender identity development is probably based on a false premise. At most, we might examine ages at which people tend to acquire gender identities. – Nat Aug 11 '17 at 7:51
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    I'll be interested to see answers to this as trans woman myself – Phoenix Aug 11 '17 at 8:39
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    @Nat - I don't see an issue with how this question is currently posed. While it's true that it's not stated in a binary "is this specific claim true?" format, it seems axiomatic to me that a single non-binary (sorry, couldn't resist) "at what age does gender identity form?" question is better than an endless series of "does gender identity form at age 2?", "...at age 3?", "...at age 4?", etc. questions. – Dave Sherohman Aug 11 '17 at 9:53
  • @DaveSherohman A set of questions asking about each age wouldn't sum up to be a question about which age, as particular questions could be shot down without disproving the claim. If we do allow that questions can be constructed as a set of claims for every possible answer, then we could post any question on SE.Skeptics. Well, as long as there were notable claims about 'em; I suppose that that limitation would exist for constructing general questions, including this one. – Nat Aug 11 '17 at 10:02
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According to this review of studies, children develop a sense of gender quite early and can relate it to themselves early as well:

A related question is, when do children recognize their own sex? Infants as young as three to four months of age distinguish between categories of female and male faces [...] By 10 months, infants are able to form stereotypic associations between faces of women and men and gender-typed objects [...]

Because of the difficulties associated with testing infants, it has been challenging to determine when children first recognize their own or others' sex. [...]

In another non-verbal testing situation, 24- and 30-month old children knew the gender groups to which they and others belonged (Stennes et al. 2005). Similarly, most 24- and 28-month-old children select the correct picture in response to gender labels provided by an experimenter [...]

Taken together, these studies suggest that most children develop the ability to label gender groups and to use gender labels in their speech between 18 and 24 months. [...] These findings are consistent with research suggesting that children develop awareness of their own “self ” at roughly 18 months Martin & Ruble: Patterns of Gender Development

Regarding the stability of this assessment, that is a bit more difficult. Regarding trans children specifically, you might be interested in this question: Do 80% of gender-dysphoric children grow up deciding not to change their gender?.

The study linked above also looked at the stability of gender typing - not gender identity though. It says that there are few studies with different results on the question, and concludes that:

Over greater numbers of data points and amounts of time, however, relative consistency of individual children can be seen (e.g., Martin & Fabes 2001). [...] Indeed, when stable, reliable measures are used, coherence across indices is often observed (e.g., Martin & Fabes 2001, Serbin et al. 1993). [...] Nevertheless, we also urge caution: It would be unreasonable to conclude that gender typing is strong and stable throughout life, because the database is limited in a number of ways.

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    The first quote above seems like it's more about the ability to recognize sex. I think that having a gender identity's a more limited thing, sorta like having a racial identity or a national identity; it's where a person doesn't just recognize the fact that they are of a sex (or race/nation), but that they consider that fact to define a large part of who they truly are. For example, a trans-gendered person might feel like their "true self" is actually of the other sex, so they might attempt to act, dress, or even modify their body to correspond to that perception. – Nat Aug 11 '17 at 10:52
  • Anecdotal argument: All of my children have expressed some particular interest in people based on genders from around the age of 1 years old; both my sons are more fond of men than women and my daughter more fond of women than men. All of them have expressed clear interest in their own genitalia. The have also all been more interested in what one of their parents where doing than the other (sons more interested in me, daughter in my wife). We haven't done anything in particular to encourage this behaviour, and have actually been frustrated about it on more than one occasion. – Clearer Jun 25 '18 at 11:05

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