Content warning: this article contains mention of suicide and self-harm.
In recent years, societal perceptions of gender have been rapidly shifting and evolving to include a host of ways for people to express and identify themselves.
One particular way our understanding has developed is in recognizing gender nonconformity, which the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination defines as any type of gender expression — including use of clothing, hair, and body language — outside the typical norms of masculinity and femininity. Gender nonconformity can also go by other names, such as gender diversity and gender variance.
Gender nonconformity among children is a research area of particular interest for psychologists who are interested in how social perceptions of gender behaviour develop as we grow older. Researchers at U of T are no exception.
The Biopsychosocial Investigations of Gender (BIG) Lab at UTM is conducting studies on gender nonconforming (GNC) children to see how “poor peer relations, generic risk factors, and parental attitudes” affect their psychological well-being.
Ongoing research on how children perceive and react to GNC peers reveals ways that GNC kids are affected by the way they’re treated. The lab’s findings offer directions for adult role models, such as parents and educators, to foster acceptance of GNC peers among young children.
Expression versus identity
In an interview with The Varsity, Doug VanderLaan, an assistant professor of psychology and the director of BIG Lab, defined ‘gender nonconformity’ as “gender-related behaviours, interests, and… identification that [don’t] align with norms associated with one’s birth gender.”
Expressing GNC behaviour does not mean that one is transgender or non-binary, nor does it mean that one has gender dysphoria. GNC is an umbrella term for varying physical expressions of gender, whereas being transgender or non-binary comes from one’s innate sense of self.
Gender dysphoria, meanwhile, is a psychiatric clinical diagnosis. According to VanderLaan, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria requires significant prolonged distress over one’s gender. “There has to be an incongruence between one’s experience [of] gender and their birth assigned sex.”
Confusion over the definitions of these terms often occurs because the conditions for a gender dysphoria diagnosis are similar to the criteria for identifying GNC children.
Children’s perception of GNC behaviour
One recent publication from BIG Lab documents an interesting method for measuring children’s perception of GNC behaviour.
The researchers studied a group of boys and girls aged four to five years old who were reported to be cisgender by their parents. Each child was shown four short video clips illustrating an example of a gender-conforming or gender-variant boy or girl at random. Gender-conforming behaviours involved boys playing with toy cars and girls playing with dolls, while gender-variant children swapped those roles.
Afterward, participants were presented with photos of the four target boys and girls featured in the video clips. Each participant was given 10 gold star stickers and instructed to divide them between themselves and the four target children. Children were told that they could keep the stickers they allocated to themselves, and were asked to rank each target child based solely on their behaviours in the video clips.
Results from the study showed substantial “social preference” for gender-conforming children among participants, both in how they distributed their stickers and their rankings of the target children. Children in the videos with the same gender or gender-typed behaviours as the participants themselves were more likely to be chosen as playmates, although the magnitude of this preference was shaped by age and gender.
Among older children, boys shared more target stickers with target boys displaying gender-conforming behaviours than girls did with target girls. But among younger children, girls had a stronger preference for gender-conforming girls than younger boys did for gender-conforming boys.
From this, the researchers concluded that, overall, children prefer illustrations of gender-conforming children of their own gender over GNC children.
When asked to comment on the result of this study, VanderLaan pointed out that “children tend to desire to interact with people who have interests that are similar to their own,” including gender expression. Those who are perceived as GNC are generally less popular than their gender-conforming counterparts, although this phenomenon is more pronounced in older GNC boys than GNC girls.
VanderLaan related this differential treatment in GNC boys to the prevalence of patriarchy in society. Because men tend to have dominant social status or superior positions to women, there’s an association of masculinity with power. VanderLaan posited that this created the double standard in peer treatment of GNC boys and girls among older children.
How are GNC children affected, and what can parents do?
Among GNC children, there is a strong correlation between poor peer relations and lowered psychological well-being.
VanderLaan described how a “minority stress model” may offer an explanation for the impact of poor peer relations. The main concept behind this model is that minoritized groups are likely to experience stigma and discrimination. In the case of GNC children, they are more likely to experience victimization and exclusion by their peers than children who display gender-conforming behaviours.
The lack of social acceptance may drive increased anxiety and distress among GNC children, and in severe cases, the experience of social rejection is linked with increased self-harm and suicidality. VanderLaan also mentioned studies conducted by other researchers showing positive peer relations as “a reliable correlate of psychological well-being… among [GNC] children and youth.”
According to VanderLaan, parents who want to raise children to be more accepting of their GNC peers should pay attention to how their own behaviour influences their children. He suggested that adults who display both masculine and feminine characteristics enable children to be more accepting of diverse gender expression.
Besides being a role model, parents can adopt a more ‘liberal’ attitude toward gender expression. GNC children benefit greatly from a warm parenting style that is responsive and accommodating to their needs. Open dialogues between parents of children build a secure base that provides support for GNC children when they encounter challenges outside of home.
In classroom settings, it is important for teachers to avoid differential treatment of GNC children and teach their pupils the value of acceptance, according to VanderLaan. For instance, when a boy is teased and ridiculed because he is wearing a pink shirt, it is a great opportunity for educators to intervene. Calling out the discriminatory behaviours teaches children to recognize and challenge sexist remarks, and helps them learn to accept differences in their GNC peers.
Gender beyond a Canadian context
One of the questions that emerges from the BIG Lab’s research is how children understand gender differently around the world.
VanderLaan cautioned that it’s still too early to claim definite results, particularly since his team has only replicated its results once per country and city. Nevertheless, some replications have aligned with Canadian results, including a study conducted in Hong Kong indicating that Chinese children also view GNC children negatively.
Although parents can play a role in reducing biases against GNC children, VanderLaan maintained that the classroom environment has a part to play as well — particularly when it comes to challenging discriminatory behaviour.
“[Educators] might help children to identify when… someone is being sexist, and what to do when they hear someone be sexist,” VanderLaan said. Children can be taught to rebut common sexist tropes, like the idea that some colours are appropriate only for boys and some for girls.
“You might teach them to say, ‘There’s no such thing as boys’ colours and girls’ colours,’ ” he added. “The idea is teaching children to recognize these instances and challenge them.”
If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:
Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.
Warning signs of suicide include:
Talking about wanting to die
Looking for a way to kill oneself
Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
Talking about being a burden to others
Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
Sleeping too little or too much
Withdrawing or feeling isolated
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.