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Talking to your toddler about the differences between people

Talking to your toddler about the differences between people

Sorting things is an important toddler skill, and when it comes to sorting crayons by color, or blocks by their shape, it’s easy for parents to get excited about it. It’s a sign of development, after all! When it comes to toddlers’ categorization of people, though, it can start to make parents a bit more uncomfortable. Toddlers are always trying to make sense of the world, and one of the early tools they use in for figuring out how the world is set up is through grouping – whether they’re grouping apples with other apples or noticing differences in race or sex in the people around them.

Toddlers, categories, and people

The thing about toddlers is that they notice differences, even differences that parents can find it hard to talk about, like differences in race or sex. It can be uncomfortable to talk about these differences, but when parents don’t talk about them, it’s easy for a toddler to start to draw their own conclusions just by observing the world around them – and what they observe might not always be universal. For example, if a toddler’s father just happens to have a job that means working late a couple of nights a week, that little one might come to the conclusion that working late is just what dads do – until they make a friend in elementary school whose mom is the one rushing to make it home in time for dinner. If one parent generally does the dishes in a toddler’s home, it’s not that big of a leap for that toddler to assume that dishes are the responsibility of that parent as a general rule, not just because, in their house, that’s the way it worked out based on schedules and taste.

In the same vein, if your toddler’s social circle doesn’t include a lot of racial diversity, and your family doesn’t talk a lot about race, you never know what kind of conclusions your toddler might start to draw within their own mind. This is partially why diverse books can be important tools for all children – books are a great window into other lives that are different from your toddler’s own, and can provide early exposure to the vast variety of people who exist in the world, no matter where you live or what your community looks like – although seeking out diverse and varied life experiences for Baby at an early age is also a great way to prepare them for the world they live in.

Evidence suggests that babies can start to differentiate between men and women when they’re around 10 months old, so while the toddler years can seem early to start talking to your toddler about subjects like the sexes and race, there’s a good chance they are already looking at the world around them and wondering. Thinking about the way you want to talk to them about these large, complex subjects, instead of waiting until they start blurting some of those questions in their head and puts you on the spot, can help you make sure you’re sharing the information you want to with Baby.

Toddlers and binaries

Toddlers and young children’s gendered development tends to reinforce itself – young children become more like the people they spend more time with, so as children start to play more and more with children of the same sex as them, they start to reinforce gendered behaviors and preferences in each other – and this can happen very fast, even in the space of a few months, often around the age of two-and-a-half to three years old. This means that while your one-and-a-half year old may still mostly look like a grinning, active, genderless blob, by a year in the future, they may not only be taking an active interest in gendered toys and activities, but might have taken up sharing and reinforcing those roles with the people around them.

This is because one of the consequences of toddlers’ love of figuring out categories is that once they’ve started recognizing those categories, they can feel strongly about sticking to them. The world is a big, confusing place, and figuring something out helps toddlers feel confident. It’s during this time that many girls get very into princesses, playing house, and pink, and many boys get very into cars, sports, and rougher games. Parents who have made it a point to try to avoid boxing their children into these roles can feel a little concerned about this kind of very gendered play, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these interests or types of games – what’s important is to make sure children don’t feel limited by them, and to try to gently ensure that they don’t try to limit other children with them.

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