Gender identity is getting a lot of press these days. Cross-dressing boys and girls, who want to express their gender identity and sexual orientation, leave schools and parents perplexed.

School dress codes used to offer a hard and fast rule for students. But today’s students are issuing their own challenges, some of them ending up in the courtroom.

When officials want to discipline a student whose wardrobe expresses sexual orientation or gender variance, they must consider antidiscrimination policies, mental health factors, community standards and classroom distractions.

A challenge indeed.

So when does a child develop gender identity? Quite young actually.

A child's awareness of being a boy or a girl starts in the first year of life. It often begins by eight to ten months of age, when youngsters typically discover their genitals. Then, between one and two years old, children become conscious of physical differences between boys and girls; before their third birthday they are easily able to label themselves as either a boy or a girl as they acquire a strong concept of self. By age four, children's gender identity is stable, and they know they will always be a boy or a girl.

During this same time of life, children begin to learn gender role behavior. They start learning that “girls play with those kinds of toys, and boys play with these kinds of toys.”

For example, you probably saw your daughter gravitating toward dolls, playing house, and baking. Your son may have played more aggressive and active games and might have been attracted to toy soldiers and toy trucks.

In middle childhood, gender identification continues to become more firmly established, not only in children's interest in playing more exclusively with youngsters of their own sex, but also in their interest in acting like, looking like, and having things like other children of the same-sex.

Stereotypes of masculine and feminine behaviors and characteristics permeate our culture. And when a child's aptitudes and interests deviate from these accepted norms, he or she is often subjected to discrimination and ridicule.

It’s also the time when parents start to worry about their children being different.

As a parent, it is natural for you to have concerns about whether your youngster is accepted socially. You will probably find yourself trying to teach your child social behaviors that will allow him or her to function well in this culture, even if they sometimes seem to run counter to his or her own interests and talents. However, you need to weigh your well-meant efforts at promoting conformity against your child's need to feel comfortable with and good about who they are.

Each child has his or her own strengths, and at times, they may not conform to society's or your own expectations. Yet these different interests and strengths can still be a source of current and future success and self-satisfaction.

Ironically, social stereotypes evolve over time. In recent decades, there has been a tidal wave of change in gender roles and behaviors. Today, women are expected to be more assertive and "feminist" than their mothers and grand­mothers were. Men are allowed and perhaps even expected to express their "softer," more compassionate, and more "feminine" side.

Rather than force your own child into the mold of current or traditional gender behavior, try to help him or her develop their own unique potential. Try not to become excessively concerned with whether his or her interests and strengths coincide with the socially defined gender roles of the moment. Let your child evolve in his or her own way.

As long as children feel supported and loved growing up, they will know how to be loving and supportive adults, no matter where their interests lie.

On Friday we’ll look at gender confusion in children, and what parents can do when their child’s sexual orientation leans towards the opposite sex.