The experience I had learning about gender identity as a child was not an uncommon one. Stereotypes like boys play with action figures and girls play with dolls, or boys are strong and girls are weak were common sentiments on the playground. Though I was raised as a girl, bows in my hair and all, I was often encouraged by my father to not think of gender as a boundary and to do things that weren’t always considered “girly.” For example, taking out the trash and mowing the lawn were part of my chore list—perhaps this was due to not having a brother who I lived with.
Since I never really experienced normative pressure growing up, it wasn’t until I was much older and understood the concept of gender more clearly that I began to recognize the damaging patterns of stereotypes and the restrictive nature of the binary. When I was school age, our health classes didn’t dig into the nuances of gender identity, and the internet was a much smaller place then.
The conversations that are happening now around gender identity and expression are, in my opinion, vital to the health and wellbeing of our children.
My parents’ generation were more conservative about discussing hard topics openly, and at no fault of their own—that’s just the way things were! Now that we’re living in the information era, it’s becoming more and more important to talk to our kids about topics like sexuality, race, puberty, drugs, and gender identity. If we as parents decide not to talk to our kids about these things, they’ll eventually discover the answers for themselves and may feel like they can’t reach out to us for support, or even worse, they may think these topics are taboo or shameful and begin to internalize that.
When it comes to gender, children begin learning stereotypes before they can even speak full sentences, so the earlier we can have these discussions, the better set up for success they’ll be. But where do you even begin? Well, based on my own research and experience as a mother of two, I’ve put together a guide to help you talk to your children about gender at any age. And remember, while it’s a great idea to begin talking about gender and identity early, the best time is any time, so give yourself grace if they’re a bit older and you haven’t talked to them about these things yet.
Children Age 0-3
At this tender age, infants are learning so much about themselves and the world around them. They’re learning and developing social and emotional skills, quickly building language and vocabulary, and beginning to categorize things and people into boxes. In fact, children start to order themselves into a gender by the age of 3, though a more authentic and defined sense of self will come to light as they continue to learn and grow.
Children in this age range tend to communicate and explore with play, so toys are an opportunity to introduce them to the concept of gender, even implicitly. Consider presenting them with a range of toys for every gender, and be conscious of the vocabulary you use to describe them or encourage them to play with one toy over another.
Children Age 4-6
At this age, kids are especially curious about the world around them and ask plenty of questions. They’re also making observations about people they see in public and attempting to make sense of them. This is a great age to teach them about the expression of gender that exists beyond the binary and get them into the habit of not assuming the gender of others by using neutral pronouns when describing them.
You’re likely reading your child plenty of books during these years. This is a chance to introduce a few gender-inclusive reads such as Introducing Teddy, a captivating illustrated book about gender and friendship. It Feels Good to Be Yourself is a picture book that introduces the concept of gender in a positive and sensitive way.
Children Age 6-12
At this age, kids are starting to consume more media that exposes them to outdated notions of gender and they’re likely experiencing conflicting messaging from peers. They may even begin to experience sexism for themselves with the extracurricular activities that are available to them. When choosing schools for your child, consider looking into whether their sports teams encourage all genders to participate.
They may also be more inclined in this age group, especially when approaching puberty, to self-identify as a particular gender and may want to express it outwardly with clothing or hairstyles. Consider giving them the freedom to choose the clothing they feel most comfortable in and the hairstyles they feel suit them best. While the market for gender neutral clothing is expanding, many stores are still separated by girls and boys, which can ultimately be a chance for you to explain why this is the case and how it’s changing.
Teens Age 13-18
This really goes without saying, but teenagers can be especially tough to connect with. They’re dealing with raging hormones, facing numerous pressures in school, and finding their footing in friend groups. Because this age group is so concerned with fitting in, bullying is a common problem.
So how do you get through to a teenager? Well, the best thing you can do as a parent is to continue the conversation about gender in a way that maintains boundaries. Ask questions out of curiosity, or respond to statements they make about gender with questions that help to understand where they’re at. In order for your teen to feel comfortable to come to you, remind them that you will always support and love them. It’s a good idea to approach issues with patience and care rather than responding out of fear or shame.
In order to talk to your children about gender, you’ll want to set yourself up for success with the knowledge and understanding necessary to answer questions and explain things with confidence. If you’re a parent who is eager to get started on your own path of learning, I recommend a bit of reading. Raising Them: Our Adventure in Gender Creative Parenting helps the reader to examine the deeply ingrained gender stereotypes we don’t even realize we’re perpetuating, and provides a path to raising kids that challenge the binary. An additional invaluable resource for me has been genderspectrum.org, which features a ton of different resources for parents.
Give Your Children The Freedom to Explore Their Gender Identity
I recently spoke with Kate Smith of Conscious Mamas Movement on this topic, and she had some incredible insight that I wanted to share as well. “There is this belief that children arrive here as empty containers to be filled by our knowledge and wisdom”, says Smith. “It is my belief that children come with their own desires, interests, wisdom and life purposes. Our role is to keep them safe, love them, and support them on their journey of self-discovery.”
She continued: “A crucial aspect of children feeling safe to be themselves is having secure attachments with loved ones. This means showing up, to the best of your ability, when they need you. Offer comfort when they are having a hard time or fall down. Be consistent in your words and actions. And emanate the energy that all parts of them are welcome with you.”
If you’ve had conversations with your child about gender and they express curiosity to explore the gender spectrum, consider giving them the freedom to explore it. If your kids are experimenting with their own gender identity, you can explain that gender can be a sliding scale—one day you can feel more masculine and one day more feminine, one day you don’t identify in any box—and all of these are okay. If they continue to feel drawn to a gender that’s beyond the binary or begin to experience gender dysphoria as they grow older, it might be time to seek out a mental health professional in your area who specializes in gender identity to help support them.
Talking with your kids about gender might feel intimidating if you aren’t equipped with the tools and resources to answer all of the questions they may have. One thing, however, is sure: don’t freak out when your kids’ start to experiment with their gender. Here’s the thing: you don’t have to be an expert in the subject matter. If they have a question you don’t have an answer to, they’re going to understand if you need some time to explain it or learn more together. Kids are both curious and patient when it comes to these things, and like anything, these conversations aren’t one-and-done, they’re ongoing.