Did you know that children begin expressing their gender identities around the age of two? Here’s our guide on how to talk to your kids about gender identity.
Nowadays, gender is not limited to “boy” and “girl”. The concept of gender identity has expanded so much that it can be intimidating to explain the topic to anyone, especially the kids. (Believe me, I’m an adult and I still find it a challenge to talk about it with other adults!)
But here’s the thing: kids are way smarter than we give them credit for (parents, you should know this…) so even if gender identity seems like a tricky topic to talk about, it can be done. Here are our tips on broaching the concept of gender identity with the kiddos.
Gender identity: what it means and how to talk about it
Defining gender identity and other terms
ICYMI, we have briefly covered the meaning of gender identity in our LGBTQ+ glossary, but here is a refresher on the term as well as other terms related to it.
1. Gender identity
Who you are as a person on the inside. It could be male, female, or something else altogether. Remember, gender exists on a spectrum.
2. Gender expression
How you present yourself to the world. This can be through clothing, hairstyles, hobbies, mannerisms, etc. Masculine and feminine are, obviously, the most common gender expressions.
3. Gender stereotypes
Society’s expectations of how a person should behave based on their gender. For example, dollhouses and dresses are for girls, while boys are only allowed to play with trucks and toy guns.
Assigned at birth, sex is based on the genitals. If a child has a penis, they are male. They are assigned female if the child has a vagina/vulva.
It’s crucial to understand the difference between gender identity and expression as people confuse the two terms a lot (don’t worry, it happens!). Someone’s gender identity and how they express themselves aren’t always the same. If your male child is into playing with trucks and painting their nails, that’s entirely okay!
So… how do I explain gender identity to my kids?
Conversations about gender identity don’t have to be one big talk. It’s more ideal to continually engage with your kids on this topic. Here are pointers on how to navigate this concept with them:
1. Play with all toys
In their early years, kids communicate and learn through play. So give them opportunities to play with all kinds of toys such as baby dolls, train sets, action figures, and building blocks. This allows them to explore and share their feelings and interests.
2. Don’t gender genitalia
When teaching your kids about body parts, remember to include the genitals! Avoid making definitive statements like “If you’re born with a penis, you’re a boy; if you’re born with a vagina/vulva, you’re a girl.” It reinforces the idea that people with male genitalia are always men and people with female genitalia are always women.
Instead, something simple like “most boys have penises, but not all do” and “lots of girls have vaginas/vulvas” let your kids know that gender identity is more than just their privates.
3. Smash those stereotypes
By the time your kids become more aware of “the rules of the world”, that’s when you work on expanding their views. While reading books and watching shows, take the opportunity to ask questions and explain why things portrayed in the media are not necessarily what they need to emulate. Show them that gender roles can be performed by anyone, like police work, firefighting, cleaning, and nursing!
Psst, if your kid still ends up liking the typical stuff despite you working hard at fighting gender stereotypes in your home, that’s okay! That’s part of them forming their gender identity on their terms. As they get older, their tastes and interests may change.
4. Words mean a lot
Use inclusive language when addressing and referring to others. For example, “friends” and “classmates” when talking about your kid’s peers. When talking about someone unknown, say a helpful stranger in the supermarket, refer to that person as “them” instead of gender-specific pronouns.
When your kids can pick up more nuances in concepts, start having in-depth conversations about gender, sexism, societal expectations and pressures. Share with them interesting nuggets such as make-up being used for all genders (remember the Egyptian times?) and how pink and blue were initially for boys and girls respectively. Tell them affirming statements like girls can play any sports and there’s no shame in boys crying.
If you need additional help in explaining gender identity…
It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn
This straightforward picture book explores gender identity in a sensitive manner that lets your children understand themselves and others better.
A House for Everyone: A Story to Help Children Learn about Gender Identity and Gender Expression by Jo Hirst
A simple yet engaging story about challenging gender stereotypes, this book is perfect for both kids and parents. Everyone will learn the many ways that one can express their gender positively.
Who Are You?: The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity by Brook Pessin-Whedbee
This book illustrates how we experience gender. Included is an interactive three-layered wheel that further demonstrates the differences between our bodies, gender expressions, and gender identity.
She/He/They/Them: Understanding Gender Identity by Rebecca Stanborough
Tweens will find this book helpful in answering questions that they may have about gender identity.
Seeing Gender: An Illustrated Guide to Identity and Expression by Iris Gottlieb
Do people with myriad gender identities exist? Of course! With this book, you will know more, from the likes of David Bowie, Laverne Cox and Frida Kahlo. Bonus points for the book being written by a queer person!
Gender Identity Workbook for Teens by Andrew Maxwell Triska, LCSW
If your child is at that stage of finding out who they are, this workbook will be of great help. It includes plenty of activities that teens can benefit and learn from as they discover their authentic identities.
Adults worry about talking to kids about gender identity due to years of biases and learned constructs. That’s understandable, so it’s time to unlearn everything that you know, reeducate yourself, and share with the littlies. Start young! This may be a long journey, but it’s a fulfilling one.
You can do it, parents!
Top image: Dainis Graveris via Unsplash