Regardless of your child's age, it's not too early (or too late!) to start talking to them about gender. Here's how to start and continue the discussion as they grow.
VonS. Bär Bergman
Updated October 17, 2022
Picture: Pete Ryan
Picture: Pete Ryan
The first day of school is a mix of new experiences for most kids, but the introduction of Phoenix Washington* to the preschool in suburban Massachusetts left them with an all-too-familiar feeling: a sense of not belonging. of beingasked to sit boy/girl/boy/girlOn the gender washroom choices carpet, Phoenix (now 12) felt "just really tired of having to explain over and over again that I'm non-binary and then explain what that means and that yes, it's definitely a." real thing." Phoenix's mother, Chantal*, had emailed the school ahead of her child's first day, but no one from the school answered - leaving her five-year-old with a lot of work to do.
Today, there are vastly more resources for families with children—even as young as Phoenix—who express a clear, strong sense of their gender in ways that are not typical pairing with their assigned gender at birth. As conversations about gender improve and evolve, young people are more aware of gender binaries (and their relationship to it) than children were a decade ago. However, Ruth Koleszar-Green (Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan), Associate Professor at York University's School of Social Work and student of Cree and Mi'kmaq Two-Spirit Elder Blu Waters, reminds us that before colonization Children had the right to choose and express their gender and this was common and accepted.
"It used to be that if you went to a new place, you would look for the Two Spirit people," says Koleszar-Green. "It was a sign of a healthy community when some people had that role and those individuals were valued and respected." Koleszar-Green goes on to say that while children who grow up understanding a variety of gender options are not more likely to be trans or express gender-independent identity, but are more likely to developpersonal resilience and confidence in their own decisions – and the decisions of others. For former US Marine Edgar Ware, now residing in Gravenhurst, Ontario. and has both a trans child and a young trans grandchild which is great news as he has seen first hand how difficult it can be for people breaking the gender norm. "When I was on duty, you always knew some people who were so different," says Ware. "But they were scared, you know? They weren't free. They didn't feel like they could ever be free because of people's judgments."
There is extensive research showing that children have the freedom to interact with themmany kinds of toys, clothing and activities have better emotional balance and perform better in school. And yet stores with gender-specific clothing and pink and blue toy shelves immediately show that there is still work to be done in this area. Protecting children from sexism and gender policing can feel like a full-time job before we even start discussing the idea of trans or non-binary people. So how (and when) to start?
"All children's play is communication, and the toys we give children are vocabulary," says Helen Hargreaves, a Toronto-based child and family therapist with a master's degree in social work. Hargreaves explains that baby dolls are a nurturing vocabulary, superheroes and action figures are a power vocabulary, train sets are a problem-solving vocabulary, and so on. When children are given many opportunities, they can explore and share their interests and feelings, so offering a wide range of toys at this age is ideal.
Hargreaves also notes that children this age roleplay and play in a variety of genders, occupations, and even styles (like anyone whose child has ever done).declared themselves a kittenrecognize). Asking kids who announce they're now a dog/astronaut/boy, "What does this mean to you?" is encouraging (instead of saying, "That's silly"), and it helps kids feel safe when they tell you about their feelings and their identity.
This is also an age group where many parents educate their childrenabout body parts. In addition to shoulders, knees and toes, you should also include genitals. Even simple statements like "Most boys have penises, but not all" and "Many girls have a vulva and a vagina" set an early standard for the fact that genitals are not the beginning and end of gender identity. This also leaves room for the inclusion ofintersex children, which make up about 1.7 percent of the people, and the opportunity for more talks later.
Three is also not too young for a child to have a clear sense of their gender identity. Research shows that while some children don't feel firm about their gender identity until puberty or even later, many children do by that agecan assert themselves with confidenceas a girl, boy or neither. There's no harm in trusting your child to understand their own gender, whether or not they match their birth-assigned gender, so don't ignore or minimize their claims. Instead, stay curious, keep asking questions about what this means to her - would she like to try different clothes, hairstyle or toys? - and keep checking back.
In this age group, children learn the "rules of the game" of the world. Also, their thinking can be quite rigid and binary, which can lead them to take the things they observe and takeenforce them as common rules. For example, they can claim that "girls have long hair and boys have short hair" based on what they see in the media they consume, even if they have an immediate family member who doesn't follow that "rule".
Media literacy can be a useful tool to interrupt these thoughts. Hargreaves recommends watching shows and reading books with your children, and taking plenty of opportunities to ask, "Why do you think someone made the story that way?" see on TV is not necessarily a rule, but rather a story told by a person. According to Hargreaves, this is particularly helpful in narratives where gender representation supports sexist notions — for example, when there is only one girl among a group of boys, or even none at all — or when the discussion of gender characteristics is inconsistent with your family's values .
Because children of this age are sensitive to categorization and separation, it is valuable to speak explicitly and often about gender and sexism. Saying “everyone is equal” makes nowhere near as much sense as statements like “Women used to not be allowed to do certain jobs, today women can do any job, and we’re happy about that” or “Some people say thatBoys shouldn't cry, but in our family we know it's healthy to feel our feelings.” Tying statements using this language to family values helps children focus on your messages instead of the ones they're saying Get media or classmates because they feel invested in your family.
Research by Rebecca Bigler, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, shows that counting or dividing children by perceived gender at school, or even labeling them "boys and girls," reinforces gender dichotomy. Even small changes like addressing a class as "Friends" or "Students" and separating them alphabetically make this easier to divide, so be sure to check with your child's teachers about these small but important changes.
As children reach the higher end of this age group, their need to categorize people and things begins to give way to the values that strengthen their family and caregivers regardless of gender identity. Jake Somerville, a father of two Ontario daughters — one of whom is trans — shares the story of her four-year-old trans daughter, who said, "I want a new dress — something pink and sparkly and really girly," and her cisgender daughter She, who was six at the time, said, "Pink can be for everyone, not just girls."
In this age group, children can understand more nuances in concepts and are more interested in discussing them.Talk to them about sexismand emphasize that while sexism is often a personal prejudice, it is also a societal system that devalues women and girls. For example, strength tests performed by firefighters rate the type of strength men typically have (lifting the heaviest thing once) over the type of strength women typically have (lift something lighter but do it a hundred times), which is why it more difficult is that women become firefighters. This is also a good time to discuss how contextual (and changing) gender rules and roles have been over time; For example, archaeological evidence shows that makeup was used by all genders when it was first invented around 4000 BC. It was invented in the 1940s and pink was considered a masculine color until the 1940s.
In discussing how family and friends have responded to Phoenix's gender identity, Washington says that because Phoenix was identified as female at birth, and because Phoenix was identified as female at birth, she feels people were more accepting of her nonbinary child's gender identity and expression that this is sexist in its own way. Sociological research by Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna in the late 1970s supports their sentiment: because our culture values masculinity, we are more likely to accept girls who are "boyish" than boys who are "girly" because girls are believed to be doing something more valuable and the young are perceived as less valuable. You can fight back by making sure your gender messages include not only "girl power" but also affirmation that boys can be caring and express their feelingsShow care and tenderness.
To keep lines of communication open about gender, Hargreaves recommends parents try the following: Fill out camp, school, or activity forms with your child. When you come up with the question of gender, ask them, "Should I put boy, girl, or something else?" Even if your child has always expressed a cisgender identity, this reinforces the idea that you are open to when there is new information. Hargreaves also notes that some children with a trans or non-binary identity can become very good at hiding it — even from themselves — so as not to upset their parents. There is value in leaving this path open to all children, regardless of your current understanding of their gender.
Weilfit in and be acceptedbecomes essential in your tween and early teens, the work you did when you were younger will be even more valuable to build on in your gender conversations. (And if you're just starting out, don't worry — you can review some of the lessons from previous ages as you go; there's still time to do great work.) Researcher Ann Travers, associate professor at Simon Fraser University Department of Anthropology and Sociology, points out in her bookThe Trans Generation: How Trans Children (and Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolutionthat trans and non-binary young people in this age group are particularly at risk of violence and ostracism; and that peer pressure exists in both positive and negative forms – children may be punished for gender misconduct or rewarded for social behavior in “acceptable” gendered ways.
At this age, a key message for tweens of all genders is that they are the experts on themselves and their own identity. Researcher J Wallace Skelton, a graduate student at the University of Toronto and an advisor on equality policy for organizations like the Special Olympics and Girl Guides, says middle school students are old enough to understand themselves well, although they are often told that they are too are young to know anything else. Encourage your children to think about gender by asking lots of questions as they sort out their feelings and values—even if they say something you don't agree with.
Hargreaves supports this, adding that young people in this age group often make statements to test a response. So if your kid says, “Jennifer says she's going to play soccer, but that's ridiculous; Football is a boy's sport", you should say: "Interesting. Is that what you think or what someone else said?” or “How do you think Jennifer would feel if she said that?” This will reinforce the idea that you are a good sounding board for their thoughts, providing more opportunities to discuss your values in relation to gender.
Overall, a consistent message—in both words and deeds—that gender rules are optional and that transgender and non-binary people exist and are valid and valuable in the world will serve children of all ages. Hargreaves reminds us not to be tempted to encourage children to conform to the gender typically paired with their assigned gender just because the world is safer for cisgender people. Caregivers and family members are a child's most important supports, and hearing these messages from them actually harms children more than hearing them from strangers. "Don't be your child's first or biggest bully — even if you want to be protective; That's not how children understand it," she says. "They hear messages that their behavior may be confusing or unacceptable to others as 'there is something wrong with you.'"
"All conversations about gender are about loving and supporting a person for who they are right now," adds Skelton. "You can't harm a person by believing them for who they are. The most important thing is to make sure that childrenknow they have your loveand support, right now as they are." Ware gets to the heart of the message with simplicity: "All I want is for my children and my grandchildren - the trans and the non-trans children - to be safe, are happy and loved. That's it. Tell your kids that no matter who they are, they will always be perfect."
*Names have been changed
This article was originally published on
04 January 2021