What is the key to discussing gender with children? Listen to kids and the world around them.
The truth is, our children already are, by nature, more open to themselves and others than the adults in their world are. Children are not born with preconceived judgments and norms — it is the adult world that introduces intolerance or misunderstanding. Most likely, your child already understands gender better than you do.
The goal of any discussion, planned or unexpected, should be to help kids remain open to the idea of authenticity of self — without adult stuff getting in the way.
Before you begin talking about gender: Eliminate words such as “weird,” “normal” or “regular” from your vocabulary, especially when talking about people. Instead, talk about how differences, choices and feelings are okay. Send a message about how important it is to feel good about whoever you are inside.
Keep it simple, straightforward and free of secrecy: If a child asks you a question, answer just that one question, then wait. If there is a follow-up question, answer that one, then wait. If they walk away, let them; it means they are done. If they ask again, answer. But if you don’t really know what the hell you are talking about, wait until you do. Your goal is for both of you to feel comfortable talking about gender. If you make it a big production or get confused, good intentions may backfire.
Use developmentally appropriate and correct anatomical words: People are born with body parts called penises or vaginas. The presence of a penis or vagina is what is used to assign sex at birth, before anyone knows who a baby is inside. Body parts do not necessarily determine how people identify gender for themselves. Some people identify more as a girl, a boy or both. You can identify however you feel inside; it doesn’t make you more or less valuable than someone who identifies differently. Also, note that the gender you are assigned at birth or how you later identify does not determine who you are attracted to romantically. Talking about sexuality should be another conversation (and article).
Know what you’re talking about: Terminology may change as society explores gender. Instead of guessing about gender-conforming or non-conforming terms, research and get comfortable with terms you might not know or fully understand. Even if you don’t fully understand, it’s important to be accepting.
Calm the desire to label everyone: Children explore many different themes through dramatic and imaginary play. The purpose of this type of play is to process the world around them. Well into adolescence, kids are exploring who they are, and that exploration may or may not be expressed visibly. Gender expression is what you can see externally. Gender identity is an internal reality. Although most people identify as either male or female, it is not that straightforward for everyone. Many people discover their identity early in life, while others connect to their gender identity later.
Correct yourself when necessary: Our society is evolving, and so are we. Think before you speak, and if you make a mistake, correct yourself. Top mistakes start with phrases such as, “only girls” or “only boys,” and are followed by words like “wear,” “play with,” “use” and “like,” or, “boys do/don’t” and “girls do/don’t.” Get over your ingrained stereotypes.
Be ready to counter others: We don’t raise our children in a vacuum. Unless you live in a cave and expect to stay there, you will have to counter media messages about what it means to be a woman or a man in America. You’ll also have to sometimes counter friends, family and teachers. Protecting your child from “so-called” norms means staying connected to what they hear and see. The more you counter the initial talk about “boy colors” or “girl colors,” who wears dresses, who marries whom, who can have babies and so on, the more children will accept themselves and others for who they are or want to be.
Sometimes this might mean talking to the people your child comes in contact with and teaching them about gender, or learning to see the gender-conforming propaganda around you and calling out it out. Often, it means talking to kids about people whose perspectives don’t evolve, or why it takes so long for society to make progress.
Bottom line: discussing gender should be as simple as any other discussion. Emphasize people’s right to be happy, healthy and whole. And being true to one’s identity and accepting others is what makes communities happy, healthy and whole.