As children, we’re frequently exposed to messages that reinforce the idea of a gender binary. For example, pink is for girls, blue is for boys, girls are emotional, and boys shouldn't cry. But many of us either know or go on to learn that these so-called "rules" are not set in stone. In fact, many of them are just wrong. But how we, as parents, choose to approach gender will inevitably influence our kids. So how exactly does a mom explain gender to her child? Is there a need to have a specific, one-time talk, or are these ongoing lessons we'll be imparting over and over and over again?
As a mother, I know it’s my responsibility to teach my son about the world around him. I also know that, right now, a number of things are already influencing him, including but certainly not limited to: school, television, books, movies, and other children. While I haven’t sat my son down to specifically discuss the gender spectrum and the various gender identities, I’m doing what I can to keep my language more gender-neutral, explain that people are simply people, and highlight the fact that there are more than two genders.
I have also been able to address instances of gender stereotyping, as it is becoming an increasingly obvious issue the older my son gets. I'd like to believe I’ve done my best to show him a variety of examples of femininity and masculinity, so he understands that gender is more of a spectrum than binary. But there’s more than one way to approach this topic with children, which is why I asked the following moms to share how they explained gender to their own kids:
“My boy’s 3 so some consider him too little to understand, but I feel like I don’t have to explain anything. He plays with cars, motorcycles, typical ‘boy toys,’ but he also loves Moana and he has a bunch of Moana dolls. He also loves My Little Pony coloring books. He's going to like and be who he is regardless of how I explain [gender] to him. I'd rather him ask me questions as he grows and we can talk through it using his own opinions and views. However, either way, I think it's just important to show him and explain how to be respectful and considerate of everyone and anyone. Whether he agrees with their choices or not. Whether he questions his gender or not.”
“In our household, we explain gender as what a person feels like. We don’t call certain things boy things or girl things and the children are free to choose whatever preferences they have with clothing, toys, etc. My 4-year-old’s favorite color is pink, he prefers to be with his mama rather than to rough house with the boys, wanted to be a fairy this halloween, wanted a doll house for Christmas, and whatever he is happy with is what we embrace.”
“One day out of the blue, my 6-year-old asked me, ‘Mom, when boys grow up do they become girls?’ I told him, ‘Most boys grow up to become men. But sometimes people are born as a boy but they feel inside that they were really supposed to be a girl, so they decide that they are going to live as a girl. You feel like you're a boy, right? Wouldn't you feel sad if someone told you that you couldn't be a boy?’ He said yes and then moved on to a new subject. I don't know where the question came from, but was pleased that it gave us the chance to start a conversation.”
“My daughter is only 3 but we address it right now when she says 'boys can’t wear makeup' and I respond that boys don’t always choose to wear makeup but they can (and do) if they chose to. Same for ‘boys don’t wear princess dresses.’”
“My kids are 2 and 4. I’m non-binary and my wife is cisgender. We read as a cis-het family now, but we still refer to ourselves as gay, identify as queer, and don’t do anything to hide our history as a same sex couple or my trans status (I work in trans advocacy, so it’s out there and a constant topic of conversation in our house).
It’s all very straightforward for us. When it comes to sexuality, anybody can love/marry anybody as long as they’re on board. When it comes to gender, some people feel like a boy, some people feel like a girl, some people feel like neither or both or it changes. Sometimes parents and doctors think someone is one thing when they’re born, but it turns out they feel like something else, and it’s really important to listen to them if they say that. We also try to make it very clear that gender expression does not equal gender identity and that nothing is inherently ‘boyish’ or ‘girly.’ We’re assuming they’ll get the point by osmosis just because it saturates their environment, but we know they’ll have questions and the conversation will evolve.”
“In our house we don't ignore gender, but we make it clear that there are no ‘boy things’ and ‘girl things’ in that there are no doors closed to them based on how they identify. I like to sort of test the waters to see where they are regarding gender, so I've actually asked, ‘What makes someone a boy or a girl?’ and the only answer I've ever gotten from them is that someone's voice determines that. So I just said that wasn't true and what makes someone a boy or a girl is what they feel like on the inside, which I think sets us up for deeper conversations as they're more ready to think about gender more deeply.”
“Our son will be 5 in September and only in the last year has he become keenly aware of the difference in genders. We guide discussions based on his level of curiosity. So far we've discussed that there are boys and girls, who have different body parts (penis, vulva/vagina), and that's the main difference between them. Because he and his sister are free to do, be, and like anything they want. That their body parts, so far, don't mean anything different other than sister can't stand up to use the potty. It's a very simple, basic concept so far. We aren't focusing so much on genitalia, yet, or deeper meanings and possibilities, since his questions are mostly geared towards societal expectations of boy/girl.”
“A summary of what I’ve told [my son]: ‘When people are born, doctors say whether they’re a girl or boy based on what body parts they have. Sometimes doctors are wrong, and each person gets to decide for themselves what gender they are. Gender is a big spectrum, but most people are either girl, boy, both, or neither. Who you are might change over time, and you’re the only one who gets to decide your gender.’ We also watch Queer Kid Stuff on YouTube, which does a great job of explaining gender to kids.”
“We've done the super basic boys and girls talk with our 3-year-old explaining the difference between a penis and a vagina. We are really open with everything and as [our daughter] gets older we'll explain other genders with more detail. She's good at identifying via physical appearance (so in the case of trans individuals it's been OK) just having noticed the difference in genitals led to some anatomy lessons.”