As much as many people like to say that gender doesn’t really matter to them, it becomes very clear that it does when they have trouble immediately sorting someone as male or female. When I was pregnant, I even had people get mad at me when I wouldn’t tell them what gender my unborn baby was, when at that point all the information I had was what kind of genitalia I had seen on an ultrasound. I’ve heard way more than my share of things people really shouldn’t say if they can’t tell your kids’ gender, thanks to being in a family that prioritizes personal style, our finances, and the practicalities of the weather and physical activity over what people assume about our kids’ gender identities.
Even if they don’t realize it, when people try to find out what gender a baby or child (or adult) is, it’s because not having that information makes them uncomfortable, and that discomfort likely stems from not knowing how to treat someone whose gender they don’t know. Whether they intend to or not, they do treat people differently once they have that information. Researchers have found that people treat even very young children quite differently based on their perceived gender. In some studies, researchers have dressed the same babies up in clothes commonly associated with girls or boys, and found differences in how much adults held them, talked to them, and what kinds of toys they offered them, depending on whether their outfit signaled to the adults that the baby was a boy or a girl.
If we really want to live in a world where gender doesn’t matter, we need to stop treating people differently based on gender, and we have to stop teaching children that they have a responsibility to perform gender. If you want to know what pronouns to use for a child, ask what the preferred pronouns are, or listen to their parents and observe which ones they use. Whatever you do, please don’t say any of the following, especially if you're right in front of the child. By doing so, you are sending them the message that you think there is something wrong with them, or that they have to be different in order for people to accept them for who they are. Most people don’t want to contribute to a world that makes children feel like they shouldn’t be their true selves, or to a world that makes parents believe they need to work towards change their kids in order for their kids (and themselves) to be accepted. If that’s true for you, here are a few things you should never say to a mom if you can’t tell what gender her child is.
“You Really Should Get Her Ears Pierced”
Piercing hurts, and usually leaves permanent holes in the pierced person’s body. It can also cause infection and scarring. For that reason, it really should be a person’s choice whether they have any part of their body pierced, or at the very least, their parents’ choice. If you can’t immediately tell that a baby girl is considered a girl, that’s because it doesn’t matter what gender a baby is. Her parents don’t need to put holes in her body and shell out extra money for jewelry just so you can know which gender stereotypes to impress upon her.
“But S/He’s Wearing The Wrong Color!”
People should wear whatever colors they like. Colors do not have an inherent gender, and perceptions of which color represents which gender are totally made up and even change over time. Fun fact: color and style of clothing for very young children were mostly neutral until just before World War I, and even after that, people initially assigned pink to boys and blue to girls.
“S/He’s Dressed Like [Another Gender]”
Similar to the color thing, types and styles clothes don't necessarily belong to a certain gender, and people should feel free to wear whatever suits them. If you're having this kind of conversation about a child with their parents, chances are they're too young to have gone through puberty and have a body whose biological differences need to be accommodated by clothing companies, so there's really no legit reason to make this statement.
“What Are They?”
This goes for kids of whose gender isn’t obvious to you, as well as kids of mixed heritage and and anything else that challenges your ability to sort them into some arbitrary category our society has fabricated. No child, anywhere, is a “what.” People are always a “who.” Your curiosity does not absolve you of the responsibility to show basic respect for another human being. If you find yourself feeling confused about it, ask yourself why it even matters before you ask a parent a question like this.
“Aren't You Worried They’ll Be Gay?”
There’s nothing wrong with being gay, so parents really shouldn’t be worried about it. However, asking a question like this may give them cause to worry about people like you, especially if it turns out that their child is gay. Also? Sexual orientation and gender identity are two distinct concepts, that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.
“You Really Shouldn’t Let Him/Her Play With That”
Kids should play with anything that is safe and interesting to them. They shouldn’t feel compelled to change what they play with to communicate their gender identity to others, and their parents shouldn’t feel compelled to force them to. If a boy playing with dolls or a girl playing with trucks confuses you, that’s your issue to work out, not theirs.
“Are You Worried They’ll Be Confused?”
Doing or wearing what they like does not confuse children. Hearing from other people that they shouldn’t get to feel, dress, or act in ways that feel right to them, and are common and natural to all humans because of what other people assume about their gender, is what confuses children.
“Aren’t You Worried About Confusing Other People?”
Nope. Other people don’t need to know anything about a child’s identity except what that child and/or their family feel like sharing. If you really treat all people equally, then it really shouldn't make a difference to you.
“Well, I’m Sure They’ll Outgrow That”
Saying this suggests that there is something wrong with the child now. It’s a shaming comment dressed up like reassurance that the parent may very well not need or want in the first place. Please, don’t do that.