How to Talk to Your Kids About Gender
June is Pride Month, a time of celebration and activism for the LGBTQ+ community. Though 2020 Pride parades and festivals were first cancelled due to COVID-19, activists are now focused on standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. On June 14, thousands gathered in Brooklyn, New York, to take part in a Black Trans Lives Matter demonstration.
Alongside the LGBTQ+ movement’s intersection with Black Lives Matter, the topic of gender has been making headlines in both inspiring and troubling ways this month. In early June, J.K. Rowling made comments widely criticized as transphobic, with GLAAD accusing her of “turning [her] back on the LGBTQ+ community” at large.
Then came news from the White House on June 13, where it was announced that the Trump administration would be ending policies protecting transgender people from discrimination in health care.
However, just two days later, the LGBTQ+ community scored an unexpected victory: the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ+ people from employment discrimination, a historic decision as fewer than half of U.S. states previously had any legal protection for LGBTQ+ employees. And the month isn’t over yet.
While ideas about gender often spark strong debate, many arguments stem from a lack of understanding. The language and vocabulary around gender has evolved significantly over the last few decades, as we have come to better understand the diversity of both biology and human experience.
With so much confusion about the terminology of gender, the notion of answering your kids’ questions about it can feel daunting. However, with the right tools, information, and mindset prepared, you can confidently guide your children in navigating their questions at home and developing a healthy relationship with gender identity and expression.
Start by Defining Terms
To help your child build a foundational understanding of gender, start by teaching the difference between these basic terms:
This is the label (usually male or female) that you’re assigned at birth based on genitals, chromosomes, and hormones.
Gender is a shared set of cultural expectations. It’s a way cultures categorize people. Perhaps you’ve heard the words “manly” or “macho”; those are expectations about gender in the United States, but not necessarily in every culture.
Gender affects how people perceive you, your expected role in society, and how others think you should look, dress, speak, and act. In some cases, it can determine the educational and career opportunities available to you, or at least the path you’re encouraged to take.
Gender roles have changed significantly throughout history and across the world. Some cultures have historically only recognized men and women, while others traditionally recognize more, including Native American nations, and some cultures from Hawaii and South Asia.
This is how you feel inside, whether man, woman (or boy/girl), nonbinary, or something else. Your gender identity may match with the sex you were assigned at birth (called cisgender), or it may be different (called transgender).
This is how you express your gender identity. For example, two kids might identify as girls, where one likes dresses and playing with dolls, and the other likes to wear pants and play sports. You might also have a third girl who likes both! There isn’t one right way to be a person of a certain gender, so gender expression can be unique to each person.
3 Tips for Talking to Kids about Gender
1. Don’t Overthink It
Many people worry if children will be able to grasp such a complex idea, especially young children, but kids have an advantage that we adults don’t. Children are still actively forming their fundamental understanding of the world, so they don’t find it difficult to accept new ideas. Indeed, they’re absorbing new ideas every day.
Most kids tend to be more concerned with how an issue relates to them personally anyway. For example, they will likely care more about whether a person is nice to them or if they like an activity or not, rather than worrying about whether the person follows gender conventions or if an activity aligns with gender norms.
2. Explain That People Come in All Shapes and Sizes
This applies to many different types of identity, but if you want your child to understand that anatomy does not equal gender, “people come in all shapes and sizes” is a straightforward idea that your child is probably already familiar with.
You can explain that most people with certain body parts are a certain gender, but not always. If your child asks why, let them know that who you are comes from the inside—from your mind and your heart.
3. Let Them Know Their Gender Doesn’t Limit Them
Above all, it’s important for kids to know that their gender does not limit their potential, their abilities, or the ways they can express themselves. BrainPOP’s resources on Women’s History can be a great place to start for children of any gender, where they can learn about women who challenged gender expectations throughout history. Our Emotions and Mental Health units can also benefit any kids, especially boys, who often hear messages from society to act tough and hold their feelings inside.
Gender stereotypes and bias can be so ingrained in us as adults that we often don’t even notice, but with a mindful approach and supportive resources, you can help your kids continue to grow feeling free, confident, and comfortable with themselves and the wonderfully diverse people around them.
Related BrainPOP Topics
In the Pride 2020 episode of BrainPOP News, Nat interviews Christopher Street Liberation March co-founder Ellen Broidy.
Harvey Milk was a hero for LGBTQ+ civil rights and a model of courage, perseverance, and leadership.