In our evolving world, people’s beliefs and ideas are shifting. In many ways, society, especially western society, is becoming more progressive in terms of gender identity and expression. The most recent Gallop poll estimated that the number of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (or Questioning) and other adults (LGBTQ+) in the United States has risen by 4.5% since 2017 – this increase illustrates our changing and evolving society. As the number of individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ continues to rise, children will be exposed to individuals who may identify as transgender or nonbinary. This blog post intends to provide guidance for parents as they navigate questions their child may have about others’ diversity or their own gender identity.
A few important terms:
Gender refers to the socially created characteristics of men and women.
Sex refers to the different biological characteristics of men and women.
Gender identity is best described as how you feel inside. Your gender identity may not match your assigned sex at birth.
Gender expression is communicated by how you choose to dress or act. Like gender identity, the way you decide to express your gender may not align with the traditional classifications of male or female. A common example could be “tomboys,” which is characterized by a girl who behaves in a manner that has been traditionally considered to be male – this could include dressing in clothing that is not overtly feminine or engaging in physical games and activities that, in some cultures, are considered to be within a male domain, such as football.
Gender binary is a cultural belief that there are only two genders (male and female).
Gender dysphoria is described by the American Psychiatric Association as the psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity. Gender dysphoria can occur at different points in a person’s life, and the intensity of the angst varies among individuals .
Sexuality is the gender(s) of those you are sexually and romantically attracted to. This word does not refer to one’s own gender, so sexuality is not the topic of this blog.
Nonbinary is defined as a person who feels like their gender does not fall on the gender binary – they do not feel entirely male or female. Sometimes those who are nonbinary prefer to use they/them pronouns.
As you continue to read and gain a full understanding of gender identity and expression, you should recognize and appreciate these terms. You might already be familiar with a few of these terms and their definitions as they’re becoming more commonly used in casual and political settings. Remember, when your children ask questions, use the correct terminology within the right context, so your children will understand and accept diversity in individuals.
What if your child asks about someone else’s gender?
Inspired by Early Childhood National Centers, here are a few examples of what your child could ask or say and the possible answers you could give.
- Child: Why does Sally want to play so many sports? Girls aren’t even good at sports!
- Parent: Sally is allowed to have whatever hobbies she wants. Neither boys or girls are better than the other at any activity.
- Child: Why wasn’t that guy wearing pants? He had a skirt on!
- Parent: It’s okay if he wants to wear a skirt. He isn’t hurting anyone by doing it. We shouldn’t judge anyone based on what they like to wear.
- Child: Luke only wants to play princesses. But he’s not a princess if he’s a boy.
- Parent: Maybe he just wants to play pretend. Don’t you think being a princess would be fun?
At a young age, children are obsessed with following rules. These rules can include traditional gender binary guidelines (Trautner et al., 2005). This obsession fades over time, but young children may find it difficult to grasp the concept of such things as women who have short hair (when women are supposed to have long hair) or men who wear dresses (when men are not supposed to wear dresses). To help your child understand that the way someone dresses or presents themself does not always indicate their gender, try using examples they might see every day. For example, your child comes home from school and tells you about what they did during recess. They describe meeting a boy from another class who had long hair. Your child is insistent he should have shorter hair because he’s a boy. To help your child recognize that gender is not defined by external characteristics, you might explain to them that boys and girls don’t need to have a specific length or style of hair, and their hairstyle is their own choice based on their preferences or what they like. At this time and depending on your child’s age, you might also be able to explain the difference between sex and gender.
What if your child starts questioning their own gender?
If your child begins to question their own gender, this could be a crucial time in their journey of self-discovery. During this period, you should provide your child with your unwavering support. Practice patience and understanding if they decide to make changes as they explore their true self. For example, your child may want to change their name from the one they were given at birth. Understand that your child is not rebelling against you – they are trying to find the best way to express themselves and having a name that matches their identity may be a step closer to reaching that goal.
As your child begins to feel more comfortable experimenting with their gender expression, allow them to publicly express their gender. This teaches them that they should not stifle themselves and their gender expression for the comfort of others. Every person deserves to feel comfortable in our own skin; the same goes for the members of our youngest generations.
Your child may face discrimination or even cruelty from those who do not possess the knowledge and understanding of your child’s experience. Remember, any reactions are not your child’s fault and do not blame your child for how others respond. Be mindful, however, that your child may experience this type of behavior, and certain reactions may impact their mental health.
Our perception of gender is evolving, which highlights your need to stay current on information surrounding the topic. If you have questions about gender diverse populations, it’s safe to assume that your child does too. Understanding and teaching your child the proper terminology, and answering their questions with genuine and thoughtful replies opens the dialogue to teach them about compassion for everyone. In the event your child begins to question their own gender identity, you can be prepared to help your child feel loved and supported by their family as they continue their life journey.
National Center on Parent Family and Community Engagement. (n.d.). Healthy gender development and young children: A guide for early childhood programs and professionals. https://depts.washington.edu/dbpeds/healthy-gender-development.pdf
American Psychiatric Association. (2020, November). What is gender dysphoria? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gender-dysphoria/what-is-gender-dysphoria
Jones, J. M. (2021, November 20). LGBT identification rises to 5.6% in latest U.S. estimate. Gallup.com. https://news.gallup.com/poll/329708/lgbt-identification-rises-latest-estimate.aspx
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2022, February 23). Children and gender identity: Supporting your child. Healthy Lifestyle Children’s health. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/children-and-gender-identity/art-20266811
Trautner, H. M., Ruble, D. N., Cyphers, L., Kirsten, B., Behrendt, R., & Hartmann, P. (2005).
Rigidity and flexibility of gender stereotypes in childhood: Developmental or differential? Infant and Child Development, 14(4), 365–381. https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.399