When a child is born, their birth certificate marks them as “M” or “F.” Once they’re out of onesies, caregivers often dress them up in either pants or dresses, depending on that gender marker. At their first birthday, they might receive dolls instead of toy cars, or vice versa. Even before their birth, friends and family may have celebrated with blue or pink cake at a gender reveal party. When gender is presented as this binary, kids absorb it. Yet questions will come.
Gender is everywhere, says Russ Toomey, Ph.D., professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona. “Kids understand gender,” Toomey says. “It is, by far, one of the most commonly and widely used ways that we organize ourselves in society.”
Kids also know a lot more than adults give them credit for. By 3-years-old, kids begin to label their gender, and they’re constantly absorbing the information about gender around them.
So gender isn’t a scary, taboo topic that children need to be protected from, Toomey says. In fact, research shows that learning accurate, affirming information about gender can make kids feel safer and more supported in school. And kids begin to develop gender stereotypes, such as that boys are more rough and tumble than girls, around age 3 or 4. Without having conversations about these assumptions, children can’t unlearn them.
You can’t control everything a kid learns about gender. But when they ask questions, it’s good to be prepared. Here’s how to approach some common curiosities, while staying inclusive and using language even young kids can understand.
What does “transgender” mean?
What you’re trying to get across: Gender is something a person feels.
The script: “When you’re born, a doctor usually tells the world that you’re a girl or a boy based on your body. But people get to feel and explore what gender they really are. So let’s say the doctor said someone was a boy, but that person feels like a girl. Well, that means she’s a girl. And she might do things to make herself feel good and to show other people that she’s a girl, like change her name or switch up her style. But even if she doesn’t do all those things, she’s still a girl. It works the other way too. A doctor might think someone’s a girl when they’re born. But turns out, that person realizes he’s a boy. When we say someone’s transgender, that’s what we mean. Someone might also realize that they aren’t a boy or a girl. Or they might feel like both. Some of these people call themselves non-binary or genderqueer, but there’s lots of words for gender. People use the word that fits them best.”
More advice: You don’t have to wait for this question to be asked, Toomey says — in fact, kids might understand this topic best if you introduce it through books. He recommends Red: A Crayon’s Story, a book about a blue crayon with the wrong label. And if kids might ask more questions after this. If you’re feeling lost, tell them: “You know, I have a lot to learn about gender, too. It’s pretty cool to read about. How about I find some more resources and we look at them together?”
Is that a boy or a girl?
What you’re trying to get across: We can’t know a person’s gender unless they tell us.
The script: “We actually can’t assume that without asking someone. But sometimes, people don’t like to be asked that question outright, especially if you’re a stranger. Instead, when we introduce ourselves, we can say our name and our pronouns, so that the other person can offer them, too. For example, you can call me Dad and I use he/him pronouns.”
More advice: If your child points to someone in public and asks this question, you may feel embarrassed. But it’s important to not cause a scene. By staying calm, you can make things more comfortable for the person your child is asking about. Your tone and response can also teach your child that visibly trans or gender non-conforming people aren’t a spectacle or something to freak out about.
This question can also serve as a conversation starter to explain that not everyone is a girl or boy, Toomey says. If your child hasn’t heard of the term non-binary, this is a chance to tell them what it means. You can also ask: ‘Why are you interested if they’re a boy or girl?’ This way, they can reflect on their own thoughts about gender, and you can correct stereotypes if they pop up.
Why is that boy wearing a skirt?
What you’re trying to get across: We can wear any type of clothes that make us feel good.
The script: “What do you like to wear? If someone told you that you can’t wear your favorite outfit, how would you feel? A boy might love wearing skirts or painting his nails. And a woman might feel great in a suit and not want to wear make-up. We get to choose.”
More advice: This is a good time to instill a sense of agency in your child, Toomey says. Allow them to choose their outfits or ask them how they want to style their hair. You can also use this question to explain why we can’t make assumptions about someone’s gender. But a child is probably asking this question because they don’t understand why someone’s gender expression isn’t fitting what they expect. So make sure your response addresses that, too.
Why is someone in my class using different pronouns than before?
What you’re trying to get across: Anyone can change their pronouns to ones they’re more comfortable with.
The script: “Well, I don’t know your classmate’s gender identity, but it sounds like they might be trans or non-binary or exploring their gender. And when people do that, they might want to use a pronoun set that better fits them.”
More advice: If your child pushes back, Toomey says, flip the script. Ask: “How would you feel if someone started calling you a pronoun that doesn’t feel right for you?” Remind them that it’s a matter of respect.
Today my teacher split up my class by boys and girls and my non-binary friend felt left out. What should I do?
What you’re trying to get across: It’s great that you’re sticking up for people who may feel vulnerable. Let’s make sure that when we help them, we don’t accidentally do any harm.
The script: “What do you think your friend wants? What can you and I do to help?”
More advice: If your child is in middle school or older, you can help them strategize on how to tackle the problem and support their friend, along with your own help. But your level of intervention will probably look higher at an elementary school, where kids can’t as easily advocate for themselves. Make sure to prioritize the child’s safety — you don’t want to accidentally out them or put them in danger, especially if their school or caregivers aren’t accepting of LGBTQ+ kids. Team up with other adults to approach the school, so that no one child is singled out.