Blue baby shoes beside pink baby shoes with one pink pacifier and one blue one in front


Embracing ‘Kiddo’: Talking To Kids About Gender

Apr 7, 2017

Kids are always learning about gender. You might not notice it, but every time your child hears someone refer to them as your son or daughter, followed by a statement of praise or criticism, every time they hear you say something about boys or girls, every time you walk through a toy or clothing store with them, or shop online with them — they are watching and listening and learning about gender. 

Kids learn from what we say (whether or not we’re saying it to them) and they learn just as much, if not more, from what we don’t say. They learn from how we act, from our body language, from the tone in our voice, from which people we gravitate toward or away from at the playground or the laundromat, at school or home. 

Gender isn’t something previous generations talked much about with their kids. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. It is always there. Then as now, there are three essential things to know about gender for yourself and your kids:

  1. There aren’t two genders: gender is a spectrum.
  2. There is no right gender to be.
  3. There is no right way to be whatever gender you are.

Raising healthy kids in terms of gender means letting them know they have options and supporting them as they figure it out for themselves. Here are a few ways to do that without getting a PhD in gender studies (not that there’s anything wrong with a PhD in gender studies!).

You'll Also Love: How To Talk About Sexism With Your Son

Pay Attention to How and When You Assume Gender

We all do this. You get to the park and want your kid to play with other kids. You spot a kid with long hair and say “go see if that girl wants to play,” or maybe you scan the playground looking for a boy for your boy to play with. You’re at a restaurant and the waiter, who has short hair and is wearing a tie shows up to take your order, and you say “tell the man what you want to eat.”

You have no way of knowing for sure if the kid with long hair is a girl, or if the kid with short hair on the jungle gym is a boy, or if the waiter is a man. At an even more fundamental level, your way of recognizing them relies first and foremost on assuming gender categories rather than, say, the fact that they are people.

This is a hard habit to break, and we will all always make assumptions about people's gender. The point is to flag for yourself and your kids that this is always an assumption, that you can’t know someone’s gender just by looking at them and we don't need to know their gender to play with them or talk to them. When we make assumptions, we should make ourselves aware they are assumptions. When we’re wrong it’s on us to apologize, correct and move on. Talk with your kids about this when you catch yourself doing it. 

Change Up the Options

Just by living in the world your kid will learn what’s expected of them based on whether they are called a "boy" or a "girl." You can make more room for your kid by challenging those expectations.

Gender isn’t the enemy.
Narrow and rigid gender roles are.

When reading books, telling stories and watching videos, make a point of changing the gender pronouns (why are the cats always female and the dogs male?). This may seem silly, but it’s worthwhile. Better yet, leave the pronouns out altogether and let your child experience a story where gender doesn’t determine who does what and how the story ends.

To be clear, this isn’t about erasing gender or making everything gender neutral. Gender isn’t the enemy. Narrow and rigid gender roles are. Changing up "she" and "he" and "they" is about giving young children some space to be kids first, before they feel the obligation to become boys and girls who are bound to be men and women. 

Challenge Kids' Understanding of Gender, Don’t Police It

You might be a mom who hates pink, who never wears makeup and who suffered as a girl with the gender stereotypes. And now you might have a daughter who loves pink, long hair and princesses above all things. The truth is that your kid is going to love what they love (and later on, they’ll love who they love) no matter what you say. Telling them, begging them, or bribing them to love otherwise isn’t going to work. We might call that policing gender — telling them there’s a right and wrong way.

Don’t police, but do challenge. Your kid may be putting out very narrow and rigid ideas about what girls like and what boys like. Make sure they know first of all, that there are more than just boys and girls in the world. There are lots of different ways for different kinds of people to be boyish and girlish and in between. Some day, they might decide to explore more of those even if today, they seem stuck in their gendered ways — and that's okay.  

Don’t just challenge them with words. Make sure they get exposed to lots of varied gender representations in the books they read, the videos they watch, the plays they see and in their community.

You'll Also Love: Why Aren’t There Names For All Our Family Members?

Think About Your Own Gender, and Use That (Appropriately)

When I talk with parents whose kids are expressing their gender in ways that don’t fit others' expectations, one of the things parents often share is that it pushed them to go back to their own upbringing, and realize all the ways THEY didn’t fit in either.

Talk about sexism, and misogyny .... Talk about the narrow options open to boys.

It’s likely that unless you had a particular reason to, you haven’t thought much about the ways who you are as a person has been shaped by the way people treated you as a boy or girl, man or woman. All of us are harmed by gender stereotypes because they restrict our options and tell us who we are supposed to be, and what we are supposed to do, rather than invite us to figure out and share who we are.   

Whether or not your kid is expressing a more expansive gender, start now by thinking about gender in your own life. Think about the questions you still have. Think about how gender limits you and how it expands you, and come up with age-appropriate examples. Talk about sexism, and misogyny (which means talking about disregard for femmes). Talk about the narrow options open to boys.

Embrace 'Kiddo' and other Gender Neutral Kid Pronouns

The problem isn’t gender. The problem is that we assume so much about our kids' gender based on what they got called when they were born. Gender is never the sum total of who we are, and we all deserve some time and space to discover ourselves without the burden of all this boy stuff and girl stuff. 

This is why I never call my kid a "girl." I use "she" pronouns since that’s what fits the sex we called her at birth, but at 2.5 my kid is just a kid, her gender identity (the internal sense that will tell us if “girl” is the right word for her) isn’t fully developed yet. So I call her a "kiddo." And when we see other kids (in her daycare, at the park) I call them "kiddos" too. I never say “ask that boy if you can borrow his truck” or “see if that girl wants to play with you." I say “ask that kiddo” or "see if that other kiddo wants to play." 

Eventually most of us choose he, she, they, or some combination of those. But part of giving our kids the room to find out who they are is not overburdening them with language they then have to fight for years to get out of.

If you want to learn more about talking to your kiddos about gender, Gender Spectrum as well as the Canadian and bilingual Gender Creative Kids have resources for parents, families and communities.

Article Author Cory Silverberg
Cory Silverberg

Read more from Cory here.

Raised by a children's librarian and a sex therapist, Cory Silverberg grew up to be a best-selling author and award-winning educator focusing on sexuality and gender. He received his master's of education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and teaches on topics including sexuality, gender, disability, access and inclusion across North America.  His most recent book, Sex Is a Funny Word (with Fiona Smyth) was named a Stonewall Honor Book by the American Library Association and won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre.

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