We don’t want to get rid of gender, we want to make room for all genders.
You can make room for all genders
Some people think that healthy parenting around gender means raising children without any gender, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Gender is a vital part of every person’s identity that should be recognized and celebrated. The point is to present children with all of the options so they can determine for themselves what their gender is, without limitations. We don’t have to take away toys that most people associate with girls or boys if a child likes to play with those toys. We just need to make sure that our kids understand that playing with or liking any particular toy - or enjoying different activities or excelling in certain subjects in school -- is not connected to their gender.
Examining your own gender story helps you effectively parent around gender
Healthy parenting around gender starts with recognizing the messages we have absorbed ourselves and may be passing onto our children, often without even realizing it. We tend to focus on the gender of our children, but we need to start with ourselves. What were you told as a child that you could or could not do because of your gender? What role models did you have of different genders growing up? How were people who fell outside of typical gender norms treated? Take some time with “My Gender Journey” and reflect upon your own experiences around gender. Examining these questions is a vital step towards gender inclusive parenting.Take the Journey
Young children are not too little to learn about gender
Young children are being taught lessons about gender from the moment they are born. Messages about gender are like the air we breathe--they are so ever-present that we don’t even realize that we are taking them in. Parents, family members, popular culture, the media and other influences deliver messages about gender to children from the moment they are born, and we begin gendering children even before they are born. Think about gender reveal parties and what gifts are given at baby showers. We also know that parents respond to infants differently based on the assumed gender of the child. And small differences in male and female infants can grow into characteristics that appear to be based on the biology of the child, but are actually a result of our parenting practices that reinforce and subconsciously guide our children down very gendered paths. In fact, all children’s brains are malleable so our parenting practices have a great affect on their development.
Try walking around the world for a day or two wearing a “gender lens” and notice what you see. Ask yourself what messages we as a society are communicating about gender and thus what our kids are learning. How many stores divide toy and clothing sections by gender? How many products are marketed differently to boys and girls, and men and women?
Because gender messages are so ingrained in our society, it takes a determined effort by parents to counteract those messages and teach our children the lessons around gender we actually want them to learn. We must be very intentional, as the societal messages that we are trying to counteract are strong.
You may not know your children's gender
We may think we know what’s going on with our child’s gender, but that may not be the case. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most children, regardless of their gender, have a stable sense of their gender identity by age 4, but if a child falls outside of traditional gender norms, it may take that child longer to be able to communicate about their gender. They may have a general feeling of “being different” but are not clear how. It may take them years to have the language, or to be exposed to role models, before they can articulate their authentic gender. And it may take even longer than that for a child to share this information.
Many children explore gender for years before sharing anything at all with their parents or other family members, if they choose to do so at all. If a child has only been exposed to the misconception that gender is binary—i.e., that there are only two options of boy or girl--and they don’t feel like either one of those describes who they are, think how confusing that might feel. But if they are taught from a young age that there are a variety of genders, including boys, girls, non-binary genders, gender fluidity or no gender at all, they will have the opportunity to think about where they fit in, instead of just feeling “wrong.”
Give your children permission to explore their gender
Because societal notions about gender are so narrow, children need their parents and loved ones to give them the opportunities to explore their gender and explicit messages that it is OK for them to do so. This means providing all options of toys and activities from the time they are very young. It’s fine if your child only wants to play with trucks, as long as trucks aren’t the only type of toy they are offered or encouraged to play with. The same applies to activities as our children get older. Pay attention to what activities you offer to your children. For example, who is offered hockey and football? Who is offered dance and sewing?
We want to be careful not to make assumptions about our children’s preferences without checking in with our kids first. For example, when you go to buy clothing, don’t automatically head to a particular department. Instead, stand somewhere in the middle and ask your child where they want to start or what clothes look interesting to them. Or pick up a shirt from an unexpected department and ask your child if they like it. At the very least, this will spark a discussion so you can emphasize that colors don’t have genders and clothes don’t have genders--only people have genders!
Allow your children’s gender to evolve over time
Gender can evolve over time. As our children are out in the world and online, they are exposed to new role models, ideas, and language related to gender. They may see themselves reflected in ways they haven’t seen before, or something new they learn may resonate with how they are experiencing their gender. Sometimes we don’t know what feels right for us until we “try it on”--this can apply to a style of clothing as well as pronouns, names and identity terms we use to describe ourselves. We as parents need to be flexible and allow our children to grow and evolve in their gender, as we encourage them to grow and develop in other parts of their lives.
Talk with all of your children about their gender
Many parents think we only need to talk with our kids about gender if they are transgender, non-binary, or obviously exploring gender in some way. However, we need to talk with all of our children about gender because every child has a gender and can feel restricted by the gender messages they receive from family or society.
It can be intimidating to talk with our children about gender. We may feel we need to be an expert before even raising the topic, but that’s not the case. In fact, it is impossible to know everything about gender because terms and understandings are always evolving. Instead, we should demonstrate to our kids that we want to learn along with them. Show our curiosity. Asking questions is a great way to hear the ideas about gender our children already have and young people often like to be our teachers.
Share your own gender stories with your children to prompt conversation. Bring up gender depictions in media to encourage critical thinking about roles and stereotypes. Read and talk about books that address gender. These strategies can create opportunities to talk about gender in ways that allow children to express their thoughts more freely, without having to talk about themselves if they don’t want to.
By proactively bringing up conversations about gender, we are communicating that we care, we are interested in gender, and we are creating space for our children to feel safe with us. The goal is to keep the lines of communication open about gender so we can be included in their gender journey instead of left out of the process entirely, or worse, left with a damaged parent-child relationship.