Educator ResourcesResponding to Concerns: Teaching About Gender
“You can make a difference for all of your students by being intentional in the ways you approach teaching about gender.
Concerns and Responses
Why should my child learn about gender at school?
- Views and language about gender are changing rapidly. In addition, our children are encountering diverse presentations and experiences of gender almost everywhere they turn – among their classmates and friends, across social media, in popular culture, as they interact with the everyday world and increasingly in their own families. To not give them a way to make sense of that experience is to leave them unprepared to interact with the rest of the world. Just as we help young people make sense of other examples of difference they encounter, so too must we give them the tools to make sense of this aspect of life as well.
- School is a place where children are taught to respect one another and to learn to work together regardless of their differences. Learning about gender diversity is part of that work. Our students are growing up in a world that is increasingly recognizing the diversity of gender. Creating a more tolerant, inclusive, and accepting school environment teaches all children to recognize and resist stereotypes. We teach children to stand up for others, to resist bullying, and to work together.
- We also know that many children whose gender is seen as different than what is expected of them can face very difficult circumstances. Too often teasing, bullying, and violence are common experiences for a gender-expansive child. A growing number of school districts and states specifically prohibit bullying and harassment of students based on gender expression or identity. Furthermore, various federal, state and municipal laws protect students from discrimination because of their gender. Proactive education and training to help students understand gender diversity more fully helps school districts meet those legal obligations while working to create a safer, more supportive learning environment for all students.
Isn't my child too young to be learning about gender?
- Children are already learning about it. Messages about gender are everywhere, and children receive very clear messages about the “rules” for boys and girls, as well as the consequences for violating them. By learning about the diversity of gender, children have an opportunity to explore a greater range of interests, ideas, and activities. For all children, the pressure of “doing gender correctly,” is greatly reduced, creating more space for them to discover new talents and interests.
- Whether in or out of school, children will encounter other children exhibiting wide ranges of gender expression. This is normal and, with a little reflection, we can all recognize it as something we encountered during our own childhoods as well. Tomboys or shy, sensitive boys are commonly recognized examples of children who buck societal expectations of gender expression. These children, and all children, deserve a safe, supportive learning environment in which they can thrive and empower themselves.
If you are talking about gender, aren’t you discussing reproduction and sexuality?
- The simple answer is “no.” When we discuss gender, we talk about what people like to wear, the activities they engage in, and how they feel about themselves. This is not sexuality. Sexuality involves physical intimacy and attraction. Gender is about self-identity. Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of where they fit on the gender spectrum. This includes all kids, “typically” gendered or not.
- If responding to questions that arise about physical sex, the discussion uses phrases such as “private parts,” and even if anatomical terms come up, nothing specific to human reproduction or sexuality is taught. For the most part, children are simply not raising these questions. While as adults, we struggle to separate the ideas of gender and sexuality (primarily because many of us were taught that they are one and the same), children have an ability to grasp the complexity of gender diversity because sexuality does not factor in to complicate their understanding.
Ideas about gender diversity go against the values we are instilling in my child at home. Are you trying to teach my child to reject these values?
- Absolutely not. Our children encounter people with different beliefs when they join any community. While one aim for learning about diversity is to become more accepting of those around us, not everyone is going to be best friends. That does not mean that they can’t get along and learn together.
- The purpose of learning about gender diversity is to demonstrate that children are unique and that there is no single way to be a boy or a girl or any other gender. If a child does not agree with or understand another student’s gender identity or expression, they do not have to change how they feel inside about it. However, they also do not get to make fun of, harass, or harm other students whose gender identity or expression they don’t understand or support.
- Gender inclusive education is about teaching students to live and work with others. You do not need to fully understand another person’s experience to treat them appropriately. It comes down to the simple agreement that all children must be treated with kindness and respect.
Won’t my child get confused if we speak about more than two genders?
- Experience shows that, with developmentally appropriate information, children of any age are able to understand that there are more than the two gender categories frequently recognized by our society. When it is explained to them in a simple, age appropriate manner, gender diversity is an easy concept for children to grasp.
- When we help children see that various aspects of gender – whether one’s identity, expression or body – is different for different people, it does not confuse them. Instead, it gives them confidence that as they come to understand their own gender, there does not exist one right answer or journey to which they must adhere. Far from creating confusion, this reality allows them to take pride and honor their own as well as others’ gender experiences.
- When you discuss gender with your child, you may hear them exploring where they fit on the gender spectrum and why. This shows that they understand that everyone may have some variation of gender expression or identity outside of stereotypical norms. Their use of language or their reflections about their own gender may surprise you. In fact, you may find that they have language and experiences with the topic that are quite informed. We encourage all parents to approach these discussions with an air of openness and inquiry.
Don’t gender-expansive kids have lots of problems? Is being transgender or gender-expansive a product of abuse, emotional problems, neglect, divorce, or detached or over-involved parents?
- No. While it is true that some transgender and nonbinary people do experience a tremendous amount of societal abuse and parental/community rejection, this is not the cause of their gender identity or expression. Rather, when not supported, children whose gender expression or identity is considered atypical often suffer from loneliness, lower self-esteem, and other negative feelings. Statistics reveal the devastating impact these youth face when placed into non-supportive or hostile settings.
- A gender-expansive child’s emotional distress is a response to the mistreatment they have likely faced from those around them. It is not at all uncommon to see a gender-expansive or transgender child’s distress greatly reduce or disappear when they’re provided with a more positive environment that acknowledges their experiences as authentic.
Won’t allowing children to express non-traditional genders cause them to be teased or harassed?
- While there is a great deal of data suggesting that gender-expansive youth do face teasing, there is a growing body of knowledge that points to the impact gender-expansive education can have on reducing that mistreatment. If children are being treated badly because of who they are, the answer is not to try and prevent them from being themselves. Instead, we should ask what needs to be done to address the teasing. Providing educational programming and training that expands students’ understanding about stereotypes and limitations of self-expression can go a long way to preventing teasing.
- If children are being mistreated because of their gender, there is a likelihood that children displaying other forms of difference are probably also being mistreated. The degree to which a school environment is accepting of gender diversity may well indicate just how welcoming the school is for all students no matter who they are.
Won’t discussing gender encourage my child to be transgender?
- Being transgender is not something that a person chooses. Studies show that although parents cannot make their child transgender (or gay for that matter), they can deeply influence how their children feel about themselves. No one can “make” another person become a particular gender; gender is highly personal. This one reason why practices such as conversion or reparative therapy have been discredited by every major professional mental health association, as well as deemed illegal in a growing number of states.
- Quite to the contrary, parental pressure to enforce gender conformity can damage a child’s self-esteem and is a high predictor of negative health outcomes and risk-taking behaviors for youth. Transgender youth currently have an extremely high attempted suicide rate: some estimate it being as high as 50 percent. Discussing gender will have the effect of removing much of the pressure students face to fit into narrowly defined expectations that few if any can actually meet.
If transgender people are so “normal”, why are some families so private about it?
- A family with a transgender child will decide together how much they wish to share with others. Many transgender children prefer to live their lives as the gender that reflects their internal gender identity without using the word “transgender.” For example, the child would identify themselves as a girl or boy as opposed to a transgender girl or boy. In many cases, they simply want to be seen as another boy or girl, not a transgender boy or girl. Their gender is only part of what makes them who they are.
- Some children and families are open and share this with everyone in their lives. Others choose to maintain a sense of complete privacy, while still others find a blend of these two approaches. In most families, this decision will be determined jointly by the child and guardian(s), often in collaboration with a medical, mental health, or other professionals experienced in this area.
- If a family honors their child’s wish for privacy, this can be misinterpreted as secrecy, or even shame. In reality, it may be an effort to avoid potential stigmatization or to simply keep a very personal topic private. Maintaining privacy is everyone’s right and a very personal decision that each family typically makes after careful consideration and conversation.
How can I correct or modify the impression I have already given my child about gender?
- It is powerful to let children know that we don’t know the answer to everything, and to reinforce that adults as well as children are always learning. Having conversations with your children that reflect your growing understanding is wonderful. It does not undermine your parenting. If you were to discover that you had unknowingly taught your child another form of misinformation about other people, you would correct the impression you had mistakenly given them. With gender, it is no different. Gender diversity is something that both society and science are constantly exploring and understanding more deeply.
I don’t really feel like I know how to answer my child’s questions.
- Once again, explain that you are learning about this too. It is important, however, to monitor and understand your own feelings before you initiate this kind of conversation. Children can pick up on your feelings towards a subject. So, if you are still feeling uncomfortable about the concept of gender diversity, then consider taking additional time to increase your understanding. Read, talk to others, and further educate yourself. When you have greater understanding and increased awareness, then you will likely feel more confident to talk with your children.
- Answer children’s questions simply, and let them take the lead in how deep the conversation goes. Most children are satisfied with this approach. They will guide the conversation from there and rarely ask the complex questions that occur to adults. You may be surprised at how simply children navigate this terrain. Some parents have found responses such as, “Hmmm, I am just learning about that myself. Let me tell you what I know, and then if you would like to learn more, maybe we could do that together,” to be helpful in opening up pathways for further discussion.
Also read our article, "Responding to Concerns: Supporting Transgender Students"