In the delivery room, about 11,000 times a day, some OB is announcing, “It’s a girl!” Dad runs out to paint the nursery pink (or a delightful mauve) and then waits about 13 years with a shotgun on his lap until the first boy comes a courtin’. But the idea that “it’s a girl” or “it’s a boy” is the end of the gender discussion is outdated. Society is now coming around to what mental health professionals have known for a while: your kid has a biological sex (i.e. a penis or a vagina), which is distinct from their gender identity.
“[Gender identity] is unique, subjective, and you can identify as both or neither,” says family therapist Jean Malpas, who is a member of the Ackerman Institute for the Family and serves as the director of their Gender And Family Project. “Some of us are cisgender, some are transgender, and there’s a difference between how we feel and the way we’re born.”
This might seem overly nuanced or weird to you — it might even seem flat-out wrong to you. But the most important thing to understand about the difference between sex and gender is: it’s not about you. “The more accepting a family is, the better kids are going to do now and in the future,” says Malpas. “Family acceptance decreases the risk of suicide 8.3 times in teens. Kids who are not accepted have a much higher risk of killing themselves. Children who are celebrated for who they are will build a strong confidence and they’ll be better equipped to handle a harsh world.”
“Family acceptance decreases the risk of suicide 8.3 times in teens.”
It doesn’t matter if your son has a penchant for playing princess or your little girl loves construction equipment. Their gender identity is as much a part of them as you being their parent.
When Do Kids Start Identifying Their Gender?
“Gender identity develops really young,” says Malpas. “Kids are able to differentiate between men and women by age 2, and they also start recognizing their own gender. Studies have shown the realization between gender variance and the assigned gender at birth peaks between the ages of 3 and 7.” This is one of the reasons why programs like the Gender And Family Project start education as early as kindergarten.
It’s Not A New Issue
Transgender identity may appear to be an issue du jour with shows like Transparent becoming mainstream hits, but that’s only because the language and climate to talk about it didn’t exist previously. “The social development of kids is changing with access to the Internet. Kids wrestling with identity and development gets younger and younger,” says Malpas, who sees this change consistently from one generation to the next.
So if you don’t understand all this “political correctness” and prefer the good old days when ‘men were men,” you’re on the wrong side of history. Because there were a lot of kids in the Greatest Generation who wished they could have really expressed themselves.
Gender Is What It Is
“You can’t make or break your child’s gender identity,” he says. “Teachers or parents ask if they can change it. You can have an impact on their comfort with expression, or make it hard for them to tell you who they are. But you can’t change their inner self. Let them lead the way and choose the safest roads for that to be affirmed. Guide the kids toward a self-development path.”
How They Might Approach You
You prep yourself for those tough question days, like “Dad, why is the sky blue?” “Dad, what is beyond outer space?” Or, “Dad, why did Ben Affleck star in another comic book movie?” But as Malpas says, one question they don’t often ask is about their gender identity. “Most often what we hear are statements like “I am a boy” or “I am a girl,” and they make statements very young. They don’t say “I want to be a boy or a girl.”
“You can have an impact on their comfort with expression, or make it hard for them to tell you who they are. But you can’t change their inner self.”
When these questions do crop up, your kid is usually asking you to confirm their identity. They’ll come up with gems like “I have a penis, does that make me a boy?” or, “When I grow up will I have breasts like mommy?” Of course, depending on how awesome your dadbod is, you could point to yourself as proof that boobs have nothing to do with biological sex.
He, She, And They
When a young kid feels their gender doesn’t match their parts, they start to feel anxious in a world that draws clear lines between what boys do and what girls do. This isn’t just about pink and blue, or which potty door to go through — it can start with pronouns.
“Young kids have their own evolution and realize they don’t feel comfortable with pronouns,” says Malpas. “They create their own pronouns — it can get silly. One child wanted to be called a unicorn. A lot of them use “they,” because they feel a little he and little she. So they say, “One plus one is 2. So, I’m a they.”
Gender Norms Are Everywhere
“We have rules, both conscious and unconscious, about what boys can and can’t do,” says Malpas. “We’re ‘doing gender’ all the time in what we ask kids. In the colors of their clothes. In the kind of activities they do. If you put girl clothes on an infant boy, people will have certain ways of describing that child, like ‘they’re pretty.’ or ‘they’re calm.’ If you put boys clothes on a girl, the same people will describe them with ‘energy,’ or a ‘little terror.'”
If the idea that you’ve been inadvertently tormenting your kid just by using language that’s perfectly normal to you has your head spinning, that’s understandable. If you want to grapple with that — as opposed to, you know, denying your kid their feelings — Malpas recommends 2 documentaries: The Mask You Live In, which tackles contemporary notions of masculinity, and Miss Representation, which does the same for femininity. Not on that watchlist: Everything about the Legends Football League.