Gender is messy. In the hands of children, it’s even messier. Kids call he’s “she’s” as if anything goes, then turn around and make fun of boys in princess dresses. If you’re like most parents, you don’t know how to react when your kid says something weird and uncomfortable about gender. But the way you respond builds a philosophy. That philosophy shapes how your kids interact with the world. If you don’t want to raise a kid that buys into sexism and transphobia, you have to make sure you’re not inadvertently leading them down that path.
To raise tolerant kids who don’t feel held back by who they are, there are general guidelines to follow in all discussions of gender, says Diane Ehrensaft, a developmental and clinical psychologist who focuses on kids and gender. The guidelines lead to healthier children who feel confident in their self-expression and have room to explore it. One of the goals that influence the guidelines is reducing children’s belief in gendered stereotypes, which is beneficial because surveys have shown that kids that believe in the stereotypes report lower life satisfaction than others. “All children need the opportunity to explore different gender roles and different styles of play,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Now the guidelines: First, don’t tell your kid what to think. If they greet you with eye rolls or argue when you say girls can drive trucks too, they must have an understanding that’s different from yours. Ask questions about why they believe what they believe to get to the root of the issue. “Listen to kids about their experience with gender, and use that as the beginning of the dialogue,” Ehrensaft says. When it’s time to answer their questions or push back at their assumptions, read the room. If they’re asking an offhand question, they may zone out if you launch into a lecture. Keep it short and sweet.
Here’s how to respond to kids’ questions and statements about boys, girls, and gender creativity.
“He Looks Like a Girl”
The Issue: Saying that a boy looks like a girl or vice versa assumes that there are certain ways boys and girls should and should not look. Children who believe this may bully kids that break from the mold. They’re also unlikely to explore their own style beyond what they think they’re supposed to wear and do. In other words, they’re already limiting themselves based on their gender.
The Response: “Why do you think that person looks like a girl?”
Maybe your kid thinks a boy looks like a girl because they have long hair. Pointing out male characters or real-life men and boys they know with long hair can help the child realize that long locks aren’t just for girls.
“Is That a Boy or a Girl?”
The Issue: No one likes to be the butt of this question. But if your kid is asking, they have a genuine curiosity. They’re trying to learn the gender rules, but they’re stuck in thinking in two clear boxes of boys and girls. In reality, not everyone fits into those boxes.
The Response: “I don’t know. You would have to ask them.”
This answer makes it clear you can’t guess what someone’s gender is based on appearances. Because gender identity (what’s inside) may not be the same as gender expression (what’s outside). And assuming it is can be harmful.
“Princess Dresses Are for Girls.”
The Issue: On a larger scale, this is the sort of thinking that makes girls believe they can’t be scientists or boys believe they can’t be ballet dancers. But even when you’re just talking about clothes, kids are a lot healthier when they’re allowed to explore their gender expression creatively, Ehrensaft says. “Kids do better when they are free to express their gender as they know it to be, and they do worse when you stop them from doing that,” she says.
The Response: “Actually, princess dresses are for anyone who wants to wear them.”
Sometimes you have to help kids realize their own stereotypes. If they push back when you insist anyone can wear a princess dress, that’s when you start asking questions to find why they think that.
“Boys are Mean”
The Issue: Though you don’t want to #NotAllMen your daughter, you also don’t want her to believe in stereotypes. Yes, there are a lot of boys who are mean. But there are girls that are mean too. And there are boys and girls who are nice.
The Response: “Tell me about the boys in your class… Do you know any boys that are nice?”
If George and Felix are chasing girls around the playground and pulling their hair, your daughter is right. But after she vents about those kids, ask about the other boys in her class. Are there any that are kind? What about the boy who helped her get the nurse when she got hurt on the playground? Use this approach for any sort of gender generalization, whether that be “boys smell bad” or “girls are bad at sports.”
“Boys Stay Here And Girls Go Over There.”
The Issue: Anything that assumes there are only boys and girls is a problem because not every kid fits into those boxes. There’s a lot more variation than that. And when kids don’t understand this, they may bully kids who don’t line up.
The Response: “Let’s try something different. Everyone who likes ice cream better stays here, and everyone who likes cookies better goes over there.”
Get away from binary language that leaves out gender creative kids. And if this is something your school’s teacher is saying? Propose this small change.
“I Love Uncle Michael! She’s the best.”
The Issue: When toddlers are learning language, they may not understand what different gendered pronouns mean. Messing them up is a normal part of their development. But should you correct your kid?
The Response: “Uncle Michael uses the pronoun ‘he’ because he’s a man, and most men use ‘he’ pronouns.”
If you know what pronouns Uncle Michael uses, you can definitely correct your kid. “How will they know what gender pronouns mean if we don’t teach that?” Ehrensaft says.
“Your Son / Daughter Is So Cute!”
Sometimes your kid isn’t the one messing up gender, but is actually the target of adults who don’t quite get it. So, what do you say when someone says, “Your son is so cute!” about your bald baby daughter?
The Response: “Thank you!”
In most cases, there’s no need to correct strangers about your kid’s pronouns. If your child is too young to tell you that they’re a girl or a boy or neither, correcting someone can actually be harmful. Because what if your kid doesn’t actually identify with the default gender you’ve been assuming? Tell a stranger “My child is a girl!” can make that kid feel unsupported if your guess ends up being wrong. This is true even for young kids because they can start to understand gender in the first year of life, Ehrensaft says. And if your kid is old enough to be picking out their own clothes or haircut, maybe they’re subconsciously sending out a gender signal the stranger is picking up on.
The one time you do want to correct the stranger is if your kid wants you to. If hearing “Your son is so cute!” makes your child upset, a correction is in order.