The conversation about gender is constantly improving and evolving, making younger people more aware of the gender binary than a decade ago. However, not every parent is properly equipped or informed to address the gender binary with their kids or pupils. This article will guide you through the different ages and the conversations you can have or encourage with nowadays children, whether you are a parent or a teacher.
In order to talk about gender identity with children, we must know as adults the definition of gender identity.
The European Institute for Gender Equality defines gender identity as follows:
"Each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth, including the personal sense of the body (which may involve, if freely chosen, modification of bodily appearance or function by medical, surgical or other means) and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech, and mannerisms."
This definition is based on the definition contained in Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.
The concept of gender identity and gender expression is a matter of Human Rights, which makes it essential to be openly talked about and discussed with children from a very young age.
If you are a parent or teacher
Being a parent or a teacher has its different challenges, one of them is being able to hold space and dedicate time to openly talk about everything that a kid might be concerned about or have questions about.
There's extensive research showing how important it is for children to have the freedom to interact with many kinds of clothes, toys, and activities. It has been proven to bring them a better emotional balance and improved results at school.
It is an ongoing debate and educational commitment to protect children from sexism and gender stereotypes, even before discussing the idea of gender and concepts such as trans or nonbinary people.
So when and how can you start the conversation?
Before starting to talk, it is essential to give and show all the possibilities and toys that exist to your children or pupils. During this age range, playing is a form of communication and toys are the vocabulary they will use to play and express themselves.
Thus, giving children many options allows them to explore and share their interests and feelings, so offering a wide range of toys at an early age is ideal for them to role-play in a variety of genders or occupations.
Asking encouraging questions is also essential during this period because it makes them feel safe sharing their feelings and identity with you. Do not ridicule any role or occupation your kid is playing at.
During this age, many parents, or teachers teach children about body parts, this exercise should include genitals along with hands, legs and any other body part. As well as, simple statements like “most boys have penises, but not all do,” and “lots of girls have a vulva and vagina.” These set a larger standard about genitals and how they are, neither the beginning nor the end of gender identity. This leaves enough inclusion space for intersex children, who are 1.7% of people, allowing for more conversation later on.
Not all children can assert their gender confidently during this period, some are able to do it much later in adolescence and even later. Regardless of at what age they will do it, always take their assertions seriously and into consideration, never ignore or minimize them. During this period, remain curious about your child, keep asking them what does it mean to them to use or choose certain clothes or toys –keep checking in.
During this time period, children are more sensitive to categorization, division, and social rules. This is because they might take for granted dominant narratives without questioning if the narrative applies to only a group of people, thus enforcing them as common rules. This is why the gender binary is more impactful during this period of time, depending on what they consume at school, on the media and any other relevant surroundings.
Media literacy is a very powerful and important tool during this period because it can be taught as a reminder that one narrative does not necessarily fit everyone's narrative. They will be many opportunities to ask, “Why do you think someone made the story this way?”. This will reinforce that what they are reading, watching or hearing is not the ultimate rule, but rather a story told by one person.
Because children are more prone to categorize and classify hastily, it is very valuable to speak often and explicitly about gender and sexism. Saying and tying statements to your family's values with clear language will help kids focus on the messages shared within your family above the ones received through media or classmates. For example, “this song says that boys don't cry, but in our family, we know that it is healthy to feel our feelings.”
At school, dividing children by 'boys and girls' reinforces the gender binary. Little changes, like addressing a class as 'pupils', 'students' or 'friends' and separating randomly or alphabetically, ease the division. As a teacher, it is very important to consider this and apply it at every age, but during this period these small changes are significant in the longer term.
During this period, children are able to understand more nuance in complex concepts and are more interested in asking and discussing them. This is a very good period to talk about sexism and gender bias not only as a personal prejudice but also as a system embedded in society that devalues women and girls. This is also a very good age to discuss how contextual gender rules are and have been over time and history in different civilizations. For example, pink was considered a masculine colour until the 1940s, or the archaeological evidence showing that makeup was used by all genders when it was invented in 4000 BCE.
Take every opportunity to keep the lines of communication about gender open. If you have forms or questionnaires to fill, do it with your child and ask them openly what they would like to fill in the gender section. Even if they have always been expressing a cisgender identity, you are giving them the constant opportunity to open up or take in new information, and that you would like to hear it. Note that some children who have a trans or nonbinary identity become very good at hiding it –even from themselves– in order to not upset their families.
The early teenage years are focused on fitting and being accepted, whether you started this conversation at an early age with your child or you are just getting started, it is always possible to build gender-related conversations. At this age, for teens of all genders, it is noteworthy to support your children in their thinking about gender by asking lots of questions related to their feelings and values–even if there are topics with which you won't agree.
Because the teenage years can be difficult and a lot of changes are happening as your kid grow, the most important thing is to make sure they know they are loved and supported just as they are.
More helpful tips for adults
If you believe that you are going through a more difficult time or situation or do not feel informed to address these questions or topics. Here is another list of useful and significant steps you can do as a parent or as a teacher.
When you find yourself in a situation where your child is transgender and identifies as a girl rather than a boy or the other way around, this can be challenging. It becomes even more difficult if your child is suffering from gender dysphoria– a concept designated in the DSM-5 “as clinically significant distress or impairment related to a strong desire to be of another gender, which may include a desire to change primary and/or secondary sex characteristics.” Talking to a professional mental health therapist or specialist will help you and your child to talk about it and find solutions available for their current health and distress.
Professionals are a great way to also channel and speak about your difficulties and challenges as a parent or teacher when facing situations that are new and related to gender identity and self-expression.
The use of pronouns
In every social situation, the use of language and how we address one another is a sign of respect and recognition. As a teacher or parent, pronouns play a larger role because they are a way of recognizing a person gender identity in group settings, which is essential at school. Always introduce yourself with your pronoun, this will encourage students to do it too!
Search for resources
Raising and educating children can be a challenge, but all the resources exist to constantly educate ourselves and understand how the new generations are evolving and discover the concepts that are related to gender identities, such as transgender, nonbinary, girl, boy, pronouns, assigned sex birth, dysphoria, gender expression, gender-fluid and more.
This is also a great opportunity to find a diverse array of information, articles, videos, movies, artists, or activists that address these concepts. You might even be able to ask your children to share with you if there are artists or personalities they relate to, and discuss the topic together. This can be a good way for parents or teachers to start the conversation with their children or pupils and ask relevant questions. It is important to remember that we can also learn from them!
This is part of schools education, but also of parenting education. Being able to identify when your children want to say or communicate something, is crucial to establish a constant, healthy and open conversation related to gender, where they feel fully supported, loved and heard.
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