Talking to your kids about gender identity
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
This Pride Month, many parents are wanting to know how they can best help their kids as they navigate their own identity and sexuality. As these issues are becoming more and more relevant in today’s world, it is important to know how to best support, care for, and validate those in the LGBTQ+ community. While each child is unique, we’re addressing common questions you may have in this month’s blog.
Before we discuss further, it’s important to update our understanding of the terminology that has shifted over the past 20 years. Here are some important definitions:
Gender: Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls, and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviors, and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl, or boy, as well as relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time. (1)
Sex (also called assigned sex): Assigned sex is a label that you’re given at birth based on medical factors, including your hormones, chromosomes, and genitals. Most people are assigned male or female, and this is what’s put on their birth certificates. (2)
*when referring to someone’s assigned sex, the terms “assigned female at birth” or “AFAB” / “assigned male at birth” or “AMAB” are often utilized.
Gender identity: One’s innermost core concept of self, which can include identification as a man, a woman, a blend of both or neither, and more ways individuals perceive themselves, as well as what they call themselves. (3)
Cisgender: Describes a person whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. (3)
Transgender: Sometimes used as an umbrella term to describe anyone whose identity or behavior falls outside of stereotypical gender norms. More specifically, it refers to an individual whose gender identity does not match their assigned birth sex. (3)
Nonbinary: This is a gender identity that embraces a full universe of expressions and ways of being that resonate with an individual. While it is an umbrella term (encompassing many gender identities that don’t fit into the man-woman binary), it’s often used to describe someone whose gender identity can’t be described as exclusively woman or man. (4)
Sexuality (sexual orientation): This refers to the romantic or sexual attraction to people of a specific gender(s) and/or sex(es). It is important to note that sexual orientation and our gender identity are separate and distinct aspects of our overall identity. Even if a child is not yet aware of their sexual orientation, they will typically have an awareness and sense of their gender identity. (3)
LGBT: Abbreviation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. An umbrella term often used to refer to the community as a whole. *Note that this abbreviation can also include “Q”, which represents those who are “questioning” (exploring their identity). (5)
As mentioned before, sexuality is not the same as gender identity. Someone may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, etc., regardless of what their gender identity is.
Now that we have a better idea of the terminology, below we cover some of the most common questions parents have about their kids’ gender identity.
When does gender identity develop?
There are different stages of childhood during which you can typically expect certain aspects of gender identity to develop:
2 to 3 years old
While it may seem early, many children are already aware of the differences between girls and boys at this age. They can also typically identify themselves as a “girl” or “boy” - which may or may not match the assigned sex at birth.
Children may identify as one gender or may alternate between gender identities. Kids may alternate and switch often, sometimes within the same day - which is all considered normal and healthy.
4 to 5 years old
Starting at 4 years old, children become more aware of gender expectations or stereotypes - for example, that certain toys are only for girls or boys.
Some children may show strong gender expression at this time, i.e. a child may insist on wearing a skirt every day or refuse to wear a dress, even on special occasions.
6 to 7 years old
Children whose gender identity matches their assigned sex at birth may reduce outward expressions of gender - this is because they feel more confident that others recognize their gender. An example of this would be a girl who does not feel she has to wear skirts every day because she knows she will be seen as a girl no matter what she wears.
Those who feel their gender identity does not match their assigned sex at birth typically feel increased social anxiety at this time, as they want to fit in with peers but have conflicting feelings about their own identity.
8 years old and up
By this age, most kids will continue having a gender identity that matches their assigned sex at birth. This is not solidified, as pre-teens and teens will continue to develop their gender identity with feedback from their environment (family, friends, etc.).
As puberty starts, some may make efforts to show or “downplay” some of their body’s physical changes. Some may find that their gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth as puberty begins and their body changes.
During this time, parents are encouraged to remain open with their children and allow them to express themselves, as they may identify differently over time.
How do kids express their gender?
There are many ways that kids will express themselves and their gender. Examples of ways children may express this include:
Their sense of style (clothing, hair, makeup, etc.)
Their choice of toys, games, and sports
Their social relationships, including the gender of peers/friends
Their preferred name or nickname
*Note that gender expression is not the same as gender identity. Children may explore different interests or ways of expressing themselves, but should not be used as a way to assume their gender identity.
How can I make a gender-inclusive environment for my child?
Often, parents subconsciously transfer their own gender biases to their children. This includes designating certain traits to girls, such as being “fragile” or praised for their looks, while encouraging boys to always be strong. Regardless of your child’s gender, creating an inclusive environment for your child allows them space and support to explore their identity.
Here are a few ways to do just that:
1. Equal treatment
The first way to create a gender-inclusive space is by making sure everyone is treated equally. One way to do this is by making sure all your children are involved in household tasks, regardless of gender. There are two aspects of chores that are crucial:
a. Children, regardless of gender, should help equally with household tasks
b. Children of any gender can and should help with both indoor and outdoor tasks
Equity with chores provides children with several things - first, it demonstrates that everyone in your household holds equal responsibility and is not limited to a specific “role”. It also helps to dismantle some of the associations kids have about “who does what”. And it’s not just with chores, either - whether it’s playing, reading, or eating together, boys and girls should participate equally.
2. Reconsider gendered toys
Instead of assigning your child toys according to gender, provide them with a variety of toys with the option to play with whichever they choose to. While it may not seem like a big deal, the toys we allow our children to play with are what we are telling them to learn from. If boys are only allowed to play with toy cars and play action video games, they are implicitly learning that they shouldn’t be able to explore softer sides of themselves. Diversifying the toys your child plays with is not just to help them explore their gender, either - it is meant to create a healthier sense of self regardless of gender identity. Toys can teach kids important and somewhat unexpected skills; for example, dolls can help boys practice empathy and teach them more about caretaking roles. Regardless of if your child is unsure of their gender identity, allowing them to explore roles and experiences through different types of toys creates an inclusive environment.
3. Lead by example
Just as we talked about chores being important for children to understand gender roles, it is also important as parents to show this firsthand. Splitting up responsibilities with your partner in equal ways, such as Dad being involved in cooking or Mom playing outdoor sports with the kids, helps set the tone for the household.
4. Avoid harmful language
In addition to leading by example, the language we use is incredibly important to our children. Avoid making jokes or saying phrases that enforce gender stereotypes, such as “stop crying like a girl” or “stop being a drama queen”. We sometimes don’t think about the repercussions of a small comment or “harmless” joke, but our kids take those words seriously. Not only do they reinforce strict gender stereotypes that can make a child feel boxed in, but those comments and jokes can also make them feel less safe around us. The most important part of monitoring our language is that we make sure we aren’t strongly assigning and asserting gender identities onto the child. If your daughter begins to wear less “feminine” clothing, avoid calling her a “tomboy” - allow the child to tell you who they are.
How can I support my gender non-conforming/transgender child?
There are a few Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to supporting your child.
Treat your child’s gender expression as a form of defiance or rebellion
Prevent your child from expressing their gender in public or at family activities to avoid your or someone else’s discomfort
Try to “punish” the child as a way to shame them out of their gender expression
Restrict your child’s access to gender-inclusive friends, activities, or resources
Blame your child for any discrimination they experience
Ridicule or minimize your child’s gender expression or allow others in your family to do so
Believe your child when they share this information with you
Ask them open-ended questions like, “What does this mean to you?” and “How can I best help you?”
Speak about your child positively in front of them and around others
Show respect and appreciation for your child’s identity and expression of it
Encourage them to make friends in the LGBTQ+ community
Reach out for support from parent groups, therapy, and other community resources
Most importantly, you want to show your child that the lines of communication are always open for them to share their experiences with you. While what they share with you may not line up with what you envisioned for them, try to let go of specific fantasies you may have had about your child’s future - it’s important to instead focus on what fulfills them and provides them with a strong sense of self. If you find yourself struggling to grapple with these changes, reach out to a support group or therapist who can help you work through these issues.
“Gender and Health.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/health-topics/gender.
“Sex and Gender Identity.” Planned Parenthood, https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/gender-identity/sex-gender-identity.
“Starting Conversations with Your Kids about Gender Identity.” Goop, https://goop.com/wellness/parenthood/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-gender-identity/.
Abrams, Mere. “What Does It Mean to Be Nonbinary?” Healthline, Healthline Media, 3 Feb. 2022, https://www.healthline.com/health/transgender/nonbinary#what-it-is.
“General Definitions.” LGBT Resource Center, https://lgbt.ucsf.edu/glossary-terms.
The Swaddle. “Gender and Sexuality Terms: A Sensitive Glossary for Parents.” The Swaddle, 13 Jan. 2020, https://theswaddle.com/queer-meaning-gender-sexuality-glossary-parents/.
“Gender Identity.” Caring for Kids, https://caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/behavior-and-development/gender-identity.
8. Kamenetz, Anya, and Cory Turner. “Sparkle Unicorns and Fart Ninjas: What Parents Can Do about Gendered Toys.” NPR, NPR, 26 Mar. 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/03/26/705824731/sparkle-unicorns-and-fart-ninjas-what-parents-can-do-about-gendered-toys.