The Freedom to Be: How to Talk to Your Kids About Gender Identity Development

As your child grows up around all types of people and navigates their own gender identity development, here’s how to teach them to be respectful and welcoming.

Between 2006 and 2016, the number of openly transgendered Americans doubled. In recent years, we’ve seen the conversation about pronouns, including “they/them/their” pronouns, grow as more people have come to embrace gender identity over assigned sex.

What does all of this mean and how do we talk to our kids about it? As parents, we want to raise children who are accepting and kind. We also want to make sure that we are supportive and understanding as they explore who they are.

It may seem like there is a lot of terminology surrounding gender identity, expression, and pronouns. When you break it down, it’s pretty easy to understand!

Read on to find out more about gender identity and how to talk to your kids about gender identity development!

Assigned Sex vs. Gender Identity

If your kid comes to you with questions about gender identity development, the first thing you should do is explain the difference between assigned sex and gender identity. 

By age two or three, most kids know the difference between “boy” and “girl.” They probably have some understanding that this has something to do with their “private parts” (or whatever you choose to call them in your household). Chances are, they also have some understanding of the connection between “boy” and “girl” and the sex organs associated with those genders.

Explain to them that we tend to assume that people with female sex organs are girls and vice versa. Then explain that gender identity isn’t defined by a person’s body but rather who a person feels that they are. Tell them that sometimes, our assumptions are wrong. 

In other words, assigned sex has to do with the way our body is when we’re born. Gender identity is the gender that makes sense to us, that makes us feel like our true selves. Assigned sex is biological, while gender is not.

Gender Expression

It won’t be as hard as you may think to explain gender expression to children. They interact with it every day and implement gender expressive behaviors, themselves.

Gender expression is how you show or express your gender to yourself and others. You may express your gender through your behavior, your appearance, your name, and your pronouns. 

When you talk to your kid about gender expression, use it as an opportunity to check in with them. Ask them how they think they express their gender. They may say their clothes, their hair, even the toys they like.

Once you have a list of things your kid associates with their own gender expression, talk to them about how those things make them feel. If they express discomfort or unhappiness with any of those things, ask them if other options would make them feel happier or more like themselves.

Because kids tend to mirror the behaviors they see around them, they might not realize that they have other options than the ones they believe are available. Having the space and opportunity to try out different styles of gender expression can be very helpful to their gender identity development!

Different Gender Identities

If your kids don’t have the proper tools to discuss different gender identities, they may be confused when encountering transgender or nonbinary people. Let’s discuss some of the ways that you can explain different gender identities to your kids!

Transgender

If a person’s assigned sex does not correspond with their gender identity, they may identify as transgender. Sometimes you will hear this shortened to “trans.”

A trans woman is a person who had male sex organs at birth and identifies as a woman. A trans man is a person who had female sex organs at birth and identifies as a man. 

An important thing to understand about transgender people is that sexual reassignment surgery is not necessary to validate their identity. Remember that gender expression is the way that we show our gender and that can mean different things to different people! The most important thing to instill in your kids from the get-go is to respect a trans person’s preferred pronouns and chosen name.

Nonbinary

Like all gender identities, the meaning of “nonbinary” depends on the preference of the person who identifies as nonbinary. For example, some nonbinary people don’t identify as a woman or a man. Other nonbinary people may feel more like a woman on some days and more like a man on others.

Whether nonbinary people reject both genders or feel a fluid connection to both, they will most likely prefer “they/them/their” pronouns. Why? Because these pronouns are inherently ungendered!

Learning About Gender Identity Development Respectfully

Kids and even adults have a tendency to ask a lot of questions of people who are different from themselves. Even when you have the best of intentions, you can make people uncomfortable by turning them into a learning tool.

Unless someone invites you to ask them questions about their gender identity, seek out alternative resources. The internet is a wealth of information! You can find tons of articles written by trans and nonbinary people that they willingly wrote and that will provide a lot of insight!

For example, if you’re looking for more resources on nonbinary identities, seek out articles or other works created by nonbinary people. This can help you to answer the question, “What is being nonbinary?” without making the nonbinary people in your life uncomfortable. 

A Quick Word About Sexuality

You may be wondering, “How does sexuality fit into all of this?” Just like assigned sex and gender identity are separate things, gender identity and sexuality are separate things!

Sexual orientation refers to the gender(s) you are typically attracted to sexually and/or romantically. Your gender identity may determine the word you use to describe your sexual orientation (for example, a trans woman who is attracted to women may identify as a lesbian), but otherwise, they’re not inherently linked!

How to Be Supportive Throughout Gender Identity Development

There are two key components to understanding gender identity development and behaving kindly. The first is understanding what gender identity is and how different people identify. The second is knowing how to make the people around you comfortable.

Teach your kids to always use a person’s chosen names and pronouns. If they’re not sure, it’s okay to respectfully ask! Teach them not to misgender people and to politely correct themselves if they do.

Children are often accepting and quick to adapt when they learn new things. The best thing you can do is give them the tools to accept themselves and others!

For more helpful parenting tips, check out our other posts!

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