Many parents are intimidated about talking about gender with their children, which is understandable especially if they have no knowledge of the topic. Even parents who do their research about gender identities and expressions worry about being misunderstood or creating more confusion about a potentially complex topic. However, no matter how difficult or intimidating this seems, they have the responsibility to teach their kids about gender one way or another.
Gender stereotypes are learned at an early age. Kids are taught what or how both men and women should be, which can be damaging in the future. If these ideas are not challenged, children will grow up believing that men should be tough while women are weak; women should only wear ‘decent’ clothes; men should never cry, and many more. These ideas are sometimes unconsciously taught to them by their parents or teachers. Often, they learn them from television, video games, and music.
The “Watching Gender: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids’ Development” report by Common Sense Media revealed that gender stereotypes play a big role in teaching boys and girls what the culture expects of them. According to CNN, an American news-based pay television channel owned by AT&T's WarnerMedia, the report was based on more than 150 articles, interviews, books, and other studies.
The findings showed that children between the ages of 2 and 6 learn stereotypes about toys, skills, and activities that are typically associated with each gender. They start attributing certain qualities to women and men, like men are aggressive and women are emotional, when they reach the ages of 7 and 10. Jayneen Sanders, an author and advocate for gender equality and education at home and in schools, said that gender stereotypes continue to be reinforced to kids every day.
"And because the adults in these children's lives see and perpetuate the same messages, gender stereotyping continues to be reinforced in our homes and classrooms," Sanders said.
Fortunately, there are several ways parents can teach their children about gender diversity.
Learn About Gender Identity and Gender Expression
To teach children about gender diversity, parents have to understand the difference between gender identity and gender expression. Dr. Diane Ehrensaft, a developmental and clinical psychologist who has studied gender since the late 1960s, explained that that gender identity is someone's internal sense of who they are — whether that be a woman, man, somewhere in between, or none of the above.
On the other hand, gender expression is how someone chooses to present their gender to the outside world. This includes expressing themselves through their names, clothes, interests, and many more. According to Mashable, a digital media website, it’s important that kids understand these concepts to avoid confusion. Understanding these can also make kids express themselves in a healthy manner.
Also, when talking about gender, parents need to avoid talking about them out of fear. Kids can tell when you are avoiding a topic because you’re uncomfortable with it.
Incorporate Gender Inclusive Language Into Your Daily Vocabulary
It’s easy for children to digest or learn everything they see or hear at such a young age. They can learn about gender easily when parents use gender-inclusive language. For instance, instead of using terms like “opposite sex,” parents can use “people of all genders.” You can also teach them that not all men have penises and not all women have vaginas by letting them know some or most boys have a penis and that some or most girls have a vagina. When asked about the ones that don’t, use this as an opportunity to teach them about transgenders, people who don’t identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.
Aside from that, parents can teach their kids about nonbinary people or genderqueer. It is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. According to Parents.com, it’s important to teach kids that it’s not necessary to fit into the confines of a binary, male, and female world. Mara Iverson, director of education at LGBTQIA advocacy group Outright Vermont, said that recognizing nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people is another cultural shift that is a normal part of the change.
"A century ago, women in the United States generally weren't permitted to wear pants, accessing higher education was rare, and they were still months from having the right to vote,” Iverson said.
Get Comfortable with Not Knowing All the Answers
Often, parents are afraid to talk about gender with their children because they don’t know all the answers. However, experts say that this is totally fine. Parents can use this as an opportunity to learn together with their kids. When asked something that you don’t know, you can say: “Hmm. that’s a good question. Let’s talk about it together and see what we come up with.” In this way, you are encouraging your children to explore their questions while you guide them.
Also, this can be a great opportunity to help your child develop critical thinking skills. Parents can guide the conversation with questions or comments about things you do feel comfortable in your knowledge of. You can also bond with them while learning about gender even more.
Weave Conversations About Gender Into Your Daily Life
It’s easier for children to understand gender identity and gender expression when they are talked about often. Sit-down lectures sometimes may not work well for young children who have trouble paying attention for long periods of time. Dr. Laura Edwards-Leeper, a clinical psychologist, said that popping in bite-sized lessons during relevant, everyday moments can be very helpful.
Edwards-Leeper shared that she manages to incorporate gender topics every day. When walking by someone who looks like a man but has long hair, her children have both said, "that's a girl." She would then correct them by saying, "Actually, we don't know what that person's gender is. We don't know if they identify as a man or a woman, or something else." Talking about things like this can help normalize conversations about gender.
At the end of the day, it’s always important that parents help their children understand gender diversity. This can help them understand people and avoid misjudging or discriminating against them. "Being able to live in your authentic gender is a human right, and it's not a disease," Ehrensaft said.