Talking About Gender Identity With Kids

Published by Sally Palmer on

Talking About Gender Identity With Kids


If human anatomy makes you squeamish, please find a different blog to read. This post isn’t for you.

**There are SO MANY amazing transgender artists and songs, but I have to start with one of the original “gender benders,” David Bowie. If you want more, click here for musical suggestions.**

Gender. Biological sex. Boy or girl? If you are currently pregnant or have children, you’ve probably had friends, family members and complete strangers ask you about the gender of your unborn child. There are gender reveal parties which involve cakes with sugary layers announcing the color that corresponds with your child’s genitalia; elaborate bridge lighting ceremonies, confetti cannons, colored golf balls, t-shirts; the list goes on and on. There are online quizzes and this myth that boys are carried low and girls are carried high in the belly (or is it the other way around?). You can combine your urine with red cabbage to figure out the gender, or buy a test at a drugstore. Evidently the food you crave during pregnancy will tell you whether it’s a boy or a girl. Obviously, I’m going to ask why? Why is there so much hype about your child’s physical gender? I can assure you that your baby has no idea what a penis or vagina is, let alone why it’s such a big deal. 

Most of the parents I’ve questioned have some sort of response ready, like “I like to be prepared,” (NOTE: Nothing prepares you for parenting, nothing) or “I would like to narrow it down to either girl or boy names,” or “I want the room to be ready.” Okay. Let me get this straight – you need to know your child’s physical gender so you can put them in the “right clothes” or so they can have a completely gendered room/life experience straight out of the womb? What if your son doesn’t like blue, or what if they actually don’t identify as their biological gender?  Some people swear that it doesn’t matter if their baby is a boy or a girl, just that they’re healthy, but they’d also like to just, you know, know.

I’m pretty convinced that ultrasound technology is partially to blame for this obsession, as well a strong societal pressure. For reference, ultrasounds were first administered on humans in 1956 in Glasgow, Scotland. Before the 1950s, ultrasound machines were used primarily on ships, to detect structural flaws. Today, you have to opt out of an ultrasound and beg the technician to not tell you the gender; they are completely standard procedure. 

In the context of gender identity, or the understanding that gender is your personal sense of identity (not related to having a penis or vagina), the emphasis on knowing a baby’s gender is extremely destructive. In most cases, the gender identity of the child will match their body, but what if it doesn’t? How do you undo all of the gendering that occurred before the child was even born? Short answer: you can’t undo it; and I think this is why “coming out” can be an incredibly terrifying and traumatic experience. Your whole life has been informed by a heteronormative, cisgendered expectation and now you have to define yourself as other, with the fear that your family members and friends won’t accept you. We can do better; nobody should be afraid to live their truth.

As parents and members of society, we have the power to create a different outcome. We can talk about gender in an open and loving way, making room for a healthy conversation about identity. To illustrate my point, I’ll share a little bit of my story. For starters, I didn’t want to know the gender of my child before they were born. It truly didn’t matter to me and I had to constantly defend my choice to “not know.” I’d be in the grocery store and some stranger would ask me if I knew what I was having. My response: “I’m having a baby.” Sometimes this would stop the next question, but generally it progressed to “But is it a girl or a boy?” I laugh now, thinking about my responses. They ranged from, “I have absolutely no idea” to “Well, it’s something, but definitely not a cat.” 

Once my first baby was born, we had to pick a name, mainly because we couldn’t leave the hospital with an unnamed baby (we were in Texas, after all). It took us at least two days to come up with a name and it wasn’t on any list we had made (another hint to expectant parents: sometimes the name does not fit the child). We went home with a healthy baby in completely gender neutral clothing, with a gender neutral name.

As my baby grew, people would still ask me if my baby was a boy or a girl, or they’d just go with whatever gender seemed to fit. I generally went along with the gender they had chosen, mainly because it really didn’t matter – my baby had no sense of gender. Plus, people feel this weird sense of shame or embarrassment when they misgender a baby, so my Minnesotan sensibilities didn’t want anyone to feel bad. Once my child had identified as male, they would correct strangers when they were misgendered and I would just continue my shopping trip (these things always happen in stores).

Fast forward three or four years to my child’s first year at school. By this point, I had already introduced gender as a fluid ideology. I mainly talked about the physical manifestation of gender, such as boys playing with dolls and wearing skirts or girls roughhousing, climbing trees and having short hair. By normalizing a gender spectrum, I think I opened the door to a very smooth “coming out” or transition into a different understanding of self. When I think about it now, I wasn’t purposefully teaching gender identity or a gender spectrum; my goal was to teach empathy and an understanding that all people are different, inside and out.

It was around this same time that my child started to have suicidal tendencies. They would state that something felt wrong in their body and that they didn’t know what it was. In hindsight, it all makes perfect sense, but at the time we had no idea what it was. My child had already been diagnosed with anxiety and was a hyper-intelligent kid. I thought that their anxiety might be the root cause, so I started giving them magnesium and 5-HTP to bolster their serotonin levels. Despite my nutritional interventions, my child continued to randomly experience these really dark feelings, leaving them sad and helpless. I would always relay these moments to their art therapist and other holistic practitioners, with the hope that someone would help me “figure it out.”

I can’t say what the exact trigger was for my child, or if they stumbled upon information on the internet that resonated with them, but this past February, my child came out as transgender. It didn’t happen in an ideal situation (I had a migraine and we were in rush hour traffic on the way to an appointment), but it went something like this:

K: Mama?
Me: Yes?
K: I want to be a girl.
Me: You do?
K: Yeah.
Me: Okay.
K: *silence*

Me: How did you figure out that you wanted to be a girl?
K: I don’t know. I just don’t want to be a boy.
Me: You know what?
K: What?
Me: I love you so much. You are so brave and amazing and I’m lucky to have you.

We then proceeded to have the most beautiful conversation about gender. I would ask questions and my child would think for a while before responding with a completely heartwarming answer. We talked about gender confirming surgery, changing names, getting new clothes, talking to their teacher at school, etc. etc. The most amazing aspect of the conversation was that there was no anxiety whatsoever. As I’ve repeated to other people, it was as if my child had said, “I need a new pair of socks,” instead of “I want to be a girl.” I think I cried for about two weeks after our conversation because my parenting decisions (to this point) had been positively affirmed. I had done something right. 

It’s been about eight months since our first conversation, and my child has shifted their identity from transgender to gender fluid or gender non-conforming. They’ve also switched pronouns to they/them and changed their name at school, which has gone really well (*fingers crossed*). We are in the midst of relaying all of these changes to important people in our lives and everyone has been incredibly supportive. I get a lot of questions, but they are mainly inquisitive and not harmful. Most people are just amazed that someone “so young” could understand gender identity and have such a strong sense of self. I’m not surprised at all, though. Kids are much more receptive and in tune with their bodies than adults realize. Oftentimes, children just don’t have the language to explain their emotions or life experience. When given enough information, unconditional love and a safe space to talk about important topics, kids will engage in healthy conversations. You just need to give them the right tools and allow them to be true to themselves.

Addendum: For those of you who wonder if my child is gender non-conforming because I didn’t assert a strong gender ideology before and after birth – I have two kids. I have raised both of them the same way in regards to gender identity and expression and my younger child firmly identifies as female. Obviously, she is free to change her mind at any point in her life, but she currently identifies as a girl who loves climbing trees, rolling down grassy hills and playing soccer in sparkly dresses and high heel shoes. 

Resources for Parents

Great Books for Kids