How to Explain Gender Identity to a Child

Published August 11, 2022
couple with daughter reading book at home

Many people believe that only members of the LGBTQIA+ community have a gender identity. However, that's not true. In fact, every person in the world has a gender identity. Some people just might not have the words to describe it.

Talking about gender and gender identity with your kids can seem like a daunting task. There might be new concepts and vocabulary words that you need to learn yourself before you can teach another. However, it's an important conversation to have in order to help kids learn more about themselves, the world, and different communities. Learning the key information below can help you navigate talking to your child about gender identity.

Step 1: Educate Yourself About Gender Identity Terms

Before you teach your kids about gender identity, it might be helpful for you to learn a bit more about the concept yourself. This may even give you a better understanding of gender identity and prepare you to answer any questions your child might have. One way to do this is to explore the definitions of gender and gender identity.

It's important to keep in mind that gender expression, sex, and sexual orientation are all separate terms that are not interchangeable. A person's sex refers to the reproductive organs someone was born with, which medical professionals use to label a person as male or female. A person's sexual orientation refers to who they are attracted to. A person's gender expression refers to the way they dress and express themselves to the world. It can include what kinds of clothes a person wears, how they style their hair, and even how they act or speak.

Gender

Gender is a social construct, meaning that it is determined by the culture, climate, and views of society. For example, society views certain things as feminine, such as ballet and the color pink. While it views other elements as masculine, such as cars and the color blue.

These perceptions of gender can be damaging because they can prevent people from pursuing their interests if those interests are typically aligned with male or female constructs. In addition, gender perceptions cause them to be targets of bullying when they try to break away from what society deems as 'normal.'

Oftentimes, people mistake sex and gender as being interchangeable. However, these concepts are not the same. A person's sex (male or female) refers to the reproductive organs they were born with, while a person's gender (boy or girl) is something that they can choose.

Gender Identity

The definition of gender identity is a person's view of their internal self. It reflects how they feel and see themselves on the inside. For example, a person can identify as male, female, both, neither, or even identify as something else. It all depends on their own perceptions. And, a person's gender identity does not have to align or be defined by the sex they were assigned at birth.

It's important to remember that a person doesn't have to use just one gender identity label. For example, gender can exist on a spectrum, where sometimes a person identifies as male, while at other times they might identify as gender fluid.

In addition, some people combine aspects of gender identities together. For example, a person who identifies as gender fluid may want a more specific label, such as masculine gender fluid or feminine gender fluid. This depends on how they view themselves and how they want to be perceived by others.

Binary Gender

The gender binary refers to the concept that society operates around a two-gender system, which, for many cultures, is male or female. Society usually places people in either of these baskets depending on aspects of their physical appearance, such as their reproductive organs.

Nonbinary

The term nonbinary is often used to refer to any gender identity that does not fall within the gender binary. For example, a person who identifies as neither male nor female might consider themselves to be nonbinary. Unlike the gender binary, whether a person identifies as nonbinary is not solely determined by their outer appearance.

Step 2: Explain Gender and Gender Identity to Your Child

After you have learned about the distinctions between gender and gender identity, you may be ready to have a discussion with your child. Tell your child that you want to have an important conversation with them. Then, plan a time to sit down and talk. Take whatever time you need to fully understand the definitions before having the conversation. The more prepared you are, the more you can answer your child's questions.

How to Explain Gender to a Child

Gender can seem like a difficult word to explain because it reflects ideas held by an entire society. And, depending on the cultural context, some ideas about gender can change. Research shows that children can recognize and label stereotypes of gender between the ages of 18 and 24-months old. This means that your child may already have a good sense of what society genders as male and female, but they just don't have the words for it. You can use yourselves, toys, and even sports as examples. Some ways to discuss this are:

  • Gender is something that society has decided represents boys and girls. That's why a lot of people think that blue is for boys and pink is for girls.
  • You know how adults decide what's 'right' and 'wrong'? Gender is the idea that there is a 'right' and 'wrong' way to be a girl or boy, which is decided by how a person dresses, acts, or even because of what colors they like.
  • Gender is what people believe is true about boys and girls. For example, many people might think it's normal for a girl to want to play with makeup and for boys to want to play with cars. However, both boys and girls can play with whatever they choose.

How to Explain Gender Binary to a Child

After you talk to your child about what gender is, you can talk to them about the gender binary. Introduce the term and ask them what they think it means. After you give them a chance to respond, you can explain further. By explaining the binary gender meaning, you can start to introduce the idea to your child that there are more than two genders that people can identify as. Some ways to explain this are:

  • The gender binary means that many people in society think there are only two genders. For example, any person, activity, or way of dressing is considered either masculine or feminine.
  • Binary means that there are two of something. In this case, it means that many people think there are only two genders people can fit into, which are boy or girl.
  • The gender binary only gives people two options on what they can be: boy or girl. However, a lot of people don't believe they fit into these categories.

How to Explain Nonbinary to a Child

Once your child understands that society typically operates around labeling things as masculine or feminine, you can introduce the idea that some people break that stereotype. This can inch them a bit closer to being ready to understand the concept of gender identity as a whole. Some ways to discuss this are:

  • Some people don't view themselves as either a boy or girl, and they might not feel masculine or feminine.
  • Some people don't use the labels of boy or girl. They might feel like a combination of both, or they might feel like neither.
  • The gender binary has this expectation of what boys and girls should do or what they should look like. However, some people don't follow those expectations, and they don't want to.

How to Explain Gender Identity to a Child

Children develop an innate sense of gender identity as they grow older and understand more about themselves. If your child is above the age of three, odds are that they are ready to begin the conversation. You can even use yourself and your child as examples when you have the conversation. Ways to discuss this are:

  • Gender identity is a label for how you see yourself and for what you want to be called.
  • No one can ever tell you what your gender identity is. It's something you decide for yourself.
  • On the inside, I feel like I'm a woman, so that's what I identify as. How do you feel on the inside? What do you identify as?

Step 3: Explore Different Gender Identities With Your Child

There are numerous gender identities. It may be helpful for you and your child to explore a few definitions to get a better sense of the different ways that people can identify. This can also be used to supplement their understanding of both gender and gender identity.

You can walk through each of the gender identities and read their definitions with your child. Or, you can choose a few and discuss whichever ones you pick. Give examples and be prepared for them to ask questions. Although, it's okay if you don't have all the answers.

If some of these gender identities are new to you, you can delve into a unique experience to learn alongside your child. Together, you can talk through definitions and swap examples. Your child doesn't need to memorize all of the gender identities. However, it's a good way to introduce them to the idea that not everybody identifies the same or views gender in the same way. And that's what's important. Following are terms and explanations that will help you explain gender identities to your child.

Gender Non-Conforming

A person that does not follow the stereotypical concepts that society holds for men and women may consider themselves to be gender non-conforming. They do not allow society to influence how they should look or act based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Someone that identifies as gender non-conforming might mix traditionally masculine and feminine aspects together.

Cisgender

Cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth, as well as follows society's expectations surrounding gender roles. For example, a person who perceives themselves as a woman and that was born with female reproductive organs would be considered cisgender.

Transgender

Transgender refers to a person whose gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth and who may not correspond with the gender roles expected by society. For example, a person who identifies as a woman and was born with male reproductive organs would be considered transgender.

In addition, transgender is used as an umbrella term. It refers to any individual whose internal sense of self differs from society's expectations about what someone of their birth sex should do. Many people who identify as trans also identify as being a part of the LGBTQIA+ community.

According to research, about one in every 250 people identifies as either transgender or nonbinary in the United States alone, which is about one million Americans. Researchers predict that these numbers will continue to rise as more people understand gender and gender identity.

diversity Girl standing back and holding rainbow flag

Genderqueer

A person that identifies with a gender outside of the gender binary, which is often referred to as a third gender, might identify as being genderqueer.

Genderfluid

Genderfluid is when a person experiences fluctuations in their gender identity. For example, at one point in time, they might identify as male and at another, they might identify as nonbinary. It's fluid because their identity might change on a sliding scale. A person can also identify as masculine gender fluid or feminine gender fluid depending on their own preferences. These masculine or feminine attributes may influence the way a person dresses or acts, but it doesn't have to.

Agender

Agender is a term to describe a person that experiences an absence of gender. People that identify as agender may consider themselves to be genderless. Agender individuals may not feel as though they truly connect with or are represented by other gender labels. In addition, a person can also identify as masculine agender or feminine agender, depending on how they see themselves and want to be presented.

Bigender

Bigender refers to an individual that may experience and identify with multiple genders. For example, a person who experiences aspects of both male and female genders may identify as bigender.

Step 4: Talk About Ways to Respect a Person's Gender

After your child knows that there are more genders than just boy or girl, you might find it helpful to talk about ways to respect these communities. Even if your child is cisgender, they may know a family member or meet a new friend who isn't. When this occurs, it's important for them to know how to respect and support a person and their gender identity.

Standing Up Against Bullying

Individuals that identify as transgender, or trans, face a high risk of bullying. According to the Human Rights Campaign and research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 43 percent of transgender youth have experienced bullying at school. In addition, 29 percent of transgender youth have attempted suicide. Studies continuously show that people who identify as trans experience higher rates of violence and victimization and experience poorer levels of mental health.

Talk to your child about bullying and cyberbullying. Let them know it's okay to speak up when they see someone being bullied or encourage them to tell an adult whenever they can. Talk about how everyone should be treated equally and that no one should experience harm due to their gender identity.

Respecting Pronouns

Pronouns are a type of noun that references a person whenever you don't use their name. Common pronouns are she/her/hers or he/him/his. For example, when you introduce someone new to a friend, you might say something like, "This is Sally. She likes to run track." The 'she' in the sentence is the pronoun. You might want to walk your child through a few more examples to make sure they understand what a pronoun is.

Your child might be wondering why pronouns are important. People that identify as trans, nonbinary, or labels other than cisgender are often referred to with pronouns that they do not use. This is called misgendering. Many people who bully trans and nonbinary individuals misgender them on purpose as a way to cause harm. However, people can also be misgendered accidentally.

Sharing Your Own Pronouns

One way to prevent this is to teach your child to share their own pronouns and ask others what pronouns they use whenever they meet someone new. Some ways to do this are:

  • Hi, it's really nice to meet you. My name is Betty and I use she/her pronouns.
  • Welcome to our class. I'm Mark and I go by he/they. How should I address you?
  • Thanks for joining my team. I'm Sarah, and my pronouns are she/her/they/them. What pronouns do you use?

People share their pronouns so that others don't assume their gender or how they want to be addressed based on their physical appearance. When you share your own pronouns, you invite others to share theirs, as well, so you don't have to guess and potentially misgender someone.

Different Types of Pronouns

There are several different types of pronouns that people can use. You can show this list to your child to give them a better sense of how someone could introduce themselves. Some examples include:

  • She/her/hers - Can be used by people who identify as female.
  • He/him/his - May be used by people who identify as male.
  • They/them/theirs - Some people who identify as nonbinary, genderqueer, or genderfluid might choose to use they/them pronouns.
  • e/em/eirs - 'E' rhymes with 'he', em rhymes with 'them', and 'eirs' rhymes with theirs. It's a gender-neutral pronoun often used by people that don't identify as male or female.
  • Per/per/pers - A gender-neutral pronoun that stems from the word person. It can be used to identify someone of any gender identity or gender expression.
  • Ve/ver/vis - 'Ve' rhymes with 'he', 'ver' rhymes with 'her', 'vis' rhymes ith 'his'.This gender-neutral pronoun has been used since the 1970s.
  • Xe/xem/xyrs - 'Xe' is pronounced 'Z' as in zebra, 'xem' rhymes with 'them', and 'xyrs' rhymes with 'theirs'. This is a gender-neutral pronoun.
  • Ze/hir/hirs - 'Ze' rhymes with 'he', 'hir' pronounced like 'here', and 'hirs' pronounced like 'heres'. It's a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to anyone.

People can also combine pronouns to better express how they feel on the inside. For example, someone can identify as she/they, he/her, or they/ze.

Tips for Talking to Your Child About Gender Identity

Are you nervous about talking to your child about gender identity? If so, you're not alone. It can feel like a lot to have to learn new information yourself and then turn around and teach that to your child. Luckily, there are some things to keep in mind that may make the conversation easier.

Explain Things Clearly

There are a lot of vocabulary words and new information that your child may be taking in. For this reason, it may be helpful to keep explanations and definitions clear and simple. This can help ensure that your child is truly understanding what you're talking about. After you explain or discuss one topic, have them explain it back to you to check their understanding. Ask them if they have questions throughout the conversation. And, it's okay to let them know that you might not be an expert on the topic.

Use Examples

Try to use examples when you talk to your child about gender identity. Even if they say they fully understand what you're talking about, it can still be helpful to have something to relate it to. You can use yourself and how you identify and ask your child questions about themselves to start the conversation. Draw things out on paper if you have to. Or, use examples of other people that are a part of your child's life. If your child asks for more information about a term, don't be afraid to pull it up on the computer. You might not be able to come up with an example for everything, and that's okay.

Explain Why It's Important

Gender identity is important for many reasons, and it may be helpful to your child to learn more about why you started the conversation. You can explain how everyone has a gender identity. And, you can talk about respecting the gender identity of others and treating them with kindness. You can also talk about the LGBTQIA+ community and how gender plays a big part in it. Also, it's okay if you or your child don't fully understand everything about gender identity. You don't have to fully understand something to respect it.

Ask About Their Preferences

After you have talked to your child about gender and gender identity, ask them about their preferences. How do they identify? How would they like to be addressed? What pronouns would they like to use? Are there any activities they want to try that they have been avoiding because of gender stereotypes? This can be a great opportunity for you to learn more about your child and how they see themselves. Based on their responses, you might want to make some changes in your household.

Go Easy on Yourself

Talking about gender identity and fully understanding all of the labels is not easy. You may make mistakes, and that's okay. There's no such thing as a perfect parent, and it really shows that you're putting in the effort by just trying to have this conversation with your child. There might be moments where you stumble, but just get back up and try your best. Go easy on yourself.

Return to the Conversation

After you have this first conversation about gender identity with your child, your work might not be over just yet. It can be helpful to return to the conversation at a different point in the future. This will give your child more time to better understand how they see themselves and relate to the idea of gender. Also, when you start the conversation again, it may give your child the opportunity to share their personal updates with you. And, it can take some of the pressure or stress off of them when you open the door for conversation.

Resources for Kids and Parents

You don't have to have all the information yourself. There are several kinds of resources to use to supplement your conversation about gender identity. Whether you want to learn more from an educational resource, or you want to help your child's learning, there are plenty of tools out there to help you do just that.

Online Educational Resources

Do you want more information about gender, identity, and how to support people of diverse genders? There are several organizations dedicated to sharing information to help educate the public. Some resources you might find helpful are:

Children's Literature Resources

A great way to supplement your conversation with your child is to explore stories through children's literature. Not only will this give your child more examples about gender identity, but it can help prolong the conversation and make respecting and understanding gender identity a part of your household. Some children's books surrounding gender identity and expression are:

Video Resources

There are several videos that you can watch with your child to help you both learn more about gender identity, pronouns, and the gender binary. Some resources you may want to check out are:

Gender Identity Is Just Another Conversation

There's no right or wrong time to talk to your kids about gender identity, and most kids develop their sense of gender identity between the ages of three and five. You might want to start the conversation before they begin kindergarten to help them be more respectful to other classmates and learn about themselves. It can be an ongoing conversation that you return to periodically to check in.

At the end of the day, a talk about gender identity is just another conversation. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself or your child. Know that each of you is putting in the effort to educate yourselves and be the best human beings you can be. The more you know, the more you can help your child know. Together, you can learn more about yourselves and the world one conversation at a time.

Was this page useful?
Related & Popular
How to Explain Gender Identity to a Child