Illustration: Pete Ryan
The first day of school is a mix of new experiences for most kids, but Phoenix Washington*’s introduction to kindergarten in suburban Massachusetts left them with an all-too-familiar feeling: the feeling of not belonging. From being asked to sit boy/girl/boy/girl on the carpet to gendered washroom choices, Phoenix (now 12) felt “just really tired of having to explain that I’m non-binary, over and over again, and then explain what that means, and that yes, it’s definitely a real thing.” Phoenix’s mother, Chantal*, had sent an email to the school ahead of her child’s first day, but no one from school followed up—leaving her five-year-old with a lot of work to do.
Today, there are considerably more resources for families with children—even as young as Phoenix was—who express a clear, strong sense of their gender in a way that’s not a typical pairing with their assigned sex at birth. As conversations about gender improve and evolve, young people are more aware of the gender binary (and their relationship to it) than children were a decade ago. However, Ruth Koleszar-Green (Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan), an associate professor in the School of Social Work at York University and student of Cree and Mi’kmaq Two-Spirit elder Blu Waters, reminds us that before colonization, children had the right to choose and express their gender and this was common and accepted.
“It used to be that when you went to a new place, you would look for the Two-Spirit people there,” says Koleszar-Green. “It was a sign of a healthy community if some people held that role, and those individuals were valued and respected.” Koleszar-Green goes on to note that while children who are raised understanding a variety of gender options aren’t more likely to express a trans or gender-independent identity, they are more likely to develop personal resilience and confidence around their own choices—and the choices of others. For former US Marine Edgar Ware, who now lives in Gravenhurst, Ont. and has both a trans child and a young trans grandchild, this is great news, since he’s seen firsthand how difficult it can be for people who break from the gender norm. “When I was in the service, you always knew a few fellows who were different like that,” says Ware. “But they were scared, you know? They weren’t free. They didn’t feel like they could ever be free, because of people’s judgments."
There’s extensive research showing that children who have the freedom to interact with many kinds of toys, clothes and activities have better emotional balance and do better in school. And yet stores with gendered clothing sections and pink and blue toy aisles immediately show that there’s still work to be done in this area. Protecting children from sexism and gender policing can feel like a full-time job before we even start discussing the idea of trans or nonbinary people. So how (and when) to begin?
“All children’s play is communication, and the toys we provide to children are vocabularies,” says Helen Hargreaves, a Toronto-based child and family therapist with a master’s degree in social work. Hargreaves explains that baby dolls are a vocabulary of nurturing, superheroes and action figures are a vocabulary of power, train sets are a vocabulary of problem-solving and so on. Giving children many options allows them to explore and share their interests and feelings, so offering a wide range of toys at this age is ideal.
Hargreaves also notes that, at this age, children role-play and play pretend in a variety of genders, occupations and even species (as anyone whose child has ever declared themselves a kitty will recognize). Asking kids who announce that they are now a dog/astronaut/boy, “What does that mean to you?” is encouraging (rather than saying, “That’s silly”), and it helps children feel safe telling you about their feelings and identity.
This is also an age range where many parents teach their children about body parts. When doing so, you should include genitals along with shoulders, knees and toes. As well, a simple statement of “most boys have penises, but not all do,” and “lots of girls have a vulva and vagina,” sets a standard early that genitals are not the beginning and end of gender identity. This also leaves room for the inclusion of intersex children, who make up roughly 1.7 precent of people, and the opportunity for more conversation later.
Three is also not too young for a child to have a clear sense of their gender identity. Research shows that while some children don’t feel firm in their gender identity until adolescence or even later, many children at this age can confidently assert themselves as a girl, a boy or neither of those. There’s no downside to trusting that your child understands their own gender, regardless of whether it matches their assigned sex at birth, so don’t ignore or minimize their assertions. Instead, stay curious, keep asking questions about what that means for them—would they like to try different clothes, hairstyle or toys?—and keep checking in.
In this age group, children are learning the “rules” of the world. As well, their thinking can be quite rigid and binary, which can lead them to take the things they observe and enforce them as common rules. For example, they may assert that “girls have long hair and boys have short hair,” based on what they see in the media they consume, even if they have an immediate family member who doesn’t conform to that “rule.”
Media literacy can be a useful tool in interrupting these thoughts. Hargreaves recommends watching shows and reading books along with your children and taking many opportunities to ask, “Why do you think someone made the story this way?” This reinforces to children that what they see in a book or on TV isn’t necessarily a rule, but rather one story being told by one person. Hargreaves says this is especially helpful in narratives where gender representation supports sexist notions—for example, when there’s only one girl among a bunch of boys, or even none at all—or when the discussion of gendered traits doesn’t match your family’s values.
Because children of this age are sensitive to categorization and division, it’s valuable to speak explicitly and often about gender and sexism. Saying “Everyone’s equal” isn’t nearly as useful as statements like “It used to be that women weren’t allowed to do certain jobs, but today women can do any job, and we’re glad about that” or “Some people say that boys shouldn’t cry, but in our family we know that it’s healthy to feel your feelings.” Tying statements to your family’s values with this language helps kids to focus on your messages above those they receive through media or classmates, because they feel invested in your family.
Research by Rebecca Bigler, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, shows that counting or dividing children by perceived gender at school, or even calling them as “boys and girls,” reinforces the gender binary. Even little changes like addressing a class as “friends” or “students” and separating them alphabetically eases this division, so you might consider checking in with your children’s teachers about making these small but important changes.
As children reach the older end of this age range, their need to categorize people and things begins to give way to the values their family and caregivers reinforce, regardless of gender identity. Jake Somerville, an Ontario dad of two daughters—one of whom is trans—tells a story of their four-year-old trans daughter saying, “I want a new dress—something pink and sparkly and really girly,” and their cisgender daughter, who was six years old at the time, saying, “Pink can be for anyone, not just for girls.”
In this age group, kids can understand more nuance in concepts and are more interested in discussing them. Talk to them about sexism and underline the fact that while sexism is often a personal prejudice, it is also a system embedded in society that devalues women and girls. For example, strength tests used by firefighters value the kind of strength men typically have (lifting the heaviest thing one time) over the kind of strength that women typically have (lifting something lighter but doing it a hundred times), which is why it’s harder for women to become firefighters. This is also a good age to discuss how contextual (and subject-to-change) gender rules and roles have been over time; for example, archaeological evidence shows that makeup was used by all genders when it was invented in roughly 4000 BCE, and pink was considered a masculine colour until the 1940s.
Washington, in discussing how family and friends have responded to Phoenix’s gender identity, says that she feels people accepted her nonbinary child’s gender identity and expression more because Phoenix was assigned female at birth, and that this is sexist in its own way. Sociological research done in the late 1970s by Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna supports her feeling: Because our culture values masculinity, we accept girls who are “boyish” more readily than boys who are “girly,” because the girls are seen as doing something more valuable and the boys are seen as making themselves less valuable. You can push back against this by making sure that your gender messaging includes not just “girl power” but also validation that boys can be nurturing, express their emotions and show caring and tenderness.
To keep the lines of communication about gender open, Hargreaves recommends parents try this: Fill out forms for camp, school or activities with your child. When you get to the question of gender, ask them, “Should I put boy, girl or other?” Even if your child has always expressed a cisgender identity, this reinforces the idea that if there’s new information, you are open to hearing it. Hargreaves also notes that some children who have a trans or non-binary identity can become very good at hiding it—even from themselves—in order to not upset their parents. Leaving this avenue open for all children, regardless of your current understanding of their gender, has value.
Because fitting in and being accepted becomes essential in this tween and early-teen age, the work you’ve done at the younger ages will be even more valuable to build on in your gender-related conversations. (And if you’re just starting, don’t worry—you can loop in some of the lessons from the earlier ages as you proceed; there’s still time to do great work.) Researcher Ann Travers, an associate professor in Simon Fraser University’s anthropology and sociology department, points out in their book The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution that trans and non-binary young people are especially at risk of violence and ostracization in this age group, and that peer pressure exists in both positive and negative forms—children may be punished for gender-non-compliant behaviour or rewarded for behaving in socially “acceptable” gendered ways.
At this age, a key message for tweens of all genders is that they are the experts on themselves and their own identities. Researcher j wallace skelton, a PhD candidate at University of Toronto and consultant on gender policies for organizations like the Special Olympics and Girl Guides, says middle school students are old enough to understand themselves well despite often being told they are too young to know anything yet. Support your children in their thinking about gender by asking lots of questions as they sort through their feelings and values—even if they say something you don’t agree with.
Hargreaves supports this and adds that young people in this age group often make statements to test for a reaction. So if your child says, “Jennifer says she’s going to play football, but that’s ridiculous; football is a boys’ sport,” you’re better off saying, “Interesting. Is that what you think or what someone else said?” or “How do you think Jennifer would feel to hear you say that?” This will reinforce the idea that you’re a good sounding board for their thoughts, which brings more chances to discuss your values about gender.
Overall, a consistent message—in both words and actions—that gender rules are optional and that transgender and non-binary people exist and are valid and valuable in the world will serve kids of any age. Hargreaves reminds us not to be tempted to try to encourage children to conform to the gender typically paired with their assigned sex just because the world is safer for cisgender people. Caregivers and family members are the most crucial supports for a child, and hearing these messages from them actually harms kids more than hearing it from strangers. “Don’t be your child’s first or biggest bully—even if your intention is to be protective; that’s not how children understand it,” she says. “They hear messages that their behaviour may be confusing or unacceptable to others as ‘there’s something wrong with you.’”
“All conversation about gender is about loving and supporting a person as they are right now,” skelton adds. “You can’t do harm to a person by believing them about who they are. The most important thing is to make sure children know they have your love and support, right now, as they are.” Ware caps the message with simplicity: “All I want is for my children and my grandchildren—the trans ones and the non-trans ones—to be safe and happy and loved. That’s it. Tell your kids that no matter who they turn out to be, they’ll always be perfect."
*Names have been changed