5 Actions You Can Take to Help Your Child Navigate Gender
Many families are struggling to create healthy relationships with kids regarding gender. In fact, a survey showed the topic parents most wanted to avoid with their kids was gender identity. Death, sex, drugs, divorce, sexual abuse, mass shootings — discussing each of these topics was more desirable than talking with kids about gender.
While at first glance that data may be surprising, it’s easy to understand why many parents, caregivers and adult family members don’t want to talk with kids about gender. Children and youth today have a significantly broader understanding of gender. While many adults grew up with a binary understanding of gender, Gen Z (and millennials) see gender as a spectrum. There is a whole new language for gender today and it is understandable that many adults may feel confused by it.
Understandings of gender are changing rapidly. 56% of 13 to 20-year olds know someone who goes by gender neutral pronouns such as they/them. Nearly 25% of GenZ expect their gender identity to change in their lifetime; of those who expect their gender identity to change, 45% expect their gender identity to change two to three times. That is certainly different than when many parents, caregivers and adult family members were growing up.
While many adults simply haven’t thought that much about gender, the truth is that it’s something that EVERY kid is affected by. Limited notions and definitions of gender may be holding your children back from showing up as their full, authentic selves.
In order to bridge the generational divide and help our children navigate gender, those of us who were raised with a more limited view can take this as an opportunity to explore gender with new eyes, to read and ask questions to better understand gender’s complexity. As with any learning experience, you’ll learn more about the world around you and about yourself in the process.
Here are 5 things you can do to help communicate with your child and help them navigate gender:
While gender may be more complex than many adults thought, it’s not complicated. Here is some helpful information of what gender is and how it is related to, but distinct from, sex and sexual orientation.
Everyone has a gender story. What is yours? Understanding your gender story and how it influences your parenting is critically important in helping your child explore these topics and find their authentic passions. Here are some questions to help you consider your gender story. They can also be good questions to use when talking with other family members about gender!
What do you most want them to know? For themselves? In relationship to friends and partners? What values do you want to communicate? As with everything else about parenting, keep in mind that the messages children instill most are those they see, rather than hear, from parents. If there are things they might observe in how you navigate gender that you don’t particularly like, talk with them about what you’d change and why (in age appropriate ways of course).
One parent we worked with saw that they had unintentionally designated chores along “traditional” gender roles: her daughter had indoor tasks like house cleaning and dishwashing and her son was responsible for mowing the lawn and taking the garbage out. Once she realized this she acknowledged it with her kids and they sat together to talk about gender roles and decide how to share household tasks going forward. Not only was everyone happier with the chores they were responsible for, they had a terrific conversation about the ways we incorporate messages and expectations we hear about gender. While kids may not internalize everything you wish they would, they are listening — and watching —so be as intentional as you can be in communicating what is most important.
Periodically, take a look at the world through a gender lens. How does gender show up in your family’s favorite TV shows and movies? Music? Books? Which celebrities and internet influencers do your kids follow? Kids are receiving hundreds of messages about gender every day, the vast majority of which come in without even realizing it. Ask them to share their opinions about what they see. For example, if you notice a lot of pink in a clothing or toy aisle focused on girls, ask your young child what they think of it and why they think the store does it that way. If they were designing the section, would they do it similarly, or differently — and why?
You can also look for gender representation in one of your teen’s favorite shows and ask their opinion on how the show handled it. Remember, it isn’t the best time for debate or to use what they say for a teachable moment (that can always be done later if needed). The goal is to make gender visible, and to learn how your child sees and understands gender. If you can hold commentary on what they think (at least mostly!), you’ll get a wonderful glimpse into their gendered world.
Gender can mostly feel about “don’ts”. Play with this toy, but not this one. This color is for you, this one isn’t. This activity isn’t really for you- how about this one? So help gender be fun. Play with it. Allow your kids to explore clothing to see what feels best for them. Encourage all kinds of activities, not just those deemed “appropriate” for their gender. If your child falls outside of typical gender norms in your community, keep in mind that the world they are growing up is different in many ways than the one you grew up in; the difference you’re concerned about doesn’t necessarily lead to bullying by peers, though it could. Pay attention to how they’re doing and check in with them to see how they feel about their gender.
Every child needs to be affirmed in their gender. Communicating openness and acceptance of gender, including gender diversity, will help keep the channel of communication open with them and let them know you are their partner as they navigate gender.