Let’s Talk About Gender Identity
Gender is a complicated aspect of identity, and navigating it may be difficult for children and adolescents as they grow and learn about the world and themselves. The term ‘gender’ refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people. Whether or not you participate in Pride Month celebrations, this is a great time to talk with your family about ways to understand and respect different gender identities. Today, we are highlighting ways for you to create an open, safe, and nurturing space for your child to understand this topic and the nuances that come with it.
First, Seek to Understand
Gender identity is a person’s individual experience of gender. It reflects how they feel and see themselves on the inside, regardless of how they were identified at birth. Many of us have been raised with an understanding that gender exists in an either/or, binary way: there are girls and boys, and men and women. Many of us received messages about how people should look, act, and behave. However, gender expression can manifest in many different ways: clothing, hair styles, body language, voice, name(s), pronouns, and many other things. If we expand upon the traditional understanding of gender and consider a full spectrum of possibilities, we can create more spaces for our children to define their own paths, supported with your love along the way.
Offer Choices and Let Your Child Take the Wheel
Giving children space to try out different things and express their preferences in a safe, judgment-free zone can foster positive feelings of self-worth and increase their confidence.
- When possible, create opportunities for your child to make choices about the clothes they wear, their hairstyle, toys they play with, and activities they participate in. Avoid limiting options based on their perceived gender. Children may also want to try out names or pronouns that are different from their given name/pronouns.
- Follow your child’s lead by staying curious and asking open-ended questions about different choices they are making and how they are making meaning of everything. By continuing to check in, caregivers demonstrate that they trust their child’s experience and assertions about their personal journey.
Build a Common Language and Foster Open Communication
Initiating and normalizing conversations about gender from an early age can support healthy gender identity development in children.
- Provide children with developmentally appropriate information about gender and give them the vocabulary to describe themselves and others. By teaching children about pronouns and gender diversity, you are helping your child understand more about themselves and raising them to appreciate and respect gender diversity in their world.
- When children have questions or make observations about gender, respond openly with simple language. Acknowledge that there are many different gender identities and ways that people express their gender. If there is something you feel uncomfortable or unable to answer, be transparent about this and take it as an opportunity to learn together with your child. This way, you are modeling curiosity and openness, as well as expanding your own horizons.
- Feeling stuck, not knowing how to start the conversation or what information to share? Check out these great resources for learning and talking about gender identity!
Advocate for Your Child
Especially with younger kids, self-advocacy can be tough to learn on their own. Standing up for yourself and clearly stating boundaries and voicing needs is a skill that gets developed throughout childhood and adolescence. Here are a few ways parents and caregivers can show support and be their voice if they’re still struggling to define it:
- At school: Caregivers can work with their child’s school to find solutions that support their child’s needs. This might include discussions about names and pronouns that your child is using, gender affirming bathrooms, and adjusting uniforms or school dress codes.
- With family, friends, and your community: Having conversations about how to be respectful of and affirm your child’s gender identity and expression in advance of events or gatherings can set everyone up for a positive experience.
Learning about gender identity is a dynamic process. Being open minded about your own and your children’s thoughts and feelings is the best way to encourage healthy development in this regard. The more you communicate with your family about these sensitive, but crucial topics, the more comfortable these conversations become, and the safer your children may feel in the home.
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