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How to talk to young children about gender

You may think young children are too little to talk about gender, but kids get messages about gender from the day they are born!

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Children are taught about gender concepts and expectations constantly by their family, school, culture, and religious teachings; it is so ingrained that most of us don’t even notice it. That’s why it is important to determine what we want the children in our lives to understand about gender and to make time to talk about it with them. This information sheet can help you to talk to young children about gender and to learn about the gender diverse people in their lives.

Challenge your own views

Have a look at the example you’ve already set with your language and actions. You may notice you’ve instinctually chosen certain language, outfits, hairstyles, toys or games for your child based on their assigned gender at birth.

Explore your own biases – What messages did you receive growing up about suitable behaviours and appearances for “girls” and “boys”? What do you think now when you see a little boy wearing a fairy costume? A girl with a short haircut, or a grown man with long, painted fingernails? Consider what gender stories you might tell your child that are different to the ones you learned.

Conversations about gender by age group

Age 0 to 3: It’s never too early to talk about gender

Children are exposed to information about gender from birth. These days, the ‘It’s a boy!’ or ‘It’s a girl!’ announcement can occur before the baby has even been born, with pink or blue onesies, balloons and soft toys presented soon after birth. The doctor or midwives officially record the baby’s sex according to their genitals and from this point onwards, the child is told (both explicitly and implicitly) how to act and present themselves to adhere to societal standards of that sex.

Likewise, conversations about gender can start from early childhood. Allowing exposure to all kinds of colours, objects, clothing, games, and adults engaging in roles and behaviours not traditional or expected of their own genders, opens up the world a little more to them.

Children start to display signs of their gender identity from around two years old. At this age they begin to notice differences between ’boys’ and ‘girls’, and that certain toys, colours, games and clothes seem to be more appropriate for one or the other. By three years old, most children prefer to play games they think fit their gender, and with other children of the same gender.

While some people find it hard to understand, it’s possible for a child this young to have a clear sense of their gender identity. In fact, many gender diverse people report realising it around this age. If a child is showing signs their gender might not match what they were assigned at birth, be curious. Asking them why they’re choosing certain things will help them feel safe to talk about their feelings and identity. There’s no downside to doing this. Children who have access to many kinds of toys, clothes and activities have been found to have better emotional balance and performance at school, whatever their gender identity.

If a very young child asserts that their gender is different to their sex, don’t brush it off or ignore them. Equally don’t rush or assume. Trust in the child’s understanding of themself and let them lead. Provide safe avenues for them to explore and experiment and check in regularly.

This age range is when many parents begin naming body parts. Using proper names for the genitals is appropriate. Simple, factual statements like, “most boys have a penis and testicles, but some boys have a vulva and vagina” and “most girls have a vulva and vagina, but some girls have a penis and testicles” establish early on that genitals do not always determine gender.

Here are a few key points:

  • “Use whatever colours you like. There’s no such thing as girl colours and boy colours.”
  • “You should play whatever games you love and with whatever toys you like.”
  • “You can wear whatever clothes you feel most comfortable in!”
  • “Having a penis doesn’t make you a boy. Having a vagina doesn’t make you a girl.”
  • “Most girls have a vagina, but some girls have a penis. Most boys have a penis, but some boys have a vagina.”
  • “Some people feel they’re a girl, some people feel they’re a boy, some people feel like they’re both and some people feel like they’re not a boy or a girl. How about you?”

Age 4 to 6: Categorise and conform

Children don’t think of their gender as being set in stone until they’re about six or seven years old. At this age, children are mature enough to understand the concept of the gender binary, and how they and others are expected to behave to conform within it. Their brains at this age are sensitive to division and categorisation, and the gender binary is further reinforced as educators and sports teams divide children into girls and boys groups.

Experts recommend talking to children this age about characters and storylines in the movies, shows and books they’re consuming. Point out stereotyping and sexist representation of men and women, asking the child why they believe the producers or writers made those choices. Help them compare differences in what they see in the media with the values they’ve been raised with at home.

At this age, you can add to the concept that bodies do not always determine gender. Some parts of our bodies (like our genitals) tell us our physical sex. When a baby is born, people assign it a gender according to this physical sex: usually “girl” if the baby has a vagina or “boy” if the baby has a penis. Most people grow up still feeling that way, but some people feel their gender is different to their physical sex and they’re not a “boy” or a “girl”.

Here are a few key points:

  • “Things (like toys, games and clothes) don’t have genders – people have genders.”
  • “Gender is not always determined by a person’s body. While most people’s physical sex (their genitals and some other parts of their bodies like internal organs and chromosomes) match their gender, some people feel their gender is different to their sex. We call these people gender diverse.”
  • “Everyone’s gender identity and expression is unique to them. How you see yourself and how you want to express your gender is personal – there is not just one way to be, and every possibility is valid.”
  • “You can’t tell a person’s gender just by looking at them.”

Age 7 to 10: Introducing the spectrums of gender, sex and sexuality

By this age, young people start to think less “black and white” and begin appreciating nuance. This is a good age to start talking about gender, sex and sexuality as spectrums, and introduce discussion about traditional gender roles and behavioural expectations, how these have changed over time, and the ways sexism is ingrained into society and the media we consume.

You can talk about how different people feel attracted to others, romantically or sexually. How most of the time girls are attracted to boys and vice versa, which is what we call “straight” or “heterosexual”, but sometimes a person is attracted to both boys and girls, which we call “bisexual”. Some boys are only attracted to other boys (“gay”), and some girls only like other girls (“lesbian” or “gay”). People can also be attracted to anyone regardless of their gender (“pansexual”) or might not feel much – or any – attraction to another person (“demisexual” or “asexual”). There might be some children at their school who don’t identify as straight.

Here are a few key points:

  • “Gender is not just a binary of male and female. It’s a spectrum, and people can identify anywhere along that spectrum.”
  • “Just like sex and gender aren’t always linked, neither is sexuality. Both cisgender (i.e. not gender diverse) people and gender diverse people can have all different sexualities.”
  • “In fact, every person has their own unique combination of physical sex, gender identity and expression, and sexuality.”

Keeping the conversation alive

  • Be proactive about talking about gender at all ages; you don’t need to wait for your child to bring it up or for something to arise.
  • Ask questions – this is a great way to hear the ideas kids already have about gender.
  • Talk about yourself, or things you encounter related to gender, so that children can express their thoughts without having to talk about themselves.
  • When you see media depicting gender, ask questions that encourage critical thinking: “Why is the mum the one making dinner and serving it?” “Who is strong in that show?” “Who is kind?”
  • Read and talk about books that address gender.
  • Be conscious about how you praise kids. Girls are often praised for their clothes or hairstyle, or for being sweet or kind, while boys are often praised for being big, or tough or independent. If you hear this type of praise coming from other adults, think about joining in with other types of praise.
  • Question and explore your own biases. For example, how do you feel about boys who wear nail polish, and girls who want to shop in the boy’s department for clothes? What messages about gender expression were you given as a child?
  • Mix up gendered language when reading stories to your kids.

Some of the text in this resource has been adapted with permission from Talking to young children about gender by Gender Spectrum