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How to talk to young children about people who are gender diverse

This information sheet offers guidance, phrases, and prompts for talking to young children about people who are gender diverse. Of course, you can tailor them to suit your own situation. 

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Explaining the difference between gender and physical sex

You and your child may know someone who is gender diverse. It can be a big concept for a child (and even many adults) to grasp. Here are some tips on how to explain gender diversity:

  • “Some physical parts of our bodies tell us what our sex is. This is things like our genitals, the way our bodies change when we go through puberty, and other things, like the chemicals in our brains.”
  • “When people are born, the medical staff might give them a gender which is based off their physical body, and there are expectations that this person should grow up as that gender”.
  • “Some people feel that their gender is not the same as the one they were assigned at birth. This is because our gender is not always connected to our physical bodies. We often refer to these people as “gender diverse”, “transgender” or “non-binary”.”
  • “People who are gender diverse can feel uncomfortable in the body they have. Their body might be what people think is a girl’s body, but on the inside, the person knows they’re a boy. They might feel like part boy and part girl or feel like they’re not a girl or a boy.”
  • “So for this person who knows they’re not a girl, dressing in the kinds of clothes that girls usually wear might make them feel unhappy. So they might start to wear clothes that are different to what we’ve seen before. Clothes that are more like what the other boys are wearing. They might even cut their hair short and start using a new name. These things help them feel on the outside more like the way they feel on the inside.”
  • “It might be hard to understand that someone could be a gender that’s different to their body. Sometimes when people don’t understand things, it can make them feel scared and angry, and this can cause them to say mean things to someone who is gender diverse. This can make life really hard for gender diverse people.”
  • “We want to try to make gender diverse people feel safe, by using their preferred name, and the pronouns they’ve asked us to use. We also should remember that they’re the same person we’ve always known and loved, even though they might look, sound or act a little different these days.”

When children ask awkward questions

It’s natural for children to ask a lot of questions, especially when they come across something new. Sometimes they’ll ask questions about gender or sexuality that we don’t know how to answer. Or they may point out someone on the street whose gender expression confuses them or ask about a person’s gender. Telling them to be quiet suggests that what they’re asking about – or the person they’re referring to – is taboo, shameful or bad.

Use the moment as a learning opportunity. Don’t pretend you know the person’s gender. Use gender-neutral language, like “they” and “them” pronouns, and let your child know that it’s respectful to wait for a person to let you know their gender and pronouns instead of assuming what they are. Even the most inclusive people do get this wrong from time to time, after lifetimes of conditioning about how males and females should look. If you make a mistake, apologise, and explain to your child what you got wrong.

How to use pronouns

If someone has asked you to use new pronouns for them, or even a new name, it can be hard to get used to. But getting a gender diverse person”s pronouns correct is an important way to show your respect.

  • “A noun is a word used to describe a person, thing, place, or idea. Personal pronouns are used to describe people instead of using their name. Most men use he/him pronouns while most women use she/her pronouns.”
  • “When someone is talking about you, they’ll use your pronouns like, “<Name> likes spaghetti. Actually [s/he] loves it. It”s [her / his] favourite food. That bowl of spaghetti is [hers / his]. Can you give it to [her / him]?” The words [“she”, “her” and “hers” / “he”, “him” or “his”] are your pronouns.”
  • “Gender diverse people often choose new pronouns for themselves. Using the wrong pronouns can be very upsetting to some people. This is why it’s important not to assume what they are. If we don’t know what pronouns someone uses, we can just ask them.”

Helpful wording for talking about people in their life who are gender diverse

  • “We used to think <name> was a [girl / boy], but we got that wrong. they’re a <gender identity>.”
  • “It might seem a little confusing, but we need to trust that <name> knows that they’re a <gender identity>, even though we used to think they were a [boy / girl].”
  • “We know that most of the time, girls have a vagina, and boys have a penis. But some girls have a penis and some boys have a vagina. Now we know that <name> is one of those people.”
  • “<Name> didn’t used to be a [girl / boy]. We all just made a mistake in thinking that <pronoun> was/were. Now we know that they really are a <gender identity>.”
  • “<Name> has asked us to call them by this name now. It might be a little bit hard to get used to but we need to try our best to get it right.”
  • <New name>’s old name reminds [her / him / them] that people thought [s/he / they] was a girl / boy. That can make them feel upset. So let’s try really hard to get their new name right”

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