Helping Children Learn About Gender: A Guide for Parents

By Allison Dickens, LPC

Happy Pride Month!

During this month, alongside the celebrations honoring the LGBTQIA+ community, there may be questions from children about the meaning of some of these acronyms and terms.  Specifically, gender has become a more prominent and important topic to many youths and adolescents.  More and more, young people are questioning strict gender constructs and finding their identity somewhere in between the binary.  As a parent, navigating these conversations about gender identity with your child can feel daunting. However, fostering an environment of openness, understanding, and support is crucial for your child’s development and well-being. Here are some strategies to guide you through these discussions. 

Educate Yourself

Before initiating conversations, take the time to educate yourself about gender identity. Understanding terms like gender identity, gender expression, transgender, non-binary, and gender fluidity can help you feel more confident and prepared (please see links at the end for some helpful articles). The most important thing to remember is that gender identity is an individual’s deeply-felt sense of being male, female, both, neither, or somewhere along the gender spectrum. It may or may not align with the sex assigned at birth.  It can be fluid, changing throughout a person’s life or even on a day to day basis, or it can be fixed, steady throughout their life. 

Create an Open and Supportive Environment

Ensure your child knows they can come to you with any questions or concerns. Use inclusive language and show acceptance for diverse gender identities and non gender-specific language. This can also include becoming comfortable with they/them pronouns instead of gender-specific pronouns like he/him and she/her.  Challenge stereotypes and discrimination when you encounter them, and demonstrate empathy and understanding towards people of all genders.

Follow Your Child’s Lead

Children often express their thoughts and feelings through play, art, and conversations. Pay attention to the cues they give about their gender identity. Allow them to feel comfortable with playing with toys that are not traditionally associated with their gender assigned at birth, and be open to allowing them to wear clothing and accessories that may fall outside the norms for their assigned gender.  Ask questions about how their clothes make them feel and encourage comfort and confidence over conformity.

Use Age-Appropriate Language

Tailor your discussions to your child’s age and developmental level. For younger children, simple explanations about gender can suffice. For example, you might say, “Some people feel like a boy, some feel like a girl, and some feel like both or neither. Everyone gets to decide what feels best for them.” Older children and teenagers can handle more detailed discussions about the complexities of gender identity.  Remain open to any and all questions, affirm their feelings including confusion, and express to them that above all, you will love and accept them for who they are.

Be Honest and Open About Your Feelings

It’s okay to acknowledge if you’re feeling unsure or if you don’t have all the answers. Expressing your willingness to learn can strengthen your bond and show that you are supportive. For example, “I’m learning about this too, and I’m here to support you no matter what.” Above all, remain respectful, even if there is something you do not fully understand, and express willingness to learn, even offering to research topics together with your child.

Encourage Self-Expression

Support your child’s exploration of their gender identity. This might include allowing them to choose their clothing, hairstyle, and toys. Respect their choices and preferences, and avoid imposing traditional gender roles on them.  Asking things such as what pronouns they use for themselves, if they would like to try a different haircut than they normally get, or if they would feel more comfortable in different clothing can express to your child your acceptance and support of their gender expression.

Address External Influences 

Prepare your child for potential challenges they might face outside the home. Teach them how to respond to questions or comments from others and emphasize the importance of self-acceptance. Teach them to identify and gently challenge bias in their peers.  Encourage them to build a support network of friends, family, and mentors who respect their gender identity, and consider expanding your support network to include supportive and understanding peers and mentors as well.

Seek Professional Support if Needed

If your child is struggling with their gender identity, or if you’re unsure how to support them, consider seeking help from a therapist who specializes in gender identity issues. They can provide valuable guidance and support for both you and your child.  Additionally, seeking support from a professional who can help you guide difficult  conversations and process your own feelings about your child’s identity can be an invaluable resource.

Talking to your child about gender identity is an ongoing process that requires patience, understanding, and love. By providing a safe and supportive environment, you can help your child navigate their journey with confidence and self-assurance. Remember, the most important thing you can do is to be there for your child, offering unconditional love and acceptance every step of the way.

Below are some links that may help you to talk about gender and identity: – the Gender Unicorn is an excellent tool to differentiate between gender and sex, and between physical and emotional attraction.  This can be introduced at any age and is a good tool for all ages.  Using this tool with your child will help to explain the spectrum of all these terms and help them understand where they fall. – Gender and Pronouns is an inclusive guide to how to understand and use all pronouns, both traditional and neopronouns, and how to respectfully ask about someone’s pronouns. – Gender Spectrum provides excellent information for individuals and parents about gender and how to understand it.  Specifically useful is their section on the language of gender, as a tool to learn the vocabulary needed to have these conversations. –The Trans Youth Equality Foundation has compiled a list of resources for parents, consisting not only of educational material about gender but of legal and educational resources for youth who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming and experience harassment and bullying because of this.