It’s Not That Hard: Talking to Children About Gender Identity

Children have the ability to see the world without judgement.
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I can imagine that our shift towards a more inclusive society has caused more than one parent trepidation in regard to explaining things to their children. I’m sure at least one person has said to themselves, “Hey, I just figured out talking about gay and straight. Now I have to talk about gender identity with an 8-year-old? Impossible.”

Actually, I found it pretty easy.

Cis and Trans aren’t that complicated.

“Sometimes who someone is on the inside doesn’t match how they look on the outside.”

Kids get this. They pretend to be elephants and super heroes and fire trucks. They know who they are is unaffected by how they look. Imagining things is something kids are pretty good at, so it isn’t hard for them to imagine how this might feel. Empathy is pretty easy for them, because they are used to trying to imagine what the world would be like if only they were a wolf, or a mama, or a fireman.

“If I made you wear girl clothes every day, would you still be a boy?”

They play dress-up and house and often times someone of the wrong gender has to play the Mommy or the Daddy or Wonder Woman or Super Mario or whomever in order to make their make believe play work with the children that are available. They know intuitively that how you feel on the inside matters more than how you look on the outside.

Parents often fear technical questions about gender reassignment, but in my experience, kids are pretty happy with simple answers.

“There are doctors that can help someone if their insides don’t match their outsides.”

That was enough to satisfy my kids. My youngest was mostly upset to learn that no one has invented a way for him to turn into an animal yet, but I told him science is making advances every day.

Nonbinary gender is even easier for kids to grasp.

“Some people feel as much like a boy as they do a girl, or they feel mostly like one thing but also a little bit like the other, too.”

Kids know all about liking boy things and girl things at the same time. They understand wanting to play baseball and also wear a princess dress. The idea of not being either all boy or all girl is pretty natural.

For an 8-year-old, the world is still filled with endless possibilities. They don’t want to choose cake or ice cream. They want both cake and ice cream at the same time. They don’t see one choice as necessarily nullifying the other.

There is one other aspect I discuss with my kids: fluidity.

“It is OK to feel one way now, and another way next year, and that doesn’t mean how you felt before was wrong or bad, and it doesn’t mean that how you feel today is how you will feel forever.”

Kids inherently understand that they used to like Elmo and now they like Pokémon better. It doesn’t mean they didn’t love Elmo before. If you love princesses this year, you can love ninja warriors next year. You don’t have to choose your life path today and stick with it for forever.

Kids are still in a state of flux. Every day their bodies are a little bit different, their brains changing in subtle ways. The idea of anything being fixed or unchanging is contrary to their everyday life experiences.

So often, we seek to protect children from truths that grownups find uncomfortable, but in my experience, it’s not hard for them at all. Children have the ability to see the world without judgement, as long as grownups don’t interfere.

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