My five-year-old daughter whispered to me at a restaurant recently, “Why does that girl look like a boy?” I looked in the direction she was gazing and saw a person who was clearly a woman, but with very short hair, masculine clothing, glasses, no jewelry, and no makeup. My answer, “That’s just how she likes to dress,” was woefully inadequate, but it bought me a little time to figure out a better response.
Gender comes with multiple definitions that sometimes gel and sometimes do not. But to a kid who’s learning the difference between boys and girls, terms like “gender expression” may fall flat. At an age when gender ideas are often fluid—boys will wear plastic heels as proudly as girls wear neon construction hats—the discussion is often generic (girls wear makeup and boys don’t) and wildly inaccurate.
But kids believe in fairy tales and superheroes, so the idea that some women prefer to dress as men and some men believe they are a woman is far easier for a child to accept than an adult (if the laws we sometimes pass are any indication). Children tolerate differences and are far more open to a new normal than grown-ups. And for today’s generation of children, the legality of same-sex marriage means they’ll be growing up in a society that seems to be more accepting of people in all their incarnations.
Tolerant young people
The legality of same-sex marriage has mirrored a shift in American attitudes toward accepting nontraditional lifestyles. In May 2015, Avvo asked 2,000 Americans—before the Supreme Court of the United States ruling that struck down state bans on same-sex marriage—whether they supported same-sex marriage. Forty-three percent believed same-sex marriage should be legal. About one year later, in March 2016, Avvo asked the same question, with a 48 percent affirmative response. Americans’ perspectives have changed.
And the strongest supporters of same-sex marriage? Younger Americans. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, 58 percent of those surveyed support gay marriage. If that trend continues, having conversations with your kids about the broad range of human sexuality might one day be a very simple, matter-of-fact discussion.
Ways to discuss gender with your child
Of course, support for same-sex marriage and comfort with fluid notions of gender aren’t the same thing. Children ask for definitions of words like “space” or “ease” or “gravity,” and you may find yourself struggling to describe terms that should be simple. So it’s no wonder that attempting to field questions about the gender identity of a fellow diner, shopper, or person on the street is challenging. Keep these ideas in mind when discussing the topic with your child:
- Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes: Depending on where you live, your child has ideally been exposed to races and cultures different from his or her own. These differences also extend to gender non-conforming kids and adults. Model a culture of tolerance and acceptance for all identities, so that your children will be more likely to mimic this behavior in school and social situations.
- Explain gender simply: The fewer words you use the better when discussing gender with your child. But if her questions get specific, then you can too. Biological sex has to do with a person’s private parts. Gender expression is the way that people show others their gender, and maybe that’s in their choices of clothing or in the way they walk or talk. Gender identity is the way that a person feels inside, whether a boy feels like a girl or vice versa, or a person feels like both or neither gender.
- Don’t overshare: Kids may ask the same questions over and over again in the same sitting, or they may ask repeatedly about an issue a few days in a row. A preschooler’s way of processing information is to take it in small doses, but they’re also looking for the same answer from you over and over again, so they can learn and accept this information as gospel.
- Identify your own beliefs: What you say matters, and how you say it. Be consistent. Be brief. Be patient, honest, and fair. And recognize your own prejudices before you get into any conversations with your kids about gender identity, so that your own opinions don’t cloud the ones they are forming themselves.
Gender identity can be a minefield, whether kids are involved in the topic discussion or not, and if you are an adult who does not want to insult anyone or use the wrong term when discussing gender, do your homework. Google it. Ask questions. Educate yourself so that you get the terms right and can teach your child to do the same.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.