My husband and I are striving to raise our children outside the confines of traditional gender norms. We are not raising our kids without gender influences altogether, but we are actively trying to create space to allow our kids to self-express in whatever manner they choose without judgement and removed from any preconceived ideas based on their gender. A recent conversation with a former classmate, however, illuminated I had not yet broached the subject of gender identity with my son, who is nearly four years old.
My classmate, who self-identifies as gender non-conforming or butch, shared with me that children have approached her to ask, “are you a boy or are you a girl?” She was gracious enough to speak to those children about her gender, but reflected to me, “if your child feels the need to ask me about my gender, you have not done your job as a parent.”
She, of course, did not mean that parents always have control over what their children say or can stop a child’s curiosity from brimming over in unfortunate ways. Her point to me was, the first conversation about gender identity and the potential ambiguity there within, should not happen when my child blurts out a question to a stranger. Gender identity, along with race, sexuality, sexism and more, are topics I need to discuss and explain to my children again and again.
Western culture defines gender within a female and male binary, but gender-variant identities are found worldwide. However, times are changing, albeit slowly, here in the West. The concept of gender identity – the innermost concept of self, which might be male, female, a blend of both or neither – has entered mainstream media for a variety of reasons, good and bad. Part of the discussion around gender identity focuses on Transgender people, defined by the Human Rights Campaign as individuals “…whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth.” Movies and television programs like Transparent, I am Cait, The Danish Girl and more are featuring transgender people and story lines. But violence against Trans people, particularly Trans women of color, is a national crisis.
According to American Academy of Pediatrics, children begin to develop their gender identity young.
Around two-years-old, children become conscious of the physical differences between boys and girls. Before their third birthday, most children are easily able to label themselves as either a boy or a girl. By age four, most children have a stable sense of their gender identity. During this same time of life, children learn gender role behavior—that is, doing “things that boys do” or “things that girls do.”
While the research around gender identity development in children who do not identify with their assigned birth gender is not extensive, Krista Orson, a psychology professor at the University of Washington and creator of the TransYouth Project says children can self-identify as transgender as early as 3 years old. Studies also show that the constant, even if seemingly benign, boy/girl classifications in preschool and elementary classrooms breeds stereotypes based on gender. As a parent to a preschool aged child, it’s important for me to realize his understanding of gender and gender identity is happening right now.
I seized the opportunity to introduce gender identity while I was recently tucking my son into bed. He was rambling away about a variety of subjects including dinosaurs, his grandparents and pee-pee. He turned to me and asked, “Do you stand up when you pee-pee?”
I replied, “I don’t, I sit on the toilet.”
“Why do you sit?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t have a penis, so it would be difficult for me to stand up while I went to the bathroom.” In our household, we try to use correct terminology to name private parts.
“Oh, right, cause you have a ga-gina,” which is his pronunciation of vagina.
“That’s right, I have a vagina,” I confirmed.
He paused for a moment and said, “I want to have a ga-gina.”
Surprised, I paused myself before I replied, “Well, it doesn’t usually work that way. You were born with a penis and I was born with a vagina.”
“You could get me a ga-gina for Christmas!” he suggested. I bit my tongue so I didn’t let a laugh escape my lips. He wasn’t joking or being silly and I wanted to respect his curiosity.
After explaining getting him a vagina for Christmas would be a difficult feat, I said, “you know, some people are born with penises but feel like girls on the inside and some people are born with vaginas but feel like boys on the inside. We can’t always tell if someone is a boy or a girl just by looking at them and that’s okay.”
He surprised me again when he immediately said, “I’m a girl!”
I replied, “Oh you are? Do you feel like a girl on the inside?”
“Yea,” he said as his eyes started to droop. He left the conversation and asked me to sing him his goodnight song.
My son has never expressed being anything other than a boy prior to this conversation, nor has he again. Introducing the concept of gender identity, and the fluidity within gender, however, cultivated a safe space for him to self-express, even if it was fleeting. I want him to explicitly know that his gender identity, no matter what that is, will not affect our love for him in any way.
My son’s understanding of gender is still developing and it’s my job to explain that gender is not binary. It’s my job to explain that we can’t always tell if a person is a man or a woman, and to feel okay with ambiguity. It’s my job to explain that a person’s gender identity should not determine how we treat them. Introducing the concept of gender identity to our children is an important step towards reversing the tide of violence and aggression against individuals who do not fit neatly within the West’s traditional gender binary.
To help continue the gender identity conversation in my household, I incorporated My Princess Boy, a book about a young boy who loves to dress as a princess and his family, into our library. The princess fantasy resonates with my son so it’s been a good choice for our family. What’s your favorite children’s book about gender identity?