Lessons in ambiguity: How I talk about gender and sex with my 18-month-old

Sex, gender and gender identity are complex concepts. When I say sex, I mean a person’s biological, anatomical internal and external sexual organs. Sex is usually categorized as male, female or intersex (a blend of male and female parts). Gender is defined as the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors a culture associates with a person’s sex. Gender identity is how a person feels and expresses their gender and gender roles.

Western cultures traditionally confine sex and gender within the man/woman and male/female binary, but throughout history and various cultures, both concepts have existed on a spectrum that allows for more fluidity and ambiguity. The West has been slow to embrace such ambiguity and the recent slew of anti-LGBT bathroom laws passing in the South East serve as a powerful reminder that discomfort with any deviation from what’s considered “the norm” breeds discrimination. This weighs heavy on my mind as a parent.

I’ve been working on how to explain gender and sex to my children in ways that are expansive as well as developmentally accessible. I shared a recent conversation I had with my four-year-old son about gender identity here. My daughter is 18-months-old, however, and is processing information on a much more rudimentary level. Her brain uses categorization to understand the surrounding world: all breeds of dogs fit into the overarching category of dog, same with trees, birds and so on. Nuanced differences within those categories have not yet developed.

In the past few weeks, my daughter has become fixated on understanding gender and sex. With gender, she places all men into the category of “Dada” and all women into the category of “Mama” because of her relationship with me and my husband, who are both cisgender (our gender identity matches with our assigned birth sex). When we’re walking down the street, my daughter’s inflection as she shouts “Mama!” or “Dada!” vacillates between a statement and a question. She’s either telling me, “Yup! I see a woman ahead of me. Like you!” or she’s looking for me to answer, “is that a man I see? Is that person like my Daddy?”

Here are some of the ways I’ve responded:

-When she shouts “Dada!” I might say, “Yes, that looks like a man. Not all men are Dada’s, though. You have a Dada and he identifies as a man.”

-When she shouts “Mama!” I might say, “Yes, that appears to be a woman. But most importantly, that’s a person. We don’t always have to know if someone is a man or a woman.”

-When she says “Mama!” or “Dada!” and I know the individual (we run into neighbors often), I might say “Yes, that’s Marie! She is a woman and a mama!” or “Yes, that’s Tom. He’s a man and a daddy.”

What I say is not the same every time and that’s intentional. My daughter gets plenty of exposure to traditional gender binary talk at home and amongst friends and family. As I mentioned above, my husband and I are a cisgender, heterosexual couple. I call my daughter a girl and my son a boy. But I purposely use different language when out in the world to introduce my children to the reality that not everyone fits neatly into boy/girl categories when it comes to gender identity. My kids are still so little and I have no idea how they will self-express or self-identify as they get older. I want to model and support comfort with ambiguity and fluidity when it comes to gender.

My daughter is also very curious about assigned sex. We use proper names for genitalia and do not make a big deal about our kids seeing us naked. I know not all families feel comfortable with that, but it works for us. Just last week, I had the following interaction with my daughter as I stepped out of the shower.

She pointed to my vagina and said, “Mama!” I replied, “That is called a vagina.” She pointed to where her vagina is under her clothes and said, “Mama!” I said, “You have a vagina, too! Yes! We both have vaginas.”

My daughter then looked up at me and said questioningly, “Dada?” as she again pointed to her vagina. She was asking me, “Does daddy have a vagina?” I said, “No, Daddy doesn’t have a vagina. Daddy was born with a penis.” She immediately said my son’s name, connecting that he too has a penis.

It’s important to me that my children learn about their anatomy detached from any shame or mystery. I encourage my daughter’s exploration of her body parts as well as her curiosity around what body parts my husband, son and I possess. But I want to teach her about sex and gender without placing both of those concepts into rigid categories. For a little person whose brain works objects into groups, that’s definitely a bit confusing for her. I’m okay with that. Introducing her to the variety of ways a person can self-identify when it comes to gender and sex is important work for me as a parent.

My daughter is only 18-months old, so for now our conversations about gender and sex stay short because they aren’t really conversations at all. I’m responding to her reflections about the world and doing my best to help her make sense of sex and gender in a way that fosters both knowledge and an open mind. I feel strongly that it’s never too early to start having discussions about differences with my children. In fact, waiting feels like a much bigger risk based on the current climate in our country. If I can disrupt society’s designation of “normal” for my children, I will have done my job as a parent.

I know I’m not always going to get it right when I explain gender and sex to my children. Thankfully, there are resources to help me continue to educate myself as well as my children. Raising My Rainbow is one of my favorite go-tos. The author has compiled a robust resources page I encourage you to check out.

What are your favorite resources and strategies for talking about gender and sex with your children?


2 thoughts on “Lessons in ambiguity: How I talk about gender and sex with my 18-month-old

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