When your 5-year-old challenges you to break beyond the gender binary

A few weeks ago, my husband and I lingered at our table after dinner, chatting about the day while our kids played nearby. My husband was telling me a story, of which I honestly cannot remember the details, and said something like “and then this man walked into the room.” My 5-year-old jerked his head up from his pile of legos and said, “how did you know he was a man, Daddy?”

My husband and I locked eyes. Busted.

“Well,” my husband began, “I assumed he was a man based on how he looked.”

“You can’t always tell if a person is a boy or a girl just by looking at them,” our 5-year-old reminded him.

“You’re right, buddy. I have no idea how that person identified. I shouldn’t have assumed,” my husband conceded. He went on to tell me the story omitting the person’s gender, which was irrelevant in the first place.

Later that night, as I was putting my 5-year-old to bed I told him how appreciative I was that he challenged us about the person’s gender.

“You were right to question us and it made me realize how many times I still assume someone is a boy or a girl. We can’t always tell, and more importantly it’s okay not to know. Some people don’t feel like a boy or a girl and some people might identify as both!”

who are you

We recently got the beautiful book Who Are You: The Kids Guide To Gender Identity, which explains gender identities beyond the girl/boy binary, discusses the difference between gender identity and gender expression and more. While my 5-year-old doesn’t grasp all the concepts quite yet, we’ve been spending a lot time discussing gender.

“Yea,” my son responded. “And not all boys have penises! Some have vaginas. And some girls have penises!”

“You’re right,” I said. “People get to decide for themselves who they are and how they identify. Thank you for this reminder, honey.”

I’ve been told by many people I shouldn’t talk to my kids about gender outside of the girl/boy binary because they can’t handle it developmentally. I don’t agree, obviously, and believe our kids are way more equipped to deal with ambiguity than we are as adults. Also, and most importantly, I refuse to ignore or erase our friends and community members who don’t fit neatly into the gender binary under the pretense that it’s too hard for my kids to understand or too hard for me as their parent to explain.

While I do not pretend my 5-year-old has a sophisticated level of understanding around gender and gender identity, he at the very least can think beyond the girl/boy binary and is increasingly comfortable with the fluidity behind gender and the ways people choose to express themselves. He can think critically about and challenge the assumptions we often make about a person’s gender. Just the other day he called me out when I assigned a male pronoun to an animal we encountered on a hike. “Why do you think it’s a boy, Mommy?” Busted again!

One of the most unexpected aspects of trying to raise socially conscious children is how much they hold me accountable to do better. I’m constantly amazed at how often they hold up a mirror to my face and force me to confront the many ways I still carry oppressive practices within myself; the same oppressive practices I’m working hard to eradicate within my children.

I truly believe our children can and will break beyond the gender binary if we as parents are willing to be honest with them about the myriad of ways a person can identify and express themselves. I mentioned loving Who Are You? above. What are you favorite books and media to discuss gender identity and expression with your kids? I’d love to hear your suggestions below.



11 thoughts on “When your 5-year-old challenges you to break beyond the gender binary

  1. Beth-Ann Buitekant says:

    I wholeheartedly support everything you wrote here! Being silent only keeps all of us in the status quo. Children are learning from the moment they enter this side… and, I believe, while they are still in the womb.

    Thanks Shannon and 5 year old son!
    beth-ann buitekant

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarae says:

    Parenting is such a great avenue toward accountability!
    I also love Annie’s Plaid Shirt. Not about gender identity, as Annie seems to I’d as a girl, but about gender expression.


  3. jesswana says:

    I am interested to know if in discussions with your child, you are differentiating between biological sex, gender, and sexuality.
    Sex is biology. It is defined by a set of physical characteristics. At its core, all it does is state that there are differences between male bodies and female bodies. It is not political, not philosophical, and has not been disproved. There are two sexes in humans. There are intersex people who have some or all characteristics of both sexes. However, they are not members of a third sex. In fact, their bodies are evidence of the existence of only two sexes.
    Gender is the social construct that enforces stereotypes such as “femininity” and “masculinity” most often onto women and men respectively. Gender is restrictive and it generally works to oppress biological women. Focussing on gender and conflating is with biological sex just serves to strengthen the power of gender, which in turn strengthens the oppressive force on women.
    Sexuality is about which sex or sexes you are attracted to.
    Before you go too far into the transactivist way of thinking, it would be worth doing some research into the actual agenda of the movement.
    Transactivism doesn’t not represent all transgender people.
    Transactivism is a movement dominated by men whose stated aim is to deny women rights to their own bodies.
    Transactivism is homophobic as it seeks to enforce idea that sexuality can only be heterosexual. It does this by identifying a person’s sexual attraction to someone of the same biological sex as an indicator that you are actually not the ‘correct’ biological sex. It then actively encourages transition to a ‘gender’ that means your sexuality is heterosexual. That is extreme homophobia.
    “4th wave now” is blog that may be useful for you to read a more holistic view of this issue.


    1. strivingshannon says:

      We do talk about the anatomy behind sex. But I disagree with your view of transactivism as homophobic. What I see the movement as pushing towards, as a cisgender individual of course, is the elimination of binaries period, whether they be around sexuality or identity. And here in Atlanta, by and far the movement is led by Black trans women.


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