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!”
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.