By Heather Branham, LCSW

Parents often ask me how to talk to their kids about gender, especially in a way that creates space for fluidity or creativity in gender expression. Sometimes they seem as intimidated about this topic as they are about “the sex talk” (which, by the way, isn’t just one conversation!). I can empathize with the desire to not say the wrong thing lest your child repeat it in the wrong place and raise eyebrows in public. (“Mommy says boys can have vaginas if they want to.”) Even parents who do their research on the language to use about various gender identities and expressions worry about being misunderstood or creating more confusion about a potentially complex topic. But here’s the thing, like with everything else, if you don’t talk to your kids about your ideas of masculinity, femininity, and everything in between, they’ll learn about it from someone else. Here are some tips to get the conversation started on the right foot:

Don’t avoid talking about gender or creative gender expressions out of fear. Kids can tell when you’re avoiding a topic because you’re uncomfortable with it. You may never want to teach a gender studies class, but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk to your child about the things you want them to know. How do you want your child to think about what boys and girls are capable of? What do you want them to know about gender roles? Are they fluid and tied to a person’s strengths or rigid and tied their body parts?

Weave these conversations into your everyday life. Point out deviations from the gender binary wherever you see them. (“That little girl is playing with a truck.” “That baby has two daddies.”) You can celebrate these moments or just notice them without commentary. This helps to normalize gender expressions that don’t fall into traditional male or female boxes.

Incorporate gender inclusive language into your everyday vocabulary. Pay attention to how often you use language that assumes only two genders or implies that people are a certain way based on their gender. Phrases like “opposite sex” reinforce the gender binary; instead talk about “people of all genders.” Rather than telling your child that all boys have penises and all girls have vaginas, let them know that some or most boys have a penis and that some or most girls have a vagina. If they ask you about the ones that don’t, you can explain that some people are transgender, which means that the way they think about being a boy or girl is different from what they were told they were when they were born. You can also teach your child that genitals come in lots of different shapes, just like other body parts like noses. Our intersex friends may have genitals that don't look just like a penis or just like a vagina.

Get comfortable with not knowing all the answers. Contrary to popular belief, parents don’t know everything about everything. If your kid asks you a question that stumps you, it’s okay to say you don’t know. You could say something like, “Hmm. that’s a good question. Let’s talk about it together and see what we come up with.” This is a great opportunity to help your child develop critical thinking skills. You can guide the conversation with questions or comments about things you do feel comfortable in your knowledge of. (“But remember, don’t some girls like to wear ties?” “Some boys with vaginas do have babies.”)

Start young. It's important to tailor the message to your child's developmental age, but it’s never too early to start these conversations. Understand that your toddler might be pretty rigid in their understanding of the world, and that view may apply to gender too. That’s okay. Toddlers aren’t known for their mental flexibility. Rest assured that you’re laying the groundwork for future conversations and an expanded view of what people of all genders are capable of.

Get support. Talk to your partner, friends, other parents, coworkers about how they talk to their kids about gender. It can help to hear how other parents have navigated these conversations. And even if they feel like they’re completely lost too, at least you can find your way together. If these conversations are creating questions about your own gender or sexuality, you might want to talk about that too, either with your friends or a gender therapist.

Read books about gender creative people with your kids. There are some wonderful children’s books that smash gender stereotypes and offer beautiful examples of gender diversity. Here are couple of lists to get you started:

40 LGBTQ-Friendly Picture Books for Ages 0-5

Gender Spectrum’s Annotated Children’s Book List

You can do this! Having seemingly “adult” conversations with kids can be daunting, mostly because we underestimate children’s abilities to grasp complex concepts. Most of the time, it’s the adult’s anxiety that makes things complicated. So take a deep breath, phone a friend if you need to, and trust yourself and your child. Together we can make the world a friendlier place for us all to live in.

Heather Branham, LCSW is a family therapist specializing in non-traditional families based in Asheville, NC. Contact her to discuss counseling or consulting services focused on the LGBTQ community.

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