Here's How Talking to Kids About Gender Is Simpler Than It Sounds
Bathrooms, cakes, and marriage: At first glance, this may sound like an odd trio or even a sentence cut short, but they have quite a bit in common, especially in the context of political debates and gender identity expression. And as with any topical issue, they also beget a string of questions like who gets to define gender, and how can we create a world in which all expressions of gender identity and sexuality are not only tolerated but accepted and celebrated? Better yet, how do we even begin to talk to kids about gender and sexuality?
To find out how we as parents and educators (and even just as adults) can work toward a future of liberation and respect in both small and big ways every day, we reached out to Lara Lillibridge, the author of upcoming memoir Girlish. Given her professional background as a writer, as well as her personal experience and witty sense of humor, her advice on talking to kids about gender identity at home—both to encourage her children to express themselves freely and to embrace people of all backgrounds and identities—is digestible, inspiring, and feasible. And, of course, it's up to each parent to decide what they want to teach their children about identity and when, but for those of you interested in Lillibridge's expert perspective and guidance, read on below.
"Kids learn as much by what they see us do as by any official discussion on topics like gender, race, and/or sexuality," Lillibridge explains. So it's important to think about your own goals as a parent and how you can meet those goals by being a role model in simple, everyday ways to reinforce any verbal lessons or passing conversations. In other words, if your behavior consistently reflects the values or mindsets you promote at home, it will be that much more inspiring, and it will empower your children to live up to those norms. Lillibridge lays out her two goals clearly: "1, to keep the children alive, and 2, to raise them to be caring, productive members of society, not entitled jerks."
I don't want to overwhelm my kids with the problems of the world, but I also want them to see injustice.
For a few concrete examples, Lillibridge explains that kids "notice who your friends are, and if you only speak to parents who look like you at school parties or sporting events." Plus, "the play-date phenomena means that parents have a lot of control over who their kids play with, and they notice if you only invite" kids over of one background and identity, whether it's race, religion, class, gender, or untraditional family dynamics.
So one way to teach kids how to play well with all people is to give them the opportunity to do so at diverse, open schools or during after-school programs and playdates. "Exposing kids to people who are different from them in myriad ways breeds tolerance and acceptance—in short, it makes nicer kids," she reminds us.
"I don't want to overwhelm my kids with the problems of the world, but I also want them to see injustice," says Lillibridge. Plus, "kids of any age often have short attention spans when it comes to these types of conversations. [And] most of us feel awkward bringing up the subject. It's easier to tackle in small bites" for everyone involved. So instead of having one long, serious conversation, try to take advantage of small teachable moments and remain consistent with your messaging so kids can digest the topic in an organic, relaxed way.
This can also take the pressure off, because as Lillibridge explains, "I think a lot of parents avoid these conversations because they are afraid of getting it wrong. It's not a one-time thing. It's an ongoing conversation, so if you bungle it one day, you'll get a second chance and a third." In fact, she says she's even returned to the conversation with her kids, saying, "I don't think I explained that very well. Let me try again and see if I can make more sense."
Lillibridge also mentions the importance of unpacking stereotypes with kids so they don't categorize things as normal or weird and end up name-calling, and also to promote honest and happy self-expression. For example, "we talk about how there is no such thing as a girl toy or a boy toy—only a fun toy or a boring toy. I gave them my favorite toys from my own childhood, including dolls and a criss-cross-crash race track," she says.
Most of us feel awkward bringing up the subject. It's easier to tackle in small bites.
Of course, there are some subtler examples that may be easier to overlook since we also tend to normalize and perform gender within certain stereotypical frameworks. For instance, Lillibridge wonders, "when my workout video extolls the virtue of six-pack abs and the need to look good in a bikini and my kids are in the room, what are they learning about body image? When they watch TV, what messages are they absorbing?" And that doesn't mean you have to shut off the TV or even work against gender tropes and social norms if you personally resonate with them. But there are a few ways you can identify the subject so your child develops a positive relationship with themselves, regardless of their identity.
Lecturing can be intimidating and off-putting, especially for children who are still learning. So instead of scolding or preaching, try to reposition it into an open dialogue. You can also try to find entertainment options that model the things they love in a positive way to reinforce these conversations. For example, Lillibridge's "kids love sports, and luckily there are a lot of great sports movies that are entertaining as well as have a positive message. We watched 42 and The Perfect Game, and I can't wait to watch Battle of the Sexes with them. I control the DVD player and Netflix account, after all," she jokes.
The younger they are, the less they have to unlearn.
She also mentions that she and her family "talk about nonbinary gender fairly often. One side effect of having lesbian parents is that it allows the subject matter to come up naturally in conversation and frequently. However, I don't talk about sexuality and nonbinary gender in the same conversation, because gender identification is a separate issue from sexuality," she explains. "Nonbinary gender can be fairly easy for children to understand. They already know that how you feel inside doesn't always match how you look on the outside. Besides, gender differentiation is something they learn, and the younger they are, the less they have to unlearn."
If you're looking for some concrete examples of how Lillibridge talks to her kids about gender and sexuality at home, read through the list below. And as Lillibridge reminds us, make sure you keep the conversations short, stopping "before their eyes glaze over."
- "I don't work out to look good, I exercise to get stronger so I can do the monkey bars at the playground."
- "I don't like how Candace is portrayed on Phineas and Ferb because she is smart enough to build things but instead is always chasing Jeremy."
- "I notice that girls get uniform violations at your school, but boys rarely do, and I don't think that's fair."
How do you talk to kids about gender at home? Let's continue the conversation in the comments below.