Talking to Kids about Gender

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Talking w/ 4 year old about Gender/transgender

June 2006

I'm wondering how people talk with 4&5 year olds about gender in a developmentally appropriate AND inclusive way if you want to address the fact that gender is not only determined by one's sex. It seems that most people say, ''boys have a penis and girls have a vagina'' but that simply isn't always true, and yet I wonder how to frame the ambiguity of gender appropriately for my child. We also spend time with a child who already feels she/he is a different gender than her/his biological sex, and I want to be inclusive of her/him and transgendered people in our community.

Are there books out there for children this age about sex/gender identity and transgendered people? I don't want my child thinking that biology alone determines gender. How do transgendered people on this list feel about this issue? How am I simulaneously developmentally appropriate while being inclusive? A challenge I'm running into is that my child's asking that if a penis doesn't make a boy a boy, then what makes a boy? I don't want to get into gender stereotypes, because I don't believe them.

I'd welcome thoughtful responses from transgendered parents as well as people who have thought a lot about this issue already. Thanks Anon

I know that you believe you are doing the right thing but have you considered that a 4 year old simply can not comprehend the complexity of gender identification? I think you need to keep it simple. Men and women, simply put, are identified by their sexual organs---this is a biological fact. Self-identification and ''gender'' are abstract terms certainly up for debate but are inappropriate subject matter for a 4 year old. I think you would do well do leave this subject alone until the 4 year old can comprehend more about life and sexuality (age 9 or 10). Discussing this subject will only cause confusion. Not discussing it will not ''bias'' your child --- on the contrary you will lead by example. Anon

My 4yo also has a young friend who is transgendered. We have had this person in our life since before my 4yo was born so the idea of a girl with a penis or boy with a vagina is not foreign to my kid. It's always been known in our family and community that boys usually, but not always have a penis, and that girls usually but not always have a vagina, that it's not a big deal. Just like most things, being a boy or girl isn't usually black or white. It's not a big deal for my 4yo. This is important not just because I want my kid to be open and educated about gender issues but more importantly so that our friend isn't made to feel anymore different than our culture already makes transkids feel. It is funny though to hear a couple of four year olds discussing wheather or not a boy must have a penis. Invariably they will come to me for a decision in the matter and other kids are quite taken aback when I say that in fact, it is not a penis or vagina that makes one a boy or a girl, but how that kid or person feels inside. It's important to actually discuss this with children regularly, especially if you have a transkid in your life. My experience is that as kids gets older there are new ideas and understandings around gender and without any additional imput it is really easy for them to buy into binary, mainstream gender roles that are sadly limiting. I wish all kids had the opportunity to engage the full range of emotional, psychological, and developmental experiences that are available to humans without all of the limits we put on them by treating them like a ''boy'' or ''girl''. I have not seen any books or information available specifically addressing kids and transgender but if you come across any let us know!

There is a support group in SF for families with transgendered kids, perhaps your friend already knows about it. They have moderator lead support groups for parents and get togethers with the kids and their families. Good luck!

Wow, your post is so smart and thoughtful. It's posts like this that make this list wonderful. I'm replying because though not trans I work with transfolks and have a lot of trans friends so have thought about this issue a lot. My daughter is slightly younger but hopefully you'll find my ideas/responses helpful to your situation.

I try to talk about gender in basic no-nonsense terms. I tell her that most people who have penises are boys, and most who have vulvas are girls, but not everyone and that some people decide they'd like to switch, but it's a lot of work. As for your son's insightful question about what makes a boy a boy my answer would be that it's about how society treats you- and some people are born one thing but decide when they're older that they'd feel more comfortable being treated as something different. I would also stress that it's nothing kids have to decide. That these are decisions grown-ups make- that kids can be a boy one day and a girl the next and it's fine to experiment.

Another thing i would suggest is including trans adults in your son's life if possible. Recently i asked a friend who's a talented artist, and trans, to do art with my daughter once a month; we camp with another trans friend. Then it's easy to talk about these people casually-- ie did you know Sarah's name used to be Eric when she was a little boy? Or Thomas has a vulva too and he's a boy. If you don't have trans friends to include in your son's life what about looking up some info about prominent trans folks and talking about them with your son. I'd recommend Susan Stryker, Veronika Cauley or James Greene (who's names I've probably spelled wrong). They're all prominent Bay Area trans activists and parents too. I did this with two dad families because we don't know any but i wanted my kid to know they exist. She now talks about these families like we know them. Much luck to you, Farmerboy's Mom

PFLAG may have some great information check out their website. They may suggest some great books for children. Also check this out: Tape or TiVo KQED for this show: 2pm KQED 9 | No Dumb Questions This lighthearted and poignant documentary profiles three sisters, ages 6, 9 and 11, struggling to understand why and how their Uncle Bill is becoming a woman. Repeats: 6/29 11:30pm (KQED 9); 6/30 2:30am, 6:30am, 10:30am, 2:30pm, 6:30pm & 10:30pm (KQED Encore) Rachel --a gender bender lesbian

the person who wrote ''Self-identification and 'gender' are abstract terms certainly up for debate but are inappropriate subject matter for a 4 year old'' is not paying attention to the original question - it's not abstract when your friend is a transkid. even without that, it's very appropriate to this age, when kids are trying to understand gender. i think kids are fine with complexity, explained in concrete ways.

although i'm not trans, i hate the way we do gender. my son (4) is a very boyish boy, but he knows mama thinks it's ok to be a girl one day and a boy the next. we have a very butch (female) friend who he thought of as a 'boy' for a long time. he has a pink and blue stuffed animal that i call pinkie-blue, and i say pinkie blue is a she- he. the one transperson he knows is so clearly a daddy, my son wouldn't guess he'd ever had a woman's body - i wish we had more trans friends...

the way gender is enforced is terribly oppressive (see publications/gvchildren.htm), and i owe it to my child to teach him to see with wider eyes. this is important not just for transkids sake, but for our boys to know they don't have to always follow the 'boy rules' - it's ok to express their feelings, and to nurture, etc

looking forward to family camp at 'camp it up!' (a camp for all kinds of fmailies) sue