Exploring gender with young children: Going beyond the pink and the blue

By Leah Persky, PhD & Certified Family Life Educator  • Family Life Education Manager

As we celebrate Pride month, this is a perfect time to focus on engaging with our children about what Pride month is all about, and specifically how children can be brought into discussions that focus on understanding and celebrating the diversity of gender expressions and identities that exist. Many parents wonder how to start discussions about gender and what age these discussions can begin. The answer is to start now!

Infants begin to recognize the difference between genders as early as 3 months old. Developmentally, young children become aware of physical differences between boys and girls by around age 2, and by their 3rd birthday, most children can label themselves as a girl or a boy. With these broad stages in mind, it is important to start discussions about gender early. Below are some ideas to get you started. These ideas are best-suited for children ages 10 and younger, but are not limited to this age group.

Most important is to begin the discussion in a way that encourages children to ask questions, explore ideas and feel comfortable doing so with you. Children are curious and interested about the world and how it works. They may ask questions you don’t know the answers to, or ask you awkward questions in public. It may be our instinct to quiet them or say, “don’t be rude,” or “we don’t talk about such things.” But it is crucial to respond. If we shush them and don’t respond, feelings of shame or confusion may prevail. Patience and compassion should guide our responses. Further, short and direct responses are most effective.

Our views on gender are often so deeply held, they are often unconscious. This means that we often don’t think about them AND they inform our understandings of the world around us and our place in it in very powerful ways. These views relate to implicit biases, which deeply impact what we view as possible, how we treat others and the value we place on them and ourselves. Just as so many individuals and families are working to become anti-racist, we should also actively work to become inclusive of all genders and their diverse expression. This means a move away from the dominant gender dichotomy with only two possible choices.

Here are a few tips and ideas to get you started with having these discussions with younger children.

1. Talk about gender as a spectrum and explore the key differences between what gender and sex are. Sex is most simply a biological definition, one that our society has created. Sex is most-commonly assigned at birth based on physical characteristics. It is traditionally binary in nature.  Gender is how we identify ourselves, how we present ourselves, and how we interact with the world around us. This may or may not neatly line up with the binary construct of sex, and either way is perfect. This is an important discussion to have with our children, with more resources on this below.

2. Explore what gender means to your family, children, and to our society. Inspirations can come from the world around us: What do you think of when you think of the words teacher, doctor, body-builder, pilot, or cook? What assumptions do we each make and why? Explore why it is important to not make assumptions about others based on their clothing, interests, or hair. It is also fun to explore what kids see themselves doing in the future and why.

Another idea is to explore items in your home and discuss who uses them and for what purpose. Just as there are no boy’s colors or girl’s colors, children should be taught that toys and sports and other everyday items are for everyone. This is an important thing to talk about with children as young as 1. Research demonstrates that by 10 months of age, babies associate items (think hammer and scarf) with a gender; forming something like a very early and primitive stereotype. (Levy GD, Haaf RA. Detection of gender-related categories by 10-month-old infants)

Having these discussions may help to avoid further gendering items in our world. While norms are changing, it is still commonplace for women to be associated with the private sphere and home and invisible or undervalued work. We should work actively against these engrained stereotypes to open up the world of possibilities for our children. As a child, I remember clearly the pink girl’s toy aisle with dolls and dress-up toys and the boy’s aisle with action heroes and vehicles. I remember sticking within the pink zone ­– but what would have been possible if I explored what else was out there? What might I have gained? Explore all aisles and toys with all children to open up our views and understanding of what is possible and who fits where.

3. Explore gender-inclusive books and media together. For a great list to get you started, check out this or this.

4. Attend diverse community events to have new experiences, meet new people and explore novel ideas together. Children who are exposed to more diversity at a young age are more likely to be empathetic and inclusive of people different from themselves. For upcoming events, check out Twin Cities Pride – many events are family-friendly – and seek out events near you that celebrate people and cultures different from your own.

5. Based on the maturity level of your child, talk about gender pronouns and why they matter. Learn about the pronouns that most resonate with your child and explore why. These ongoing discussions will help to break down the binary gender categories that are so dominant in our society. Here is an excellent guide to help you start the discussion and explore the power of these little words. There are also useful concepts defined in it.

I hope some of these ideas will be useful to you and your family. These are ongoing and dynamic conversations that you are well-equipped to handle. With love, empathy, patience and understanding, we can all contribute to making our small part of the world even more loving and inclusive. Drop me a line and let me know how it is going, or reach out if you would like to further discuss any of these ideas. I would love to hear from you! lpersky@jfcsmpls.org

For more information about J-Pride at JFCS, click here!