How to Talk to Your Kids About Gender

9 minute read

In the U.S., legislation banning discussions about gender and sexuality in schools has been introduced in nearly half of states, affecting students as old as 18 in places like Florida, which recently expanded its so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law to cover kids from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The supporters of such laws often argue that they are simply giving parents more control over their children’s educations. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), parents already have the greatest influence on a child’s sexual decision-making and values. But some experts worry that, without support from professional educators, families may be overwhelmed by the task of teaching children about gender—a topic about which young Americans’ views have rapidly changed.

“When you take the job of education around complex issues out of the hands of experts and educators, you are leaving parents and caregivers and guardians to do jobs that they aren’t qualified to do,” says Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN, an organization advocating for affirming learning environments for LGBTQ youth.

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And as the country becomes increasingly diverse in terms of gender identity—UCLA’s Williams Institute estimates that there are some 300,000 transgender youth living in the U.S., a number that has doubled since 2017—it’s more important than ever for parents to be equipped with clear, accurate information.

Read more: The Pain and Pride of a Generation Changing How America Sees Gender

TIME spoke to experts about how parents can frame conversations about gender with their children at different stages of their youth. Here’s what they said:

Reassess your own assumptions about gender

Before discussing gender with their children, experts suggest, parents should do some research to better understand the nuances within the topic, whether that means familiarizing themselves with the difference between gender and sex, looking into what it means to be transgender, or understanding pronouns.

Gender expression, according to the AAP, refers to the way a person expresses gender through clothing, hair, mannerisms, activities, or social roles. Changes in a child’s gender expression do not necessarily mean that that child is transgender.

“For most kids, experimenting with gender will be just that—exploration and play,” says Cameron Van Fossen, executive director of Gender Spectrum, an organization dedicated to the well-being of gender-expansive children. “For some kids, though, it may feel more intense.”

Parents should listen if a child is insistent on identifying in a manner outside of their gender assigned at birth. Van Fossen says in these moments parents need to try to “de-center” their own thoughts and feelings, remembering that a child’s identity is a reflection of their own sense of self, not of their parents: “It is not an attack on you, your values, or your worldview.”

But it can also be a moment to assess one’s own biases. Van Fossen tells TIME that parents should ask themselves: “How do you feel about boys who wear nail polish, and girls who want to shop in the boy’s department for clothes? What messages about gender expression were you given as a child?”

Other experts, like Lindz Amer, author of Rainbow Parenting: Your Guide to Raising Queer Kids and Their Allies, suggest parents also start by thinking about their own gender identity, and what makes them feel like a man, woman, or nonbinary person. “Have you actually asked yourself, ‘Oh, I’m a woman, what makes me feel like a woman, outside of my birth certificate?’” says Amer.

Most importantly, Willingham-Jaggers says, parents should know that it’s OK if they don’t know everything about gender and should be open to relying on others for help. “Parents should understand that LGBTQ+ people are in every single community and every single neighborhood,” Willingham-Jaggers says. If parents plan on discussing gender, Willingham-Jaggers suggests they go into that conversation with a level of humility, knowing that they might not know everything.

“If you don’t know something, be honest about that with your kid. Let them know ‘Hey, I don’t have that lived experience. I don’t know everything. Let’s look it up online, or let’s watch this web series video about nonbinary identity,” Amer says.

Read more: As Texas Targets Trans Youth, a Family Leaves in Search of a Better Future

Have age-appropriate conversations about gender

For younger children, an explicit conversation detailing the intricacies of gender may prove difficult to conceptualize. However, it is important to note that children pick up on subliminal ideas about gender through media as well as interactions with their classmates and family members. That means that children begin to form their ideas about gender earlier than parents may think, as they absorb everything from society’s general expectations to the way their own parents may praise or dress their children.

For infants, reading a picture book that features transgender or nonbinary characters may be a helpful and easy introduction. Amer suggests books by Kyle Lukoff or Maya Christina Gonzalez (both of which made the list of the most banned picture books for the 2021-2022 school year, per Pen America). For toddlers, they suggest teaching a child about pronouns. Amer says parents can do so at the beginning of the day, by asking their child what their pronouns are. Parents should encourage their children to ask them the same. Adults can also model sharing their pronouns when they introduce themselves to friends or family members. At this age, Van Fossen notes that parents should also “give children many options that allow them to explore and share their interests and feelings,” which can be done by letting a child play with a wide range of toys regardless of their sex.

“Gender may be something your child has thought a lot about on their own, or it may be something they haven’t yet given much thought to,” says Van Fossen, of Gender Spectrum. “Maybe they’ve met a friend who identifies as part of the transgender community, or has a different gender expression, or has parents who do.”

Parents should also lean on children’s natural curiosity to teach them about their bodies. Amer details this in their book, nothing that parents do not have to discuss sex with young children, but instead should teach them about body kindness (to love and care for their body), body ownership (that people control their own bodies) and body language (the accurate names for their body parts, including genitals). That helps teach children about body safety and boundaries, according to the AAP, and it also serves as a way into possibly discussing how some people may share the same body parts but identify differently; parents can be careful from the start to differentiate between a penis as a body part, for example, and maleness as an identity. Van Fossen suggests introducing these ideas by age 3, though experts also say parents know when is the most appropriate time to discuss this with their children.

Overall, Van Fossen notes, parents should teach their children that “gender norms are optional, and transgender and nonbinary people exist and are valid and valuable in the world.”

Approach the conversation with curiosity and care

Experts tell TIME that children of all ages should know that everyone is deserving of love and respect, regardless of how they identify. In Amer’s book, the author suggests parents introduce this by contrasting Froot Loops and Cheerios. Talk to your toddler about the differences and similarities they note between the two. While doing so, emphasize that differences are not negative, and that being different does not make it better or worse.

As a child grows, they may have a clearer sense of their gender identity. It is especially vital for parents to reiterate their love and care regardless of a child’s gender, as research indicates that transgender youths report higher rates of suicidal thoughts, and fewer than 1 in 3 trans or nonbinary youth live in a gender-affirming home.

“The No. 1 job of parents is to see their child clearly and believe their child when their child tells them who they are,” Willingham-Jaggers tells TIME. “No. 2 is letting them know that whoever they are, they are your kid and you love them, and that nothing is going to change that.”

Van Fossen says parents should “be ready to learn and to get it wrong,” noting that today’s teens have “greater understandings of gender and sexuality” than parents may have had at that age. Having conversations with a child that accurately reflect their family’s values and showcase empathy and love are vital when they are teenagers and may be struggling to fit in.

If a child expresses a gender identity that may be different than what a parent presumed, advocating for that child to be treated fairly, whether that be at school or among their family, is vital.

“We know from research that children do best when their parents or caregivers show them that they are loved and accepted for who they are,” says Van Fossen. “Discouraging your child from expressing a gender can make them feel ashamed. Give them unconditional support. In doing so, you are not framing a gender, but simply accepting who they are and how they are feeling.”

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