Here’s How to Explain Gender Identity and Expression to Kids


Here’s How to Explain Gender Identity and Expression to Kids

by Lindsey Amer

How can I teach my kids that a person’s appearance does not tell you anything about their gender or pronouns, while also including non-binary genders? Can you give a quick explanation of how to do this without confusing a young mind too much?
— Anonymous

Lindsay Says:

Just because gender seems complicated to us grown-ups doesn’t mean that it has to be complicated for kids. We have had many years of the gender binary and stereotypical gender presentations burned into our brains, but kids haven’t! So really, it doesn’t have to be a big complex conversation.

Here, we’re talking about the difference between gender identity and gender expression. The first thing I would do is define those two ideas independently.

Gender identity is internal. It’s about how you feel about your gender. That has to do with what pronouns you use—i.e. the words that stand in for your name based on your gender. Some people use “she” pronouns (she/her/hers), some use “he” pronouns (he/him/his), some use “they” pronouns (they/them/theirs), and some use other gender neutral pronouns (e.g. xe/hir/hirs).

By contrast, gender expression is external. It’s how you present your gender to other people through your clothes, hair, makeup, lack of makeup, etc.

That’s how you talk about these ideas separately. Now that you’ve got that sorted out, then you can talk about how they relate to each other! You’ve already given the perfect explanation in your question: you can’t tell what someone’s pronouns are just by looking at them. That’s exactly the lesson you should teach your kids. It’s simple and straightforward. Teach them that you can have short hair and use “she” pronouns and you can wear dresses and use “he” pronouns. Instead of assuming someone’s gender or pronouns from their appearance, you can teach your kids to ask for someone’s pronouns first. So far, so simple.

What can be difficult about this (for us grown-ups) is explaining different facets of gender expression. I’ve found that it’s difficult to explain exactly what feminine, masculine, and androgynous mean without using gendered language. So, what I recommend is using examples. Take a look at the people in your life and look up a couple of queer public figures online. Do you know people who present feminine? How about anyone who is androgynous? Now how about masculine? Make sure you include non-binary and trans people in your examples. Don’t forget people of color too! Show your kids the pictures you’ve found and talk about their pronouns and how that compares to how they present themselves. Show them that you can’t know someone’s pronouns just by looks alone with a diverse representation of presentation and pronoun combinations.

You can continue instilling this lesson for as long as you need. Encourage your kids to get in the habit of asking people’s pronouns when they meet someone new, and be sure to lead by example in your own life. It’s respectful and polite and ensures that they don’t misgender someone. Allow them to experiment with their own pronouns and presentation as well. Now is the time for them to play dress up and pretend play with different genders. Don’t just teach them about other people’s identities and expressions, show them that these lessons apply to them as well.

Lindsay is a New York-based artist making queer content for kids! You can check out their newest project, Queer Kid Stuff, an LGBTQ+ educational webseries for the kiddos on YouTube. They are also a founder and Co-Artistic Director for Bluelaces Theater Company, creating multi-sensory work for individuals with developmental differences. They hold a BS in Theatre (with a minor in Gender Studies) from Northwestern University and an MA in Theater and Performance from Queen Mary University of London. When they’re not completely overwhelmed by adulthood, they’re probably plotting ways to overthrow the patriarchy while playing their ukulele. Follow them on Twitter @thelamerest