Explaining the Gender Binary to Young Children
Explaining the Gender Binary
to Young Children
by Lindsay Amer
The gender binary can be really complicated! And it’s totally daunting to figure out how to explain it to a young kid in a way that honors that complexity while still being simple enough to grasp. But the thing is, ultimately, it’s not as complicated as you think. What you’ve got to remember is that the gender binary is a construct. We made it up. It doesn’t actually exist. And young kids are so new to this world that they are only just starting to learn about these constructs, so it is much easier for them to unlearn them. For adults, constructs like the gender binary have been ingrained into our perception of the world for so long that we forget it was something we created, and can therefore change. So that’s the first thing to wrap your brain around before you tackle this topic with your kid.
The second thing is how you want to go about explaining these ideas, since they don’t have the same frame of reference as you. When I’m thinking about ways to explain big queer topics to kids and I get completely overwhelmed by my own understanding of the topic and all the heady, intense stuff that goes with it, I always have to remind myself of the perspective of the child. One of my favorite professors used to tell me to write for kids from “under the doorknob,” to look at situations from the perspective of these tiny humans who have a limited knowledge about the world. That shift in perspective brings me to their immediate surroundings, literally. Use what they know and what is already familiar to them in order to explain something that is unfamiliar. This strategy helps associate their newfound understanding with a positive association from their daily lives.
So here’s how I like to explain gender to kids in a way that includes non-binary identities:
With a stuffed animal! Specifically an animal and specifically one that hasn’t been gendered by the manufacturer. You can use one your kid already has. It is ideal to use a stuffed animal your child has an established relationship with. I like to use my bear Teddy who I’ve had since infancy when I do this exercise. It is very important to use an animal because you generally cannot tell what gender they are from looking at them (I’d try to avoid animals like lions that have specific markers for gender).
Use the toy to spark a conversation between you and your child about gender. Ask them how they named their stuffed animal. Ask them if their stuffed animal is a boy or a girl (or neither!). Ask them how they knew their stuffed animal’s gender. What you want to get at is that they didn’t necessarily know what gender their stuffed animal was just from looking at it—they felt that gender made sense for their stuffed animal. And because they felt that their stuffed animal was that gender, that made it true.
Have them look at their stuffed animal again and see if they can tell what gender it is just from looking at it. If they don’t know, suggest that their toy might not even have a gender. This point can bring you to the real topic, that people can be one gender, or another, or neither, or both, and you can’t always tell just by looking at them. And when people feel like they are one gender, that makes it true for them as well. Not only does this introduce non-binary identities, it also lays the foundation for understanding trans identities.
Moving on to explaining sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. These are a little more complicated. Homophobia is a bit of a different animal because it doesn’t really tie into the gender conversation above, so let’s set that one aside for now. For sexism and transphobia, you can easily move into an explanation after going through the gender stuffed animal conversation. Now that you’ve explored the conversation around gender, you’ve laid your groundwork. Reassure them that there is nothing better or worse about one gender or another, but that sometimes, people treat others differently based on their gender even though they shouldn’t. This is true for boys and girls (sexism), but it is also true when people get confused about others’ genders when they can’t tell their gender just by looking at them (transphobia).
Tackling homophobia is different because the child needs to understand what being gay is first, since gender and sexuality are two essentially unrelated topics. Assuming they already understand what being gay is, I would approach the explanation in a similar way: That sometimes, other people don’t understand why two people of the same gender love each other and because of that, they treat gay people differently. The most important thing to hit home with all of this is, of course, that no one should ever be treated differently from anyone else because of their gender or their sexuality. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Whew, you can take a breath now. That was a lot. Now here’s the best part about explaining these topics with their favorite stuffed animal: There are SO many opportunities to reinforce the lesson. Encourage your child to use different pronouns for the stuffed animal. Dress them up in a tutu one day, and a tiny pair of overalls the next. Bring the stuffed animal to tea as Mr. Teddy one day, and Ms. Teddy the next. Use the pronoun “they” instead of “he” or “she.” Get creative! And remind them of the conversation you had when you can. You have the best teaching tool on the planet available to you now in their queer education: their sense of play. Don’t be afraid to use it.
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
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