Children are bombarded with gender signals from the minute they are born.
Girls wear pink, while boys wear blue; girls are delicate, while guys are tough; girls are ballerinas, while boys are construction workers.
These messages aren’t always obvious, but they’re there nonetheless.
Kids take these signals and try to make sense of the world with them, which can lead to incorrect, self-limiting, or overtly prejudiced attitudes.
According to studies, if parents do not talk to children about gender from the time they can hold a conversation, such children’s early beliefs are unlikely to alter.
However, when traditional gender ideals are taught in TV shows, literature, and schools, it can be a difficult debate to have.
Here’s how to deal with it in a way that’s acceptable for your child’s age.
You need a sense of their baseline knowledge before you start talking about gender with youngsters.
Erin Pahlke, a developmental psychologist at Whitman College in Washington, says, “Kids learn to comprehend gender relatively early.”
“Once they understand the concept of gender, they try to figure out what it means to be a girl or a boy.
As a result, people begin to establish stereotypes.”
According to some psychological research, babies as early as three or four months old begin to distinguish between people based on their perceived sex.
Around the age of 18 to 24 months, gender labels such as “woman” and “man” begin to appear in their speech.
Around the age of three or four, they start to form basic gender stereotypes, such as men wear ties and ladies don’t, and boys are more violent than girls.
Prejudice and discrimination based on gender arise at the same time.
Around the age of 18 months to 3 years, children begin to establish a sense of their own gender identity.
According to Russ Toomey, program head of Family Studies and Human Development at the University of Arizona.
And, according to a 2019 PNAS study involving nearly 900 children, both cisgender and transgender youngsters have a strong sense of gender identity throughout childhood.
Toomey believes that young children are capable of distinguishing between sex and gender and that adults should assist them in doing so.
You may define sex by looking at your body and whether or not your doctor or midwife told you when you were born that you were a boy or a girl.
That doesn’t necessarily correspond to a person’s internal feelings about gender.
Toomey advocates explicitly clarifying that “penis does not mean boy” and “vagina does not equal female,” using proper terminology for body parts, even if it is uncomfortable.
Stereotypes about men and women
According to Rebecca Bigler, a developmental psychologist and emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin, children have tight gender preconceptions since that’s how they’ve been raised.
They form stereotypes for two primary reasons, according to Bigler, who employs ze/hir pronouns.
For starters, people frequently emphasize gender with phrases like “good morning, boys and girls” and “please line up boy, girl, boy, female.
” This tells children that gender is something to be aware of, and they begin to form stereotypes to make sense of it.
It’s difficult to break a child’s stereotype once it’s formed. “Children’s gender attitudes and preconceptions are more difficult to modify than adults’,” Bigler says.
Exposing children to media that depicts people who defy gender conventions is one thing you can do.
Read them a picture book about a non-binary child, like From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea, or show them movies like Mulan.
Which depict girls being rough and tumble.
Showing examples of people who break stereotypes, however, isn’t enough.
Bigler read stories with non-traditional gender representations to children for her honors thesis as an undergraduate, including one about a female firefighter who saves a puppy from a burning house.
When Ze asked the kids what occurred in the book, they answered the firefighter put out the fire and then saved the puppy.
According to Bigler, the children transformed the woman into a man because they believed that only men could be firefighters.
“You can’t just show them a girl who isn’t stereotypical in any way. You must hammer home the point by naming and explaining it.
Instead of discussing structural sexism and patriarchy with elementary-aged children, talk to them about justice.
It’s not enough to make these arguments once since children will forget them. “Honestly,” Christia Brown, a developmental psychologist at the University of Kentucky, adds, “I think they should be daily conversations.” To help children learn to recognize gender stereotypes, she suggests calling them out whenever you hear them.
Children realize that men and women are treated differently, but they don’t always understand why, so they invent their explanations.
Why have there been no female presidents, for example? When asked why only men have served as president of the United States, most children have a variety of answers.
Following the 2016 election, a survey by Pahlke, Bigler, and Brown found that 25% of respondents blamed gender discrimination.
Others believed that women couldn’t be leaders, that they weren’t educated enough, or that they didn’t want to be president. It was even regarded to be unlawful by others.
“I believe they don’t have the tools to grasp why such discrepancies exist because people haven’t talked to them about it,” Pahlke adds.
Brown advises against thinking too broad when teaching children about gender inequality. Instead of discussing structural sexism and patriarchy with elementary-aged children, talk to them about justice.
Explain that, although being incorrect, people are treated differently based on their gender.
Brown explains, “Any youngster who has a sibling who got a bigger brownie is quite conscious of the concept of unfair treatment.”
To provide elementary-aged children with the tools they need to tackle sexism, start by teaching them how to recognize when someone is being sexist. (An example might be when boys in gym class exclusively invite other boys to join their basketball team.)
After that, show them how to deal with those who are biassed. Provide them with language that they would feel at ease utilizing in everyday situations.
“Give it a break; no group is the best!” Bigler has instructed his students. “There is no such thing as a girl [fill in the blank with ‘toy,’ ‘haircut,’ ‘job,’ etc.]” and “There is no such thing as a girl [fill in the blank with ‘toy,’ ‘haircut,’ ‘job,’ etc.].”
“Most children will minimize their stereotyping and prejudice if those messages are repeated again and over,” Bigler says. “However, it is an uphill battle. It’s something you have to do over and over again.”
Human rights for transgender people
Children are becoming more aware of transgender persons, as is the rest of society, but they may not comprehend what it means to be trans.
Teaching this, like many other gender issues, necessitates multiple dialogues. Challenge a child’s thinking when they make a cis-centric assumption.
Don’t guess at a person’s gender if they inquire if he or she is a boy or a girl
for example. Instead, Toomey suggests asking the child why it’s necessary to know and explaining that the only way to find out if someone is a boy, girl, or non-binary is to ask them.
You can also utilize the news to start a conversation on trans equality issues, such as sports bans.
But, according to Toomey, the key is to make the trending issue relevant to the child or else the lesson will not stick.
You may, for example, discuss how unjust it would be if they couldn’t play their favorite sport, or you could tie the bans to a trans person in their lives. Don’t get caught up in the minutiae of politics.
But, before you have these conversations, you must tackle your own biases and educate yourself so that you can share accurate facts with a youngster about trans rights. Gender Spectrum is a great place to look for materials and learn more.
Gender identity and expression in children
At a young age, children develop a sense of their gender, which may be as a boy, a girl, both, or neither.
Adults should promote a child’s unique gender expression regardless of their ascribed sex, according to Toomey, because it’s important for their health.
According to a 2016 Pediatrics study on 73 transgender kids ages 3 to 12, after socially transitioning (using the name and pronouns that best fit them and clothing how they like), their melancholy rates are on par with cisgender kids’, and their anxiety is just slightly higher.
It’s important to encourage cisgender children who desire to present as gender nonconforming.
Toomey says, “Kids are natural explorers.” “Giving kids the freedom to do that without fear of being judged… is critical because it lays the groundwork for them to perceive gender in a more nuanced, non-binary way.”
At the end of the day, discussing gender with a child entails asking them questions about their worldview and loving and supporting them regardless of how they express their own identity.
You’re probably doing it correctly if you’re doing it that way.