I started transgressing gender norms with my children when they were babies. I dressed them in colors and styles assigned to their ‘opposite’ gender. I encouraged them to play with toys that didn’t match social expectations. I read them books featuring gender-bending characters. Yet I sometimes felt like my efforts were tiny drops in a sea of gendered messages they were receiving elsewhere.
Figuring out one’s identity is a lifelong process that begins in infancy. Gender is an aspect of that identity and, like other aspects, it is best discovered through exploring possibilities. However, a strong gender binary discourages children’s exploration. Instead of the freedom to discover what clothes, games, and hairstyles express their personality, children feel pressured to conform to assigned identity labels.
While parents and caregivers are children’s primary influencers, kids need additional gender inclusive spaces in which to explore and self-identify. Otherwise, many children may suffer spiritually because how they see themselves and how they are expected to identify don’t align. Organizations can support children’s healthy identity development by designating their programs as gender inclusive spaces. This means thinking about and enacting specific policies and practices that undercut the conventional boy/girl binary.
One simple way to become more gender inclusive is to avoid sorting children into groups by presumed gender. Rather than asking them to sit boy/girl around a circle, invite them to organize themselves according to their preference for cake versus pie. Using ungendered categories – and changing them up from week to week – gives children a chance to learn more about personal preferences and discover how they share some similarities with children they might not otherwise view as ‘like me’.
Providing all gender restrooms is another step to take. Just make sure your signage doesn’t depict male/female figures, which reinforces the idea that gender identity comes in just two forms. Instead, advocates suggest signs that say ‘all gender restroom’, with or without an image of a toilet.
Since children learn subjective pronouns (he, she, they) around three years of age, offer pronoun stickers or buttons that children can use to self-identify beginning in pre-kindergarten. Younger children may find it fun to experiment with the pronouns they select, or their choices may reflect genuine self-awareness. Respect children’s identification and exploration by using the pronouns they have chosen and asking “What pronouns would you like for me to use for you?” when preferences are unclear.
It’s also important for group leaders to remind children that gender does not dictate what activities, names, haircuts, or clothes are appropriate for them. Lots of people like short hair, or the color pink, or baking, or playing sports, for reasons that have nothing to do with gender. Encourage children to ask why someone likes something rather than assuming it’s because they’re a boy or girl.
Lastly, if you witness a child teasing another based on gender, take time to talk through the assumptions behind their words. Children pick up their ideas about gender from what they see and hear around them. Help them see that not everyone views gender the same way, and that they can choose to be inclusive rather than judgmental.