"Are you a boy or a girl?" How do you explain gender to a child?
Don’t Pretend to know my gender Onsie from Daft Cat Ink
My kiddo is biologically male, but when kids ask him if he’s a boy or girl, he says, “I’m me. I’m a person.” Kids, however, don’t accept this answer and pester him to the point of tears. I don’t know how to tell him the difference between boys and girls, or if I want to tell him that there is a difference at all (besides anatomically).

How do you explain gender to a four-year-old?

Children can be at one moment the most open-minded creatures ever and then the next they are parroting something they heard from an adult or clinging to a notion they perceive as fact. Actually, that’s pretty much all of us. Children really are just mirrors to our most youthful and innocent selves. So innocent that they don’t even realize the harm they could be causing to children who are finally being allowed to explore their gender identity.

Gender identity research is still in its infancy and there are so many unknowns. Except by those who think they know that gender is a binary. So explaining what is still so murky is a challenge and a half.

Understand that they already know too much

The first thing is that your children get direct and indirect cues on gender norms from day one, most of which are going to be hard to contradict. You’ll have to make it a point to carefully consider your child’s clothing choices, toys, books, games, movies, and align those choices with your values. It seems like you’re already allowing him to self-define and that’s awesome. Continue to reinforce that his choices don’t define his gender and that he doesn’t have to select ones that match his assigned gender.

This daily affirmation of his autonomy and contradiction of stereotypes is the foundation of growing up open-minded about the gender spectrum.

Teach about different kinds of relationships

When there’s an example of a family or relational structure that differs from “the norm,” take that opportunity to discuss how families and people vary and why that’s okay. It’s okay to notice that they may be different from what he’s used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or weird or something he shouldn’t respect.

Help him understand bullying

The children who are hounding him for his gender definition are putting him in a vulnerable situation. You can rely on resources to counteract bullying to help with that immediate danger. But to really give him the resources to deal with it will take a lot of the lessons from above.

Developing self-esteem and confidence in who he is will be key.

Reach out for resources

Organizations like PFLAG can help you find local groups who can help you support him while he determines who he is and how he wants to live. Finding a community with others on the gender spectrum can only reinforce that there are many like him and that it’s totally valid.


Here are some books that can help children understand both gender diversity and how to deal with those who don’t understand it:

And some for parents of those children:

Help a Homie out! How would you handle the situation with this child’s classmates and teaching him about gender in general?

Comments on “Are you a boy or a girl?” How do you explain gender to a child?

  1. I’m also the mom of a 4-year-old, and unless you’ve been keeping your kiddo in a box, developmentally speaking, your kid probably has a solid grasp of the differences between boys and girls. (It’s probably more of a “boys do this thing, girls do this thing,” or it may be a genitalia-based definition, but there’s at least some awareness of the differences.) What your kiddo may be lacking is a feeling that either category applies to them (or even SHOULD apply to them) – perhaps they’re non-binary or genderqueer or agender, or maybe they’re MTF trans and haven’t figured out that it’s possible yet, or maybe they just like pink and dolls AND blue and trucks and isn’t sure what that means. Definitely talk (or rather listen) to your kiddo, see if you can coax out what their interpretation of gender is and how they feel about it. This is a conversation (or a series of conversations) where you can make sure they understand that there aren’t “boy toys” or clothes or colors or anything, and anybody can wear and do whatever makes them happy, but also can talk about how some people with penises are girls, and some people don’t feel like they are either a boy or a girl, and other developmentally-appropriate introductions to gender nonconformity.

    My husband is transgender, and I tried my best to use inclusive language with our kiddo, and ask her (repeatedly, over time) whether she was a boy or a girl and what that meant to her. Once she figured out what gender identity WAS (at two), her answers never changed: she is a girl. She’s 4 now, and currently declaring that she ONLY wants a GIRL to help her (brush her teeth, run her bath, etc). Briefly she only wanted to invite girls to her birthday party (she ended up changing her mind, she has lots of friends who are boys). So if your 4-year-old is developmentally typical, you don’t have to explain the difference between boys and girls – they know. They just need your support to figure out what the difference means to THEM and what they should say to people who won’t accept their truth. (“Are you a boy or a girl?” “Both! Neither! Are you a puppy or a kitten?”)

  2. I really hope I see the day when people will stop using gendered boxes as the norm. I have noticed several steps in the right direction in recent years, little things that really make me hope. ( I live in Canada.) I’ve actually sort of been meaning to write a short post on here to boost the spirits of the homies who live in other countries where acceptance seems to be going backwards that change IS possible.

    I am non-binary, and I favor a more masculine look especially at work. I am also mom to a nine year old.

    I have found gender prejudice impossible to escape once school started. As the previous poster noted, kids learn really young and really quick what a typical boy or girl should do. It’s impossible to escape this reality, at least for now.

    I think my role in gender neutral parenting is not to have my child deny having a gender. It is about not letting her identity stop her from doing things that feel right. And also to know that her identity does not necessarily have to match her parts and that’s cool. And if she’s like me, and it’s complicated and changes often and she can’t even label herself that’s cool too!

    She knows she is a girl, anatomically. She likes petshops and doing her nails. She also loves her ATV and rocked a flash mcqueen lunchbox for first grade. She just told the bullies that she liked it, end of story.

    There is an openness to difference in her that is missing from my generation. At her school, there are boys and there are girls and there is Charlie. Literally. She gets her own category and everyone is fine with that. She is biologically a girl. Everything about her is stereotypical boy, from her clothes to her love of hockey and her parents are amazing to let her be. Is she trans? Maybe, maybe not, she is still young for boxes and thankfully after some power struggles where she proved she didn’t give a eff what others thought, she got her own box. THAT is what we can aspire to.

    (Having a non-conforming parent also creates funny situations. I took my kid shopping for a special occasion and told her she could pick my tie. She was pretty confused when we got to the men’s section. She wanted to go to the women’s tie section, the one she assumed I got my other ties from… Cause she knows I’m a woman physically, and it never occured to her I would shop in the men’s half. The look on her face was quite funny, and that little incident forced her to deepen her reflexion. Even if I was parenting by example, she still applied the gender boxes logic, it just got screwed and then she had to rethink stereotypes.)

    I am sure you will do a great job parenting your kid! It sounds like you are already putting thought and effort into how the filters you apply to interpret the world affect him. Whatever his or her identity, and whether that matches their parts or not, they will feel loved and supported and that is the most essential part of accepting your gender identity.

    • The clothes issue is so troublesome. I hate that most clothing stores have babies and kids clothes separated into Girls and Boys. It creates an unnecessary separation and makes it harder to shop for people like my kid who likes both the color pink and construction equipment. It makes sense when their bodies are actually shaped differently, but it’s crazy to make such a useless separation when they’re little. (Not to mention all the problems that come with designating certain things like space and unicorns to be “just for girls” or “just for boys”.)

  3. My husband is trans. Here’s what we told our daughters about gender when they were little, based on what he wished he had heard growing up:
    “Most people with vaginas are girls and most people with penises are boys, but not always. Girls and boys can like anything and do anything. We’re all just people.
    Right now, we’re going to call you a girl, but as you grow up and learn about yourself, you can decide who you want to be.”

    This leaves the door open to communication if your child experiences feelings of dysphoria. Most kids, if nurtured in an environment that does not place exaggerated emphasis on defined gender roles, will feel OK with the gender assigned to them at birth.

    • That’s a really excellent approach – giving the child the basic information to help them understand how things are defined without putting any pressure on them or making them feel they must fit a certain definition. The best of both worlds!

  4. This post inspired me to finally tweet at Old Navy asking them to stop separating their babies and kids clothes by gender. Not only is it annoying to have to look in both sections to find clothes for my child who happens to like both pink AND dinosaurs, but it’s presenting a very separate definition of gender for very young people. It’s also encouraging kids to only like “boy” things like space or “girl” things like unicorns when any kid should be able to enjoy them.

    Heaven forbid I buy a t-shirt that’s purple and has a train picture. What a horrible world we’d live in if a child could wear a dark blue shirt with hearts on it!

    • Have you found some of the scandinavian clothing companies that do exactly this? I think smafolk, for example, has pink shirts with dump trucks on them. We were pretty excited!

  5. I honestly think that people are making more out of something that is not important to a child. Most children are concerned with what is important to them and their environment and how it relates to them. It doesn’t matter to my grandson who just turned 5 what gender means. It’s more relevant to him if his friend, Luke is good or bad at school today because if he’s bad then he doesn’t want to play with him because Luke gets in trouble from the teacher. My grandson doesn’t want to get in trouble with the teachers. He called me the other day on the phone and said” Grandma, I haven’t talked to you in a long time.” I spoke to him two days before but I called him. He meant that he hadn’t called me first. He talked about his teachers and ice pops and videos. The attention span at this age is short but they remember most everything. I don’t believe that they pay attention to different clothes department in stores unless you are the one emphasizing the separation between sexes. Personally, I buy clothes according to what I want them to wear. At this age, it’s not necessary to ask the child. If they have a favorite color, then I buy it without asking their opinion. There is very little variation in style and color at this age anyway. I know that my grandson likes Pokémon and other characters and pants with pockets and my granddaughter likes Mickey Mouse and dresses so that’s what I buy. I may buy them tons of toys, books, and clothes but the only one that I need to ask an opinion is the parent.

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