How to navigate your kids through that rigid gender concept phase

Updated Jul 26 2019
Guest post by Rodin Molina
How to navigate your kids through that rigid gender concept phase
Photo by Frank Mckenna

We've talked about kids and the spectrum of gender before, but one blog commenter had some great tips for getting kids through a typical developmental phase where they start to define people with rigid gender roles. Read on for some tips…

"It turns out that for young children, initial concepts about gender are quite flexible. In my own research, I’ve found that children don’t begin to notice and adopt gender-stereotyped behaviors (e.g., preferring colors like pink or blue) until the age of 2 or 3. A few years later, their concept of gender becomes quite rigid, and although it becomes more relaxed by middle childhood, even adults have trouble going back to thinking about gender as something that’s flexible."

"For Young Children, Concepts of Gender Are Quite Flexible" Slate March 30, 2016

I've seen this play out watching parenting in my queer community and also working at a local Montessori school. Categorizing the world (including based on gender) is a really important developmental phase and one that kids shouldn't be shamed for. However, introducing kids to many incarnations of gender is important.

Kids categorizing and gendering items and people is based on what they see around them. I know this phase can be REALLY hard for a lot of gender-bending parents… kids can go through phases where they say things that feel very problematic to folks post-binary. Also — the whole "x is better than y" or "only a's wear b's" phase just gets under some folks skin more than others on principle.

Here are my tips for getting through this phase:

  1. DO expose your kids to a lot of different types of people, ideally as friends and community members but through books/media if the former isn't possible for whatever reason.
  2. DO talk with your kids about what you see and what you think of it: "I think it's cool how the boy in this book wears dresses even though other people aren't used to boys wearing dresses. That's really brave."
  3. DON'T correct your kids or tell them they're wrong when they express opinions different from yours or developmentally normal binaries. Instead use it as an opportunity for a conversation — which means asking questions — and listening (a lot) more than you talk. No one likes to be lectured, and the way kids develop cool values is by being around people who demonstrate cool values, not by being monologued at.

Remember, your kid doesn't need to walk away from any given conversation with the "right" way of viewing things and kids' views of the world change constantly. The kid who argues you to the death that short hair is for boys only (despite you identifying as female and having short hair) one day will be the same kid you witness correcting their friend that anyone can have short hair who wants to the next day.