How to Discuss Gender Identity With Kids, According to a First Grade Teacher & Member of the Trans Community

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One day after school, my 7-year-old daughter casually mentioned that she’s cis-gender. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that this clueless binary millennial had to Google the term before validating her statement. It turns out that my daughter’s first grade teacher, Julian Barlow—an incredible educator who also happens to be a transsexual man—included a discussion of gender identity in the curriculum, in the most thoughtful and age-appropriate way. Part of this conversation involved sharing his personal journey with the class. (His earliest memories of feeling like a boy date back to the first grade, although he says he didn’t come out until he was in his twenties, largely due to the fact that he had neither the language nor the understanding of what this meant until then.)

I found his choice to tell all this to his students incredibly courageous and inspiring; I also felt grateful because, well, better him than me. Indeed, this brief interaction with my daughter made me realize that I had very little confidence in my ability to discuss gender identity with my small children in a way that made sense to them and didn’t result in a foot-in-mouth moment for all the adults in the room.

Do other parents feel the same? And are there tactics we can use if we’re not lucky enough to a have a teacher like my daughter’s? I went straight to the source, and asked Barlow for a few tips on how to initiate an effective conversation on such an important topic. Here’s what he had to say. (Spoiler: Books are your best friend.)

Lay the groundwork before you dive in

Barlow explains that he gradually builds up to a bigger conversation about gender with the class, and he encourages parents to do the same at home. For starters, he wants to ensure he’s formed strong and caring relationships with his students before sharing such a personal story. But additionally, he sees value in normalizing certain other non-conforming behaviors so that “when the deeper or heavier part of the conversation is broached, the kids already have all this background knowledge to draw upon.”

One of his favorite story time conversation starters is Neither by Airlie Anderson. This picture book tells the tale of a unique-looking creature born into a binary world (“The Land of This and That”) where he’s told he doesn’t belong. It’s a whimsical and fun read that makes no mention of gender identity, but boasts a far-reaching message, a resounding affirmation of inclusivity and diversity. 

Bottom line? Look for examples in your world where kids might think there are only a few ways of doing something, and challenge them to think deeper. (Do all families have a mom and dad? Do all moms wear dresses and have long hair? You get the idea.)

Then introduce the concept of gender identity

Even after the warm-up, Barlow prefers books and conversations that feel like they’re about everybody and “provide kids with language to talk about themselves, whether they’re trans or not.” He recommends It Feels Good to be Yourself by Theresa Thorn, which lays out the simple, child-friendly concept that “some people are boys. Some people are girls. Some people are both, neither, or somewhere in between.”

For inquisitive kids who want to know the details, Barlow uses a simple explanation that goes something like this: “When every baby is born, doctors and parents make their best guess about the gender, but sometimes they guess wrong.”

He also recommends modeling as an important tool for teaching kids to never assume someone’s gender. For example, when children use pronouns to describe a character portrayed in a picture book, you might say something to the effect of, “I noticed you used the word 'he' to describe this character. I wonder if that's the pronoun this character uses. I bet we'll find out once we start reading and learn more about the characters."

But keep it vague…

Another benefit of age-appropriate reading material is that it spares parents (and educators) the awkwardness of being asked specific questions about transitioning. Genitals are rarely mentioned by young kids during these conversations, and when confronted with a ‘well, what next?’ type of question, Barlow says it’s best just to deflect and return to the idea that, for kids, there is no ‘what’s next?’ Rather, it’s a matter of understanding that “there’s no one way to be trans or non-binary, just as there’s no one way to be cis-gender,” and what matters most is simply that “everyone feels comfortable expressing their gender in different ways,” he says. (You can also convey, in the vaguest and simplest of terms, that doctors can help people look the way they feel, but what that means is different for everyone.)

Educate yourself

“Parents who don’t understand gender beyond the binary should first do a little bit of reading to better prepare themselves for a productive conversation with their curious kid,” says Barlow. His pick? Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon. After all, you may have the best of intentions, but it’s easy to get lost in uncharted territory, and the more you know, the more confident you’ll feel when exploring it with your family.

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Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...