Kids’ questions about gender (“Mom, am I a boy?”) can turn even the savviest parents into babbling bumblers. We’re so nervous about saying the wrong thing, we end up saying too much and communicating nothing (FYI: Kids can digest two sentences max, research shows.) Thankfully, there are tons of simple ways to teach tolerance, from choosing stereotype-smashing role models to considering gender neutral parenting. Here, some up-to-date expert advice.
Keep Your Answers Short and Simple
When your child asks, “Can boys wear makeup?” or “Can girls have boyish haircuts?” a simple answer is all that's needed. Tell them, for example, “Most boys don't wear makeup, but some do and that’s OK. There are lots of different ways for different kinds of people to express who they are.” Suggests gender educator Cory Silverberg: “Raising healthy kids in terms of gender means letting them know they have options and supporting them as they figure it out for themselves.”
Choose role models who break the mold. When your little boy casually suggests, “Girls are not as brave as boys, right?” it’s time to whip out an Amelia Earhart biography. Consider steering kids toward gender-neutral activities like martial arts, tennis, swimming, running, biking, cooking, art or soccer instead of automatically signing her up for ballet and him up for football (unless, of course, they love those things). Need guidance on how to support a son who loves dresses—or a daughter who absolutely loathes them? Look no further than Brian Austin Green, Brangelina, and Cheryl Kilodavis, author of My Princess Boy.
“Even the most overtly woke among us can find ourselves buying art supplies for girls and sports toys for boys,” writes New York Times parenting columnist KJ Dell’Antonia. Many sites, including Target's, offer gender-neutral toy selections. Legos and Orbeez for all!
Revamp Their Roles
Parents and teachers should take note of the subtle ways they’re reinforcing old-school (and restrictive) gender roles, one expert tells CNN. “Girls can take out the garbage, and boys can do dishes. Let both boys and girls know it's OK to express and discuss their feelings and emotions and to cry when they are sad.”
Watch Your Language
It’s easy to see how words like “gossipy,” “bossy” and “mean girl” or “aggressive” and “wild” fuel negative gendered stereotypes. But experts say we should also watch the way we compliment kids: Telling a girl she’s “pretty” and “polite” and a boy he’s “super strong” and “tough” maybe shouldn’t be our default praise. An easy rule of thumb? Always applaud a child’s efforts over his (or her) outsides.