Teaching Gender Diversity to Toddlers: 11 Fun Ideas
Guest post by Rowan Renee of Activist Parenting
Why you should start teaching kids about gender diversity now
Imagine this: your child is sitting in their desk in their preschool classroom. In the desk to the right is a transgender child who other students frequently make fun of. Does your kid makes friends with this child?
Imagine this: your child just got their lunch and is deciding where to sit. There is a table of well-liked kids who are known for making other kids laugh, sometimes by picking on someone. (It’s the early version of the “cool kid” table.) There are several other tables with groups of basically nice kids, but most laugh at the “cool kids'” jokes. There is a girl sitting by herself. She’s the fastest runner in class, likes to play with trucks, and mostly gets excluded from friend groups. Where does your child sit?
Or, imagine this: there is a new student in class who surprises most by dressing outside of expectations. Perhaps they are a boy who wears nail polish or wears purple. The other students don’t know how to react so they mostly ignore him. What does your child do?
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Gender Diversity and Bullying
Most parents have idealistic visions of their kids, myself included. We imagine that when our babies and toddlers are in school they won’t be afraid to befriend kids who others ignore and exclude. We assume they won’t participate in bullying, and instead they will befriend those who are bullied.
But the truth is that most kids are silent when they witness bullying. Most avoid associating with bullied kids for fear they will get bullied themselves. And most will choose a table at lunch with a group of kids they generally play with. Most will also follow suit by ignoring or excluding kids who don’t conform to gender expectations.
But here’s the good news. We can help prepare our little ones for situations like these long before they walk into their first day of preschool. How? By teaching them about gender diversity.
It’s easy to teach when you start at a young age. In fact, you can start when they are babies. They can grow up with gender diversity always being a normal concept for them. The best part? It can be really fun. The trick is to work with kids in they way they learn best: play, music, stories, and attending community events.
Understanding the difference between sex and gender
The only real way to start teaching kids is to familiarize yourself with a broader concept of gender. Most of us were taught that there are two distinct and opposite genders. Turns out, this is a very limited and incorrect perception.
“What?” I hear you say. “Of course there are two genders: boy and girl.”
Well, I am here to inform you that you have been misled. We all were. Gender can better be thought of as a spectrum, and people identify all along the spectrum.
“But don’t our bodies define our gender?” you ask. Good question. A lot of people are still confused about that. The answer is no. The confusion comes from an assumption that the concepts of sex and gender are interchangeable, which is entirely incorrect.
Sex: a person’s sex refers to their biological characteristics, namely their genitals and reproductive organs. When a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not conform to either male or female, they are referred to as intersex.
Gender: one’s internal sense of being a woman, man, gender neutral, gender non-conforming, transgender, or non-binary.
Still with me? Good, because I have barely scratched the surface. I’ve got a printable glossary with some basic gender-related vocabulary that you can download here. I also recommend checking out some sites dedicated to this topic. Because if Schoolhouse Rock! taught us anything, it’s that knowledge is power. My personal recommendation is to start with Gender Identity 101, a blog posted at The Body is Not an Apology. They mastered the art of writing in depth, while also being concise.
Once you’ve gotten a good understanding for yourself, you can have fun teaching a broader concept of gender to your kids.
11 Ways to Start Teaching Gender Diversity
1. When singing nursery rhymes or sing-alongs, change the pronouns to non-binary, gender inclusive pronouns (see this glossary for pronoun examples.)
2. When playing with toys, assign a non-binary pronoun to one of the toys. You’ll trip up sometimes, but it is ok. Correct yourself and move one. This in itself models to kids how to deal with their own gender-labeling mistakes when in the world. You can also introduce a new toy with a gender inclusive pronoun. Just make sure the correct pronoun is always used when referring to that toy.
3. When making up stories, include non-binary characters. Have those characters do everyday kid things, have everyday kid concerns, and have personal likes in common with your kid. The point is to make them relatable to your kid so that they always understand they have more in common than not in common.
4. When acting out stories, be a non-binary character yourself. If you can be completely comfortable with this, it’ll make a big impact on how your kids feel about non-binary and transgender people.
Related Post: 7 Tips and Tools to Become a Better Storyteller
5. Have an age appropriate conversation. At two and a half, my oldest was able to understand something simple like, “some people are he, some are she, and some are ze.” (Yes, I still have work to do. There aren’t just three genders, but the point is that kids can understand beyond the binary at a really young age.)
6. Read books with non-binary or gender expansive, and books with characters that dress and act outside gender boxes. Point out similarities between your child and the character. For example, they have a cat. They like trains. Their favorite food is pickles. They play soccer.
7. Go to events that center non-binary and transgender people. Have fun. Interact normally with people.
8. If you have two copies of the same kid’s book, change the pronouns for a character in one of them. Or maybe just do with this with a random book that isn’t your child’s favorite. Read it with your kids.
9. Color! There are gender box breaking coloring books (and free coloring pages online.) Relax, have fun, color outside the lines, and learn more about gender at the same time. Illustrators I recommend are Jacinta Bunnel, Maya Christina Gonzales, and Linnéa Johansson.
10. Kids learn what you model. Take care not to assume gender by how a person looks. Adopt the practice of using a non-binary pronoun when referring to most people, unless the person has self-identified their gender. (In that case, use the pronoun they use for themselves.)
11. What books do you read for yourself? Do you have any with non-binary characters or written by non-binary authors? It’ll make an impression on your kids when they are older if you do. But don’t do it just for them. Do it for your own self-education about gender diversity, and to support non-binary authors.
A few bonus tips
Don’t assume the gender of your child. Until they have verbalized what gender they identify with, try using a non-binary pronoun when referring to them (I personally use they/them.) Additionally, regardless of your child’s age and gender, break social expectations. Let them wear clothes with dinosaurs and with flowers; play with cars and dolls; read books with adventure themes and with fairies; play in the dirt and have tea parties.
So go forth, expand your pronoun vocabulary, and have fun exploring gender diversity with your kids!