“It’s a girl!” “It’s a boy!” The pronouncement of a child’s presumed gender within the first seconds of birth – or often months before they’re even born – is the very first thing ever said about them. Think about it. We quickly label our child as “boy” or “girl” based on the particular shape of their external genitals, but this label quickly becomes far less about anatomy than identity. In fact, our child’s presumed gender is the very first piece of identity we ever give them; it sits, literally, right on top of their skin, and everything else in life—including the outfit we dress them in on their trip home from the hospital and the gender-typed baby cards and gifts we receive. In cultures like ours where we continue to define “masculinity” and “femininity” as opposite and unequal in regard to power and status, our child’s assigned gender defines and determines more about their lives going forward than almost any other factor. Understood through this much broader developmental lens, it becomes clearer and clearer that both sexuality and gender education begin at birth, long before our first “sex ed” lessons in school.
Teach proactively about gender
The deepest and most pervasive part of who we are as sexual human beings is about gender, not genitals. Yet, most adults in the United States, still take the phrase “sex education” quite concretely to mean instruction about “sex” per se, as in discussions about genitalia and anatomy, sexual development and behavior, and other related topics such as birth control and STIs. To raise healthier children, we as a country must provide our children with more holistic and inclusive sex education.
The U.S. is beginning, finally, to re-evaluate its historically narrow characterization of “sex education” and the kinds of sexuality curriculums that best serve young children. With comprehensive, inclusive sexuality education legislation being introduced across the country, including in Colorado and Austin, Texas, there is growing understanding that the focus must go way beyond teaching about puberty and birth control, to instead extending the conversations on helping young people understand gender identity and fluidity, and draw vital connections between sexual intimacy, emotional intelligence and healthy relationships.
Due to high profile media coverage in recent years, many more Americans are now aware that an individual’s biological sex does not always align with the gender they internally know themselves to be. Though designated at birth (or even before) as a “girl” or a “boy,” some children—many at a very young age—begin to experience a disconnect between their assigned gender and their true inner sense of self.
For some children, our culture’s “gender binary” or “either/or” conceptual understanding of gender and gender identity simply does not apply. As infinitely complex and diverse human beings, who we are or what we experience doesn’t always fit neatly into little pre-defined sex and gender boxes but, in reality, exist along a rich continuum or spectrum of possibilities. As a parent, you can educate yourself on these topics so you are prepared to speak openly with your kids when they ask questions, when you see something on TV or in the news, or they themselves articulate these feelings to you.
While this realization that we need more inclusive sexuality education is a significant step for the U.S., we remain far behind other parts of the world. Earlier this year the UK’s Department for Education announced new sex education guidelines for the first time in 20 years that require all schools teach relationship and sexuality education (RSE) -- beginning in kindergarten. It’s in this area—the sexual education of our youngest children—that the U.S. lags furthest behind. At home and school, parents and educators continue to postpone (or put off indefinitely!) giving young children even the most basic information about their bodies and identities. This mindset needs to change for the overall health and wellbeing of all our children
Answer kids’ questions honestly
All young children are inherently curious about their own and other people’s bodies and identities. We shouldn’t be surprised that they ask all kinds of big questions and we shouldn’t be afraid to answer them. As parents, grandparents, educators, and clinicians, we have a responsibility to answer questions directly and accurately, and in ways that align with a child’s level of development. If not, our kids will very likely turn instead to media, advertising, peers, and, eventually, the Internet, in search of answers. We then run the risk that distorted, misleading information and harmful stereotypes will become our children’s baseline fund of “knowledge.” Only parents and the other caring adults in their lives can raise healthy, secure, caring, and ethical young people.
Leverage teachable moments
Young people are very aware of current events and what adults around them are talking about, no matter how much we might try to shield them. Leveraging these moments and teaching through them, in real time, is one of the best ways to educate about gender identity, respect, personal safety, reproductive health.
Earlier this year the American Psychological Association (APA) released its first-ever guidelines for working with men and boys around dismantling the dynamics of “toxic masculinity.” Even major commercial brands are tapping into the zeitgeist: Gillette sparked a national debate with an ad for razor blades condemning bullying and sexual harassment that’s often excused as “boyish” behavior. The ultimate goal for parents and educators, of course, isn’t “boy bashing” but empowering all children to become the best kind of people they can be – regardless of their sex or gender.
In addition, the #MeToo movement has sparked countless conversations around dinner tables, in classrooms, and in the news media. And while younger children won’t have the ability to understand most of these issues, they can understand concepts like being nice or mean, sharing equally, respecting other people’s bodies and toys—and their own—and that boys, girls, and all genders deserve equal respect.
Recognize the needs of transgender youth
Schools are becoming increasingly welcoming places for transgender children and teenagers, primarily due to advocacy by parents. The first and most important developmental need of all children is to grow up in environments where they experience unconditional love and acceptance for who they are, as well as validation for their own internal experience. A recent publicati0n by Gender Spectrum helps schools discover all of the ways they can work to create inclusive spaces and utilize inclusive language in order to assure that “gender expansive” students can feel safe and appreciated. Children and teens who feel anxious, marginalized, mistreated and even invisible at school can’t learn as well, so creating inclusive environments must be an educational mandate, not only the “right” thing to do.
Raising “gender-neutral” children?
On final thought. Many of us have heard or read about parents who claim to be raising children in a “gender-neutral” fashion. Yet, from the moment of birth, children are spoken to, held, and cared for by gendered people who can’t help but enact and pass on the gender roles and related gender-typed expressions they’ve absorbed unconsciously since the moment they were born. And, parents can’t begin to control the ubiquitous gender related messages children receive outside the home, nor can they influence a child’s developing sense of gender identity, since it’s a characteristic that’s determined from within, not by what parents do or don’t do.
The variable that parents can control is their own level of conscious awareness about the unhealthy gender role expectations to which children and teenagers are exposed ubiquitously in American culture. Teaching children beginning as early as possible to recognize and think critically about rigid, opposite and unequal gender role stereotypes—particularly those that promote hyper-masculinity and/or disempowered femininity—is one of the most important ways we can support healthy sexual and gender development in all of its complexity and along all of its dimensions. Early sexuality education resources, like amaze jr., can help parents, caretakers and educators instill these critical thinking skills and inclusive understanding of identity and sexuality from an early age.