In 2017, an episode of The Doctors told the story of an elementary school teacher who read books about transgender people to her kindergarten class. The teacher was trying to help her students understand gender identity after a child in the class started transitioning from male to female, but some parents weren't happy with the lesson. So, the doctors posed a question to their audience: Is kindergarten too young for kids to understand gender identity?
Almost every head in the audience nodded. They believed that a 5-year-old couldn't understand gender. But is that actually true?
Many experts would say no. "Without a doubt, there are kids as young as five, and younger, who are unquestionably clear about their transgender identity," says Ady Ben-Israel, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with children. "Gender identity develops in all children by around 5 years old, so there's nothing surprising about a transgender child being clear about their identity at that age."
If 5 isn't too young to know that you're transgender, then how could it be too young for cisgender (meaning: not transgender) kids to understand that some people are trans or that more than two genders exist?
It's more confusing for kids not to talk about it, because they'll see words like 'gay' or 'transgender' and they'll see trans people out in the world.
Lindz Amer, creator of Queer Kid Stuff.
In fact, kids as young as 3 can understand gender identity, as long as you're explaining it well, says Lindz Amer, who hosts a YouTube show called Queer Kid Stuff. Amer, who recently came out as non-binary, joins their friend Teddy (a talking teddy bear) to explain everything from what it means to be gay or asexual to gender pronouns and what it means when someone is transgender.
The videos are meant for an audience of kids 3 or older, because Amer knows that they can understand concepts of sexuality and gender identity. They've been helping parents talk to kids about LGBTQ+ concepts for three seasons of Queer Kid Stuff and even before that as a writer at My Kid Is Gay. "It's more confusing for kids not to talk about it, because they'll see words like 'gay' or 'transgender,' and they'll see trans people out in the world," they say. If kids don't learn what it means to be transgender or non-binary, then that can breed confusion and later turn into homophobia or transphobia, Amer says. "I’m trying to stop that process by giving them information about something that isn’t scary, but that adults are scared of tackling."
Adults often worry about talking to kids about gender identity because they've made it overly complicated in their own minds, Amer says. Most people grew up understanding gender as a binary; someone is born a boy or a girl and then they grow up to be either a man or a woman. "Talking about transgender or non-binary people challenges the ideal of gender that formed their identity," Amer says. "That's huge."
If you start a kid off with an understanding of gender fluidity, though, there's a greater chance that they won't have to do the hard work of dismantling ideas of gender later. But some parents worry that challenging a kid's understanding of gender so early — when they still believe in magic — could make them scared that they'll become another gender overnight.
Parents can explain that being transgender is about how you feel inside and that nothing about your body would change without your control.
One parent from the school in The Doctors' story said that her daughter had a nightmare about turning into a boy, and Amer has heard from one commenter that her child was scared of becoming another gender. The solution to that is in how you explain, Amer says. "You just have to tell them that being transgender isn’t about waking up and having changed into a boy or a girl," they say. In those cases, parents can explain that being transgender is about how you feel inside, and that nothing about your body would change without your control.
Simply having open and honest conversations with your kids tackles most of the concerns Amer often hears from parents who don't know how to have the conversation. They worry about the nightmares, but they also worry that their kid will ask a question they don't want to answer — about sex or genitals, for example — or that their kid will ask a question they don't know how to answer.
The first worry can be washed away by the same tactic parents usually use when their kids ask about sex. Just say, "That's something we'll talk about when you're older." If a kid is curious about what a transgender person's genitals look like, feel free to tell them, "That's none of your business." It's the same answer Amer would give to an adult who asked that question, because it's never appropriate to ask what someone else's genitals look like. "You don’t have to have all of the conversations now," Amer says. "Some questions are okay to leave to later."
Still, there will be some questions you can and should answer now, and parents need to be prepared to answer them with as much information as they can. For most cisgender people, that means educating themselves first.
"Kids are smart. They’ll call your bullshit, they know the next question to ask, and they know when you’re not being truthful," Amer says. So if you're worried about not having the answers, then look into resources like Queer Kid Stuff or children's books like The Great Big Body Book or I Am Jazz, both of which explain gender identity in simple terms. You can also read up on transgender and gender non-conforming identities here, here, and here. Prepare yourself for the questions, because they will come.
"Young children are curious about the people and things they encounter, and LGBTQ+ people are part of the world," Amer says. So let's start telling kids that boy and girl aren't the only two genders that exist, and that gender can be fluid — trust us, they can handle it.
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