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The first messages we receive about gender happen in early childhood. We learn from a young age that gender is an important social category and that there are things we should or shouldn’t do/want/be based on the sex we’re assigned at birth. Thanks to the tireless work of feminist organizers and activists of all genders, so much has shifted and changed in our lifetimes! But those messages are still out there, and young children need support from trusted grown-ups in their lives to help them make sense of what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling. This book is a good place to begin or continue that conversation. It’s okay to take a break, leave something out for now, or to weave in stories of your own.
This book is dedicated to women (trans and cis), trans folks, and gender non-conforming people. In particular the Black, Indigenous, and people of color who continue to so courageously lead our movements for justice and liberation. Also, a huge thank you to all the people who contributed their expertise, experiences, and feedback to help shape this book: Kibwe Chase-Marshall, Laleña Garcia, Akiea “Ki” Gross, Ganessa James, Encian Pastel, Adam Radakovich, Katie Schaffer, Catalina Schliebener, Ollie Schwartz.
Young children are getting to know their own bodies and are curious about other people’s bodies. Our bodies are amazing! Helping children learn the anatomical names of different body parts—including genitals—empowers children, fosters their self-esteem, and helps to open up important conversations about health and identity. Talk about genitalia when you are naming other body parts, singing a body-part song, or while playing with dolls.
Many of us grown-ups have a hard time talking about bodies--and an even harder time saying the words penis, vagina, and vulva. And there are lots of really good reasons that it’s hard! For some of us, talking about bodies and genitals brings up painful memories and complicated feelings. For some of us, talking about bodies and using “science words” to describe these parts of our body disrupts thick cultural norms. For most of us, we just don’t have very much practice. As a result, very few of us know what it sounds like to talk about all of our body parts in ways that are calm, non-judgemental and reflect our beliefs about gender diversity and gender justice. That’s why we included some of this language and imagery in Being You. We believe that grown-ups have a responsibility to work through our fears and discomfort so that we can support kids’ safety and wellbeing. And we believe that grown-ups deserve support as they embark on that journey.
Try reading more gender-expansive books about bodies! We like:
These are my EYES, This is my NOSE, This is my VULVA, These are my TOES by Lexx Brown-James
Bodies are Cool by Tyler Feder
The Bare Naked Book by Kathy Stinson
It Isn’t RUDE to be NUDE by Rosie Haine
And for older kids:
Most of us are assigned a gender and sex (male or female) by a medical professional, often before we’re even born! This assignment may or may not correspond to our internal sense of self. Beginning this conversation early gives young children more space to talk about how they feel about the guesses we made about their bodies when they were babies. Ask questions! As soon as your child knows the words “boy” and “girl,” they likely have thoughts on gender.
Did you know that the American Medical Association (AMA) recently recommended that a child’s sex designation be removed from the public facing portion of their birth certificate? This decision is based on the understanding that the longstanding practice of assigning children with a gender and/or sex at birth “fails to recognize the medical spectrum of gender identity” and can be harmful. We agree; and we’re happy every time we see institutions like this move toward more just and affirming practices.
At the same time, our challenge as caregivers and educators is to figure out how to support young children to navigate the world as it is--even as it is changing. Our current reality is that regardless of how progressive we are in our classrooms or homes, or how sheltered we have the privilege and resources to keep our children, the world is still peppered with gendered expectations and assumptions at every turn. We can best support our children to resist these harmful messages by providing them with ongoing opportunities to learn about the many different ways that people have come to their own understanding of their gender identity and by creating lots of room for them to tell us about who they are. When young children are ready to tell us about who they are, we will be ready to believe them and support them no matter what.
For more books that can open conversations about gender identity, we recommend:
It Feels Good to be Yourself: A Book about Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn
You can even watch how someone else would read this book aloud in this episode of Woke Read Alouds by Ki from Woke Kindergarten.
Call Me Max by Kyle Lukoff
They Call Me Mix/Me llaman Maestre by Lordes Rivas
Who Are You? The Kids’ Guide to Gender Identity by Brook Pessin-Whedbee
And for older kids:
Seeing Gender: An Illustrated Guide to Identity and Expression by Iris Gottlieb
The Gender Wheel: A Story about Bodies and Gender for Everybody by maya gonzalez
A Kids Book about Gender by Dale Mueller
In many Western cultures, there is a pervasive belief that there are only two genders and that these two genders should correspond neatly with a whole host of expectations about what girls and boys are supposed to do, like, and be. This binary system is harmful to everyone—to those who do not fit into the rigid boxes of the binary, certainly, but also to people who feel comfortable identifying as a girl or a boy, but would like more flexibility in how they express their gender. Starting to use more gender-neutral language at home or in the classroom is one way to stop perpetuating the gender binary. Instead of “boys and girls,” you can call a group of children “friends” or “everybody.”
The dominant culture in the United States relies on binaries: good/bad, girls/boys, light/dark, etc. And this worldview is deeply connected to the ideological paradigms of Christian hegemony and white supremacy. The truth is that life is complex and flexible. There are very few things in the natural world that can be neatly reduced into one of two rigid, mutually exclusive categories. This is certainly true of gender. We are so grateful for the work of our friends at Gender Justice in Early Childhood and Gender Spectrum who have been thinking about how we can use our power as caregivers and educators to resist the gender binary in early childhood settings. Check out their websites which are overflowing with research and resources. For example, if you’re looking for more ideas on how to use language that supports gender diversity, explore this tool for changing how we talk about gender with young children. Or if you want to learn more about how Western models of gender have evolved over the last 50 years, check out this awesome infographic.
Our society is full of gender stereotypes, and children absorb them at a young age. Girls should wear pink, and boys should like trucks, for example. One of the things we can do to support gender justice is to help identify these stereotypes when we encounter them in books, media, and familiar routines. We can notice alongside children, naming these stereotypes as inaccurate and unfair. Try it the next time you visit a toy store!
This practice of noticing gender stereotypes in the world around us is sometimes called critical literacy. It’s a super important skill for children to learn and there are lots of ways we can support their ongoing development at school and at home. It can be helpful to pause when you notice a stereotype in a story or T.V. show. Try to be specific about describing the particular gender stereotype you’re noticing (e.g. “In this movie, all the superheroes are boys.”), how it makes you feel (e.g. “I don’t like that! It makes me feel mad.”), and why it is harmful (e.g. “I don’t want you to think that only boys can be superheroes because that’s not true and not fair. Anyone can be a superhero.”). From there, you can ask questions, inviting your child to share their ideas and feelings (e.g. “What are you noticing about this movie? And how does it make you feel?” or
“Why do you think the people who made this movie made the superheroes all boys?” or “What do you think we can do to make things more fair?”)
One idea is to extend these observations into an entire unit of study! You can take a good look at your early childhood classroom with the help of this Classroom Audit Tool from Gender Justice in Early Childhood. Depending on what you learn, you might want to find some new books to add to the collection. Some great lists of gender-expansive children’s literature are available from Welcoming Schools, Gender Justice in Early Childhood, and Social Justice Books. And if you want to review new books before adding them to your collection, we recommend this guide for qualities to look for in gender expansive children’s literature.
Sharing our gender pronouns is one way to avoid relying on guesses about one another’s genders. It’s a simple step we can take to respect how everyone in our community wants us to talk about them. If you’re new to this, it can feel awkward at first, but don’t worry, it gets much easier with a little practice. Kids tend to pick it up pretty quickly, so we grown-ups can follow their lead.
If sharing your pronouns is a new practice for you, a good first step is to do a little research. Learn about what pronouns are, why we use them, and why many people choose to share them with one another. As a next step, do some personal reflection, decide if sharing your pronouns feels right for you, and consider adding them to your email signature, name tags, and/or introduction when you meet a new group of people. For a kid-friendly explanation of gender pronouns, check out this video together from Queer Kid Stuff. And there are so many new books that focus specifically on teaching young children about gender pronouns! Try reading What Are Your Words?: A Book about Pronouns (also illustrated by Being You illustrator Andy Passchier) or They She He Me: Free to Be! by Maya & Matthew Gonzalez. We also like Jamie & Bubbie: A Book about People’s Pronouns by Afsaneh Moradian.
GENDER EXPRESSION AND PLAY
What does it mean if my son likes to dress up as a princess? Many adults think that young children’s choices about dress-up and play are early indications that their child might be LGBTQ+. That’s not usually the case. If children’s play preferences were indicators of what they would grow up to be, we’d have a lot more dinosaurs and superheroes as colleagues and friends! Dramatic play is a natural and important part of a young child’s development, and we want to create space for children to play, explore, and express themselves, unrestricted by society’s narrow and harmful gender rules. Provide varied choices for play and dress-up, and encourage children to explore them freely and to challenge gender norms they may already be ascribing to. Stay in the present, don’t analyze their behavior via imagined future identities. And, if they do adopt an LGBTQ+ identity, you can stay in the present and support them!
Many adults fear that if they support their child’s gender nonconforming behavior in early childhood, it will put their child at risk for encountering bullying, violence, and homophobia later in life. The problem is, when we don’t support our children exactly as they are, it puts them at even greater risk. Children need our enthusiastic and unwavering support as they experiment and discover who they are and what they like, perhaps especially if they are LGBTQ+. Our job is to partner with them to build a world in which each and every child can be who they are, out loud, and live a safe and fulfilling life no matter who they love or what they like. Our job is to do our part to make a world that is safer for queer people, not try to change or limit our children. And you’re in luck! There are so many other educators and caregivers who are already hard at work building this world. Here are some of their inspiring stories!
If you are looking for research on children’s development of gender identity and ways to support gender expansive kids in your early childhood classroom, we recommend the book Supporting Gender Diversity in Early Childhood Classrooms and the new revision of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards with Catherine M. Goins. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter all about gender diversity and fairness.
There are also some fantastic resources available through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Check out:
“Gender Identity and Expression in the Early Childhood Classroom” by Jamie Solomon
“Focus on Ethics: Gender Expression & Identity” by Stephanie Feeney, Nancy K. Freeman, and Katie Schaffer
Who is a feminist? What does a feminist do? Chances are, the answers to these questions have changed in your lifetime. Feminism is both a commitment to, and practice of, gender justice. It’s a lifelong journey that includes working collectively to dismantle patriarchy and build a world where people of all genders get to live full, liberated lives. You can embrace feminism in your family by engaging in a wide range of activities: everything from joining a local community organization that’s working to change sexist policies to reflecting on our own gender identities over the dinner table. Don’t forget that feminism is transgender-affirming and intersectional. Trans women are women. Dismantling patriarchy in order to achieve gender justice requires a vigilant commitment to dismantling racism, capitalism, the gender binary, and all other forms of oppression.
Many adults worry that talking to kids about their values and beliefs will bias them. They want to leave room for their children to make up their own minds. But it’s important for kids to know about what you believe and why. Don’t worry, they won’t automatically or necessarily agree! It’s important for them to see you modeling what it looks like to hold an informed opinion and describe the reasons why you feel the way you do about gender justice. Open up the conversation and ask them what they think! To help, Queer Kid Stuff has a helpful video that defines feminism in kid-friendly language. And you can check out your local bookstore for some more inspiration. For infants and toddlers, we love the We Are Little Feminists board book series. For preschoolers, we love stories about kids who resist sexism, like Amazing Grace or Drum Dream Girl. And for older kids, there are lots of cool biographies of historical or present-day feminists, like Vashti Harrison’s Little Leaders series, Kate Schatz’ Rad American Women A-Z, or Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution! by Joy Michael Ellison.
Patriarchy may seem like a big word for little kids, but so is Tyrannosaurus. The truth is, giving words to oppressive systems of power can be very empowering for young children.We need children to know that there is nothing natural, inevitable, or fair about societal dynamics that value everything associated with men, boys, and masculinity over and above everything associated with women, girls, and femininity. Children pick up on the subtle ways that we perpetuate patriarchy even when we’re trying to be gender neutral, like encouraging girls to wear pants, or no one to dress up like a princess. We can encourage and support children to both defy gender stereotypes and value femininity. Let’s all paint our nails!
Learning more about the history of gender and patriarchy, and understanding their current manifestations, can help you to be ready to answer your child’s questions as they get older and more curious about the world around them. Soon, they will have big questions about why our society looks the way it does, so now’s a great time to get prepared. Here are some resources to get you started:
EMPOWERMENT AND ACTIVISM
Young children learn more by watching what you do than from what you say about your beliefs. Patriarchy, cissexism, transphobia, homophobia, and the gender binary are baked into the culture of the United States and have manifestations around the world. In order to undo these systems, we must actively participate in movements for social and gender justice. There are so many different ways to get involved! Brainstorm ideas together, and start small in your community.
For parents and caregivers, we recommend sitting down with your family and learning about organizers like Georgia Gilmore, and Dolores Huerta and Clara Lemlich and the Water Protectors. For teachers, Teaching for Change has some great resources for teaching about activism and organizing. If you’re not already connected to a local organizing group that’s working on gender justice issues, now’s a great time to get plugged in. Attend a Women’s March event and get to know some of the people and organizations that are there. We’ll see you there!
Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards with Catherine M. Goins
First Conversations in the Classroom & Library:
Library Storytime Guide (coming soon)
Classroom Activities and Lesson Plans (coming soon)