In an article about gender, a photo a child looking out the back window of a bus
It can be hard to receive the same questions over and over again from kids, but they don't know any better. (Image via Unsplash)

How To Answer Kids’ Questions About Gender

Children are socialized with assumptions about gender. How should you respond to their unknowingly insensitive questions?

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In an article about gender, a photo a child looking out the back window of a bus
It can be hard to receive the same questions over and over again from kids, but they don't know any better. (Image via Unsplash)

Children are socialized with assumptions about gender. How should you respond to their unknowingly insensitive questions?

If you dress androgynously, are transgender, have short hair and a female body or in any way don’t visually subscribe to a traditional conception of gender, you’ve probably heard some presumptuous questions from children. “What are you?” and “Are you a girl or a boy?” are probably familiar to you.

It may not be obvious to older people, to whom antiquated gender roles and stereotypes are all but obsolete, but kids pick them up everywhere. Gender binaries infiltrate their world in myriad ways: fast-food restaurants put two different toy options in their Happy Meals, the birthday candles at Party City are pink or blue and the “boys” sections in clothing stores are T-shirts and pants.

There is nothing wrong with having questions; it’s better to ask than to make assumptions. Shutting down questions paves the road for them to continue misunderstanding gender and suppressing exploration of their own identities.

“You’re too young to understand,” is an acceptable answer to some questions kids have. They may be too young to understand logarithmic functions, the stock market or why the sky is really blue, but kids form a sense of their own diverse gender identities by the age of 4; they are not too young to understand gender, and it’s important that we talk about it with them instead of shutting down the conversation. Kids are curious, and the world too often tells them that they are too young to understand.

Yet responding to kids’ questions about gender is tricky, especially when it’s not your kid. For some people, having kids question their gender identity can be affirming because it shows that they don’t necessarily look like the gender they were assigned at birth. Some people have short hair precisely because they want to appear more masculine, or vice versa. For others, having their identity questioned brings out insecurities. If answering their questions openly puts you in a difficult position, there is no need to do so.

There are also lines that you don’t want to cross; you don’t want to make parents angry, risk your own mental health or safety, give kids misinformation or dive into a semantics lesson. Given all of these factors, responding to a simple “Are you a he or a she?” asked by a child is fraught with consequence.

The instinct is often to be rude right back, even though kids are not to blame for not understanding concepts that they have never been taught. That said, it’s one thing to know that it’s not the child’s fault, and another to not get angry when they repeat the questions that society is constantly asking you.

Still, you don’t want to yell at the kid, but at the culture that has socialized them to see gender in a binary way. Having some token answers for when kids ask invasive questions can help you keep your cool when you want to scream at society.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor will it work in all situations, but hopefully it can get kids thinking about gender on a broader spectrum.

“Are you a boy or a girl?”

This one will have a different response depending on how you identify and the situation you are in. Some parents do not want to expose their children to the concept that there are more than two genders, and, unfortunately, it’s not usually your place to take on that role.

If you’re not comfortable sharing your gender identity with others, there’s no need to teach a kid a lesson. It’s not that it’s none of their business. Your particular gender identity may not be of relevance to a random child in a grocery store, but by rebuking them for their open curiosity, we implicitly tell them not to question gender binaries. Instead, we can try to express that everyone’s gender identity is unique to them.

You don’t need to go into a gender versus sex lesson or explain the more than 50 different gender identities that people can have. It’s enough to say that gender is a feeling; some people feel like a boy, some feel like a girl, some feel like neither or both or something entirely different.

These types of questions are important for shaping the attitude around gender for tomorrow’s world. Asking for someone’s pronouns should be as natural as asking their name. A kid asking if you are a boy or a girl is their way of asking for your pronouns, based on their limited knowledge of different gender identities. Rather than shutting them down, they should be encouraged to ask — and taught — that asking for someone’s pronouns is what’s polite.

“If you’re a girl why do you have a boy haircut?”

Try responding to this one with another question: “Why do you think I have a boy haircut?” They probably won’t be able to come up with a real reason beyond “that’s the way it usually is.” Explain that anybody can have any length of hair that they want. You don’t even have to relate it back to gender by saying that “boys can have long hair.” This only reinforces the idea that boys typically don’t, and it uses gender binaries on top of that. Hair length is not related to gender identity.

Or just tell them you like the way it looks.

“Why do you wear baggy/tight clothes?” or “Why do you wear pink if you’re a boy?”

Throw this type of question right back at them. “Why are you wearing green shoes?” or “Why are you wearing blue jeans?” or “Why are you wearing a pink jacket?”

Many kids dress exactly as they want to, so they will understand that you dress a certain way simply because you want to. If you take the gendered association away from their own clothing, they can better understand why you dress the way you do.

“Why is that boy wearing a dress?”

Kids learn so much through observing the world, but unless someone tells them, they won’t know that once upon a time, girls weren’t allowed to wear pants, or that high-heeled shoes used to be worn exclusively by men. Now, they’ll think it’s crazy that there was once such a rule, so if you equate girls wearing pants now to boys wearing dresses, it won’t seem so wrong.

Again, the point is that we want to take gendered associations away from the things that kids ask about. While telling them about how girls weren’t allowed to wear pants may explain why a boy can wear a dress, it still reinforces male versus female identities. If you can, explain to them that someone’s clothing does not tell you about their gender identity; for that, they would have to ask.

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Asha MacKay

Wellesley College

Asha MacKay is, in order of importance: a born-and-raised New Yorker; a lover of podcasts, especially of the NPR/WNYC variety; a thrifter; an oat-milk lover; and convinced she will never learn how to drive.

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