Dear Kiki: How do I talk to my child about gender and sex?

In this month’s Dear Kiki advice column, a reader asks how they can become better parents by thinking about their child’s gender identity.

Dear Kiki: How do I talk to my child about gender and sex?

“We are first-time parents and decided not to find out the sex. Our families have been asking us about it because they want to buy gender-appropriate gifts for the baby. Coming from a family who has traditional assumptions on gender, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I would broach this topic with my kids in the future. How can I prepare myself for the conversations of sex and gender? 

– Let’s talk about sex and gender, baby. (Is there a manual for this?)

Thinking about gender identity as a parent

Dear Let’s talk about sex and gender, baby,

Congratulations on becoming parents! What an exciting time for your family.

The transition to parenthood comes with unexpected joys, challenges and growth.

It sounds like you have already started considering your upcoming roles and responsibilities. Your child is fortunate to have an informed and intentional parent who cares deeply about their well-being and development.

The conversation around gender is an important one and, though different, usually goes hand in hand with sex. Sex refers to the biological and physical characteristics at birth, whereas gender is associated with socially-constructed roles, expressions and identities. 

Three Children in yellow dresses sitting on white sofa under pink balloons that spell out "Baby Shower"
Photo by aboodi vesakaran on Unsplash

While some parents may feel like concepts of gender identity are too complex to convey to their young children, in reality, they are already bombarded with media and societal influences that set expectations and stereotypes at a young age.

Children become conscious of the physical differences between males and females and gender labels around age two.

However, not all of us come from families that openly embrace and talk about the spectrum of  gender identities and reproductive anatomy, let alone even distinguish gender and sex.  

For those growing up in households such as my Taiwanese Canadian one with certain traditional, cultural views, these topics have always been the elephant in the room.  

But fear not! You still have some quiet time before the baby arrives, so this is a golden opportunity to reflect on your own values and experiences to mentally prepare for the difficult conversations to come.

DEFINE YOUR VALUES AS A FAMILY UNIT

Since parenting is a team sport, it is important that you are on the same page and can support each other throughout the process. Therefore, take some time to ensure that your values and expectations align, so you can teach and model them to your child.

Are there gender assumptions and roles that you grew up with and might still hold? What would you like to pass down to your child and what would you like to discard?  

The answers to these questions act as guideposts to navigate these deeply-layered discussions about gender identity and expectations as a parent.  

Discuss these questions with your partner, or other like-minded parents. When the day comes where your kid asks why their classmates have two dads or has questions about a boy in their class wearing nail polish, you will at least have had a couple of practice runs.

An Asian mother bonding with her daughter in the kitchen, playing with broccoli.
Photo by Edwin Tan on istock

If necessary, push back on the out-dated assumptions that your parents have and educate them about the implications of gender binaries. 

IDENTIFYING BARRIERS TO UNDERSTANDING

For some families and cultures, there is stigma of gender non-binary individuals, which makes the topic difficult to talk about. 

In the 2019 LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islander Youth Report, only 19% of LGBTQ API youth say they can “definitely” be themselves at home. This illustrates the obstacles API youths face when discussing gender-related questions and why it’s important we provide support and normalize these conversations at home. 

Depending on your parents’ language of comfort, whether it’s English or not, brush up on some gender-neutral terminology to share with them. China and Hong Kong, have introduced and incorporated contemporary gender-neutral pronouns, “ta” and “X也”, that have become prevalent in mainstream and social media.

Rigid gender expectations contribute to poor mental health and issues with body image. While every child will go through a unique experience, it is important to confront these negative messages and set boundaries early on. 

As a parent, your responsibility lies in creating a safe space for them to freely and fully explore their gender identity. 

See also: More than a name: Parenting, cultural identities and baby naming.

EDUCATE YOURSELF AND BUILD YOUR TOOLKIT

Aside from the necessary reflection, do some research to learn more about the different topics around sex and gender identity, from human reproduction and sexual health to gender expression and identity. 

Language is a critical tool for conveying a concept with clarity. It also holds the power to shape the way we think and feel. 

Most of our everyday language excludes those who do not identify as part of the gender binary. While common words like mother and father are relatable to many, they exclude those who do not identify with gender-binaries.

To support trans and non-binary birthing people, the UK launched its first clinical and language guidelines at two hospitals, encouraging nurses to replace terms like “breast milk” and “breastfeeding” with“chest milk” and “chestfeeding”, as well as “mother” with “parents”.  The gender-neutral language is not only more inclusive, but removes subconscious bias and more accurately represents the diversity in reality.

Familiarize yourself with the concepts of gender non-binary and the language you should use. Here is a great guide on how to talk to your kids about gender identity as a parent. 

One great tip that article gives for parents talking about body parts is to avoid being overly vague. Phrases such as “person with penis” rather than “boy.” Using proper names when referring to body parts not only teaches them to talk about their bodies but may help them understand sex as separate from gender. 

4 year old birthday boy raising his hands in front of a cake.
Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Acting the part

Other than getting your words right, your actions and behaviors matter too. Young children have an innate talent for picking up on your non-verbal cues. They can detect inherent attitudes or biases which they will use as a gauge for how they should behave in certain social situations. 

Perhaps you feel the tendency to silence your child when they surprise you with a question that you don’t know an answer to or feel uncomfortable airing in public. 

When this happens, take a deep breath. Communicate conditions when you will circle back and address their questions. Try not to silence or shame them, because you would be impressing upon them that talking about sex or gender is taboo. You want to make them feel comfortable to come to you for anything.

Read more: Forbidden sleepovers and tampon usage: How my Asian upbringing shaped me as an adult.

USE MEDIA AND BOOKS AS CONVERSATION STARTERS

You’ve got the words and delivery down, but how to initiate the conversation? 

Fortunately, there are lots of kid-friendly books and films that can do the job for you. Put together a list of resources, including media and books, that you can share with your child.

It is never too early to expose your child to the diversity of gender identities and family structures. Make the learning process fun by introducing a range of media and books.

Some parental favorites are: Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girl,  A Is for Awesome!: 23 Iconic Women Who Changed the World, The Boy & The Bindi and Julián Is a Mermaid . These books are filled with visually-engaging illustrations, as well as digestible content for the little ones.

If your child enjoys cartoons, your role as a parent could be to introduce a few episodes of Steven Universe and The Loud House, which challenge strict ideas of heteronormative gender identity and various types of non-nuclear families.

Some classic children’s movies have also received a contemporary make-over. In the 2021 movie musical Cinderella, Camila Cabello portrays a strong female protagonist accompanied by a genderless fairy god-mother. 

Books and pop-culture media can help to take the pressure off the burden of independently shouldering the awkward and functional sex talk. 

Not only are they interesting conversation starters, they can also be models of wholesome gender expression. Hopefully these can lead into fruitful dialogue and a closer relationship with your child.

Child interacts with black smartphone.
Photo by zhenzhong liu on Unsplash

PARENTHOOD IS A LEARNING PROCESS

When it comes to broaching these difficult topics, we may feel overwhelmed at times, especially when we are treading our own trail for the first time. 

Actress and neuroscientist, Mayim Bialik, once said, “I came to parenting the way most of us do — knowing nothing and trying to learn everything.”

As a parent, new or experienced, you might not get it right all the time. But parenthood is not about perfectionism. It is about supporting and empowering your child to make their own decisions. 

Lean into your new role and find pleasure in growing together, learning along with them. 

Feature image illustration by Dylan Cobankiat for Cold Tea Collective.


Dear Kiki is Cold Tea Collective’s advice column and it is published in the last week of every month. To get advice from Kiki, submit your questions and comments here. Or, subscribe to our newsletter to get Kiki’s advice straight to your inbox on the last Sunday of every month.

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