By Susan Kurlander, M. Ed.
What if. . .
Your kindergarten son wants to wear a tutu around the house even when friends come over to play?
Your four-year- old daughter’s favorite toys are trucks?
Your first- grade son likes to try on your high-heel shoes?
Your third- grade daughter only wants to wear sweat pants and sweat shirts to school?
Gender identity is one of the earliest forms of self-awareness (all girls have long hair, all boys wear shirts with cars on them). But sometimes a child’s preferences don’t match a parent’s expectations. Are you embarrassed at how to explain your child’s choices? Do you tell your son that choice is not allowed? Do you talk with anyone else about your concerns or do you take a deep breath and think about why your daughter may be choosing to act in ways that may not be what we think is the norm related to gender identity?
What is gender identity? While the answer is complicated, the CBSN Originals documentary, “Gender: The Space Between,” defines it as “a person’s innermost concept of self as man, woman, a blend of both, or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. Gender identity can be the same or different from one’s sex assigned at birth.
How excited and ready we are to wrap our newborn son in a blue blanket and buy a baseball glove. How thrilled we are to pick out a lacey pink dress and matching hair bow for our newborn daughter to wear for the baby naming ceremony. Our preconceived notions of our child’s gender expression whether in clothes, favorite toys or activities oftentimes fit the norm. But what do we do, if anything, when our young child does not choose to be expressive in the ways we think of as the norm?
Consider the following guidelines: (most derived from 8 Positive Ways to Address Children’s Gender Identity Issues by Dina Roth Porth)
- Don’t jump to conclusions especially with young children. This is a time for young children to try out different gender identity roles and is usually a normal part of development.
- Gather information about what you observe in your child from teachers, pediatricians and the parents of your child’s friends.
- Avoid applying adult thinking to child’s play. Play with your children to be more in tune with their reasons for choosing certain behaviors.
- Try and adjust your thinking to accepting your child rather than trying to make them someone with whom you are more comfortable.
- Prepare your child in age appropriate language of what might happen when expressing behaviors not within the norm
- Use teachable moments from your family or the media (reference a tv show with 2 dads)
- Choose books to read together which show diverse gender identity expression.
When your child is young, blurring the gender lines may not be cause for concern. However, if the actions are affecting everyday life (unwillingness to go to school, feeling sad or depressed), you may want to seek help.
Hopefully, with our guidance and support, our children will grow up to be healthy, resilient young people who are comfortable with their gender identity choices.
JCS Prevention Education is offering a new program about gender identity for parents and teachers of elementary school age children. Contact Susan Kurlander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-843-7455 to find out more.
Susan Kurlander, M.Ed. is a Health Educator at Jewish Community Services.
Because children don’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.