Talking to Kids About Gender Identity - Part 1

Our new title I Am A Girl by Catherine Connors launches this Sunday, October 11th. I Am A Girl is a book that banishes labels and stereotypes and helps girls understand and express who they truly are. The idea for I Am a Girl was sparked by a conversation Catherine had with her own daughter, which she detailed in a recent essay published on Babble.com

Twigtale thinks this conversation is an important one – it is about about personal identity and about gender equality. To increase the impact of the book, we are partnering with Catherine to donate a portion of the proceeds to She's the First, an organization that helps educate girls in low-income nations around the world.

We also asked people whose insight and expertise we admire to add their voice to this discussion. Starting today and continuing through next week, we'll be featuring their responses to one question: 

How do you talk to your kids about what it means to be a girl, a boy, or any other identity on the gender spectrum?

 

Jeff Fontelera, designer for Twigtale and illustrator of I Am A Girl

Luckily, in our family, girls and boys did all the same things. We tried everything from soccer to karate to baking to weaving to gardening to sewing. So for us, we didn't know what "like a girl" or "like a boy" meant because we all did the same things regardless of what gender society wanted us to gravitate towards. There was no distinction, until society taught us the not so good sides of gender differences. By the time we saw those sides, I can pretty much say we knew what was right and wrong about the issue and how to approach it. 

Among my nieces, the questions are usually benign. For example: Why is he wearing pink? Why is her hair short? Why is he/she playing with all girls/boys? Because the questions are innocent, I usually stay with innocent answers such as "They like that color/hair style/etc and their mommy/daddy say it's okay" or "They're having fun playing with other boys/girls. They should be having fun." I usually measure my answers to the severity of the question.

One of my nieces, when she was a lot younger, was particularly inquisitive about girl/boy-centric activities, styles, and objects. She often asked "Why is his name Ashley? Isn't that mommy's name?" or gasped "Uncle, she's skateboarding with the other boys!" Again, because the questions were innocent, I kept the answers innocent: "If they like it and other people like it and are having fun, they should do it."

Conversations about who can play certain sports or do certain jobs took place among my younger cousins at an age where gender inequality was more visible. My cousins and I love soccer and we watch Men's and Women's World Cup religiously. One of my cousins, who was about 10 at the time, asked me why the Women's World Cup was not as "hyped-up" the Men's. That was a hard question to answer because I asked myself the same question. Because this particular cousin was mature, I gave him a mature answer which explained to him a snapshot of gender inequality, etc. 

During a snack run while watching Women's World Cup, one of my cousins saw a cover of a magazine showing the WWC players and was particularly drawn to forward Wamback and mid-fielder Rapinoe because of their short "boy-looking" hair. This particular cousin didn't so much question, but more so pondered about their looks, which were different than the other players. Before I could elicit a reaction from this cousin, I remarked how those two players are playing great and looked particularly sharp with their hair styles. I'm sure this cousin had other things to say, but at that instance, I was more interested in letting him know my reaction, rather than asking for his. At least by doing so, he'll hear someone else's opinion before jumping into his.

A conversation about colors or clothing traditionally associated with boys or girls went on for decades. Girls wear pink. Boys wear blue. Girls wear skirts. Boys wear shorts. I did my best to mix and match within reasonable limits. I'll dress my more adventurous niece in overalls and in green - for the reason that she could move more freely and it was easy to clean grass stains on green clothes. I'll have one of my little cousins help me decorate a cake or pick flowers for the Thanksgiving table - for the reason that one day in life, he might have to do it too. I have always related gender roles to life roles because in life, you can't limit roles. At one point in time, these kids will have to do and be EVERYTHING so why not start them young.


Erin Kotecki Vest, author of queenofspainblog.com

We have talked as a family, seemingly nonstop, about what it means to just be you since the kids were born. My idea has always been that if it's an ongoing conversation, you can get the kids comfortable thinking about these things early. And then feeling more comfortable in their skin early.

My children, now 12 and 10, both recognize gender inequality quickly and even call it out. They will also call out marketing tactics aimed at girls or boys, both using the idea that at any point they may want to play with a so-called girls or boys toy and do not find it fair.

It's so awesome when you overhear your children talking about how crazy it is that so-and-so at school was teased for wearing a pink shirt because he is a HE and people think only girls should wear pink. And they both apparently had conversations with friends about how "gender isn't strict" and we have to stop "being so old fashioned."

My daughter, 10, recently cut off all of her hair and has taken to wearing bow-ties - a nod to her Dr. Who fandom. But other kids at school ask if she's trying to "be a boy." So when we discuss "be a boy" or "be a girl," it is usually because they have noticed an injustice.

The conversation is ongoing, like I mentioned, because at every age and stage there are different ideas of what a girl should be and what a boy should be based on our society, not on our family. So we will keep talking, hopefully, until they no longer notice or experience these inequalities.