In thinking about how to teach children ages four and five about gender expression and biological sex, it dawns on me that I am unclear whether four and five year old children are cognitively capable of thinking outside the binary. Kids like to categorize. This toy belongs in this bucket. This jacket belongs on this hanger. That penis belongs on that boy. In my dream world, children would learn that most girls have a vagina and most boys have a penis but that people are what they call themselves regardless of what is underneath their underpants.
Marlo Mack of www.gendermom.com is the mother of a transgender girl. Mack writes about her experiences raising a trans kid and she presents really direct and simple suggestions about how we can talk to our children about gender and gender nonconformity.
This is a glimpse of how Mack suggests talking to kids about gender:
Most people with penises feel like boys.
Most people with vaginas feel like girls.
Some people with penises feel like girls. They are girls with penises.
Some people with vaginas feel like boys. They are boys with vaginas.
Some people are sort of “in between” and don’t feel like a boy or a girl.
All these people are normal. All these people need to be loved and treated well, and we should respect what they tell us they are.
The “parts” that are covered up by our underpants are private. It’s no one’s business to ask about them or talk about them. (That goes for the parents, too!) If someone tells you she is a girl, she’s a girl. If he tells you he’s a boy, he’s a boy. If they say they’re both, they’re both!
I think Mack is spot on that children are capable of such thinking. Piaget would say that if one four year old can understand the nuances of gender identity, than it would suggest that all four year old children have the potential to do the same. And we know that there are four year olds that do understand because it is their lived experience.
Below you will find a link to a podcast called “Somewhere Out There” about two eight- year-old trans girls. It becomes clear as the story unfolds, that these girls have understood, for quite some time, how their own gender identity contradicts their biological sex.
The question remains, for children who do not identify as trans, what experience needs to occur in order for society at large to be able to view gender not as a binary construct? Kolhberg’s cognitive – developmental theory would not support this type of discussion with a child. Kohlberg’s work would suggest that children of this age need to label themselves and each other in order to feel stable with their role in the world. Social Learning Theory on the other hand, seems to suggest that children are capable of learning what we teach them (Bandura, 1977). Children haven’t had decades upon decades of gender stereotyping so social learning theory would suggest that they are more open to the idea that girls can have a penis and boys can have a vulva.
Gender doesn’t need to be binary. Couldn’t we broaden the definition of gender and teach children what we now know to be true?
Are children ready to think about gender as something other than binary?
I think it’s time.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.
Craddock, B. (n.d.). Kohlberg’s Cognitive Development Theory. Human Development Database.
Gendermom. (2014, January 17). Mama, Ella has a penis. Gendermom.
Kirchner, M. B. (February 13, 2009). Somewhere out there. This American Life.
Szuchman, L., & Muscarella, F. (2000). Psychological perspectives on human sexuality. Danvers, MA: JohnWiley & Sons, Inc.
University of Southern Alabama. (n.d.). Social Learning Theory. Online Learning Laboratory.