Are Children Ready to learn the TRUTH about GENDER?

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.

Chart for how to tell if a toy is for boys or girls:  If you operate it with your genitals, it is not for children.  If you do not operate it with your genitals, the toy is suitable for both boys and girls.

Marlo Mack of  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.

Transgender symbol in shades of pink, purple, and blue

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.

Two children with longer blond hair wearing crowns and feather boas, playing dress up in front of a pink castle set

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.

4 responses to “Are Children Ready to learn the TRUTH about GENDER?

  1. Randi! I always feel like I learn something new when discussing children and gender expression. This piece offered many important tools that we as educators can use when facilitating lessons/discussions with children. During my own recent pregnancy, people would come up to me and immediately ask if I was having a boy or a girl. Society is slightly obsessed with gender as evident by expecting parents who can choose to have “gender reveal parties” and make it a huge celebration. Beginning in utero society begins to categorize and take a gender-stereotyped approach to development.

    The other day I overheard a parent who was chasing her son down the hall say, “oh, he is a boy and you know how boys are”. Really? So now we are stereotyping the behaviors of boys/girls and giving permission for boys to act in aggressive ways.

    I enjoyed reading the comments made by Mack and appreciated how she started off her comments by using the words, “most” and “some” and not assuming that everyone feels a certain way.

  2. I could almost make an argument that our society has over-complicated gender, by trying to over-simplify it with the binary system. That is to say, when people don’t fit in the neat binary boxes, we have no idea what to do with them and end up with some sad results.
    I really like this quote:
    “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.”- Marlo Mack
    The reason I believe this quote to be so beautiful is because it brings us back to a very basic and humanistic principle: different is normal, and it deserves recognition and acceptance. How much more simple could it get?

  3. Great post, Randi 🙂 Thank you for linking the NPR “Somewhere Out There” podcast – it was amazing! As someone who does not have children, I find myself constantly amazed at what kids are capable of. I am never sure if it is just because I’m not around them, or if they really are so much more capable than “developmental models” would lead you to believe. The conversation between those two girls was so incredibly insightful…in fact, they seem much more self-aware than many adults I know. There is no doubt in my mind that children are capable of grasping the concept in gender in many different ways. I think that adults mostly insert their own judgments on “they way things are,” because they believe that children developmentally incapable of understanding “complicated” ideas, but it is usually the adults themselves who (after years of social programming, like you said) are incapable of understanding that complicated idea.

    I also think that although Kolhberg’s cognitive – developmental theory may stress the need for labels as a tool to organize and make sense of the world, it would be very possible for children to learn new labels to make sense of roles (which would support Bandura’s Social Learning Theory). If children are indeed capable of learning what we teach them, we should be focusing on the messages they receive from adults, rather than writing children off as incapable before we’ve even tried.

  4. I think everyone in the world should read this post and resources you provided to counter the argument and sentiment that trans* folks are somehow a threat to children and children need to be protected from the “mentally ill” trans* community. More so, I think it’s important because in this oversimplified, outdated, and incorrect standpoint proponents typically fail to mention that there are plenty of children who are also transgender as well as children who are gender non-conforming. I agree wholeheartedly that it is time to expand the conversation not only with children but also in sex education. Very well put Randi and just in time for the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference June 12-14!

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