If you’re a parent, you might be wondering about how to explain transgender to a child. Transgender is a very topical contentious topic today. You will hear about it in the news, see it on the front cover of magazines, read about it on social media, hear about it on the radio and there may possibly even be a transgender child in your local school. So it is inevitable that your child will eventually hear the term being used or know a child who is now identifying as a different gender. And hopefully, they will come to you with their questions.
You’ll find more information about sex education in my Sex Education 101 page.
This article is written for parents who want their child to be tolerant and accepting of differences in others (regardless of what your personal beliefs are). The emphasis is on growing up children who do not bully or discriminate against people who are different, including transgender people. Regardless of your personal beliefs, it is against the law to discriminate against people because of their sex, gender or sexual identity, and children need to know this. So the emphasis in this article is on talking to kids about transgenderism as diversity ie it is just another way that people can be different. Oh and I am keeping it super simple because sometimes we overcomplicate things!
So what exactly are we talking about, when we are are looking at how to explain transgender to a child? It helps to understand the topic before even thinking about trying to explain it to kids! We will start off by looking at gender and sex before we talk about transgender.
So what is the difference between gender and sex? Are they the same thing or entirely different?
Sex and gender are two different things.
Sex is biological and is assigned when a child is born. So your sex is either male, female or indeterminate/intersex (neither male or female). The characteristics that help us to determine our sex are hormonal, chromosomal or anatomical (which can be internal as well as external) variations (or differences). Intersex is when a person’s sex characteristics are not what we usually expect for a typical male or a typical female. Sometimes we discover this when they are born, but sometimes it might not be until later on.
Biological sex has to do with private parts ie penis, vulva or ‘not sure’
Gender is what we identify as, boy/man or girl/woman, and is not assigned at birth. Gender is more about how we feel in our head and heart ie on the inside.
Gender identity is how someone feels inside, in their head (like a boy or a girl or both or even none)
Gender expression is how people express their gender ( through their actions, dress and demeanor)
It is easy to get confused over the meaning of these terms. Sex and gender are words that are often used interchangeably in our everyday language, but they are actually different and they don’t always match.
Sex is assigned at birth, not gender.
Now that we understand what gender and sex are, we can now look at how to explain transgender to a child.
Today, though, we now know that gender does not always match up with our genitals.
You may have the genitals of a male, and be called a boy, but not feel like a boy on the inside. You may have the genitals of a female, and be called a girl, but not feel like a girl on the inside. We call this transgender.
A transgirl is when you may biologically born a male but identify as a girl (transitioning to a girl). A transboy is when you may biologically born a female but identify as a boy (transitioning to a boy). There are lots of reasons as to why this can happen and we still don’t really understand why.
In order to express their chosen gender, transgender people may transition, or change, from the gender they were given at birth. They may change their names, pronouns or style of dress. Some transgender people also choose a medical transition, with the help of medical specialists, who will prescribe hormones and/or surgery.
Some people don’t feel like a boy or a girl on the inside. We call this agender. This is where they just don’t connect to either gender.
Some people have a ‘fluid’ gender that can change some or many times over a person’s life. We could call them gender variant or gender non-conforming, as they don’t conform to any gender and may have gender behaviours and interests that don’t typically align with a specific gender. They may enjoy being a boy one day and a girl the next.
NB. Terms keep on changing in this field and what was acceptable terminology may now be deemed ‘politically incorrect’. So you may hear different terms being used elsewhere.
The genderbread person by Sam Killermann below, is a useful diagram that helps to explain gender.
The best time to look at how to explain transgender to a child is when they are young. The reason for this is because young children are still developing their own gender. Which means they are are not rigid in regards to how they define gender roles. You can read more about gender identity development in children here.
Your child may notice that some children don’t conform to their assigned gender or sex. For example, they may notice that Fred likes to play with dolls or that Mary likes to kick a ball with the boys. Or they may tell you that Fred is now called Frances and wears a dress.
Or they may be curious because they have heard about transgenderism.
So what are some things that can help with how to explain transgender to a child? The trick is to keep it simple.
If they ask you a question, try something different before responding with an answer. Try asking them what they think, which allows you to find out what they already know and what exactly it is, that they are asking you about.
You could also ask them why they are asking, or where they heard the word.
Remember to talk about transgender in an everyday way ie in the exact same way you might answer all their other questions. You will be having many conversations during ther childhood, so don’t feel as if you have to tell them everything at once.
Avoid gender-biased statements, like – ‘Only girls play with dolls’ or ‘Only boys can have short hair’.
Buy gender neutral toys and toys that aren’t too pink or blue. And if you have boys, make sure that you have toys that are stereotypical for girls, like a doll, a tea set, a pram. And that girls have trucks, cars, and other stereotyped boy toys.
Buy gender-neutral clothing and allow your child to dress how they want. So if your little boy wants to wear a bright pink tutu for the day, let him. Or if your daughter wants to cut her hair short, let her!
Read books that show adults working in non-stereotypical and diverse gender roles. You can also point out different professions and discuss the gender roles with your child. For example, when you see the postie on your street, point out to your child that the person delivering the mail today is a woman, and that when you were a child, that it was only ever men that did that job. Talk about why this has changed and what it means.
Try to use gender-neutral language (as your children are listening). If you need to buy a gift for a new baby, buy a gender -neutral gift. When you see a mum at school with the new baby, don’t ask if it’s a boy or a girl, try asking what the baby’s name is instead. Try to use fewer pronouns by using ‘they, them or their’ instead of ‘her and him’. If pronouns confuse you, check out the Pronoun app by Minus 18.
There are many small things that we can do to ensure that our children do not grow up with rigid views about gender. Pick one small change and focus on that. And when that new behaviour has become automatic, then start focusing on making another change. This way you won’t become overwhelmed!
There are some fantastic videos and books that will help with explaining transgender to your child.
There are also quite a few books that have been written about transgender and diversity. This list from an aussie librarian is the most extensive list that I have found. These are some of my favourite books on how to explain transgender to a child.
I'm Cath, a sex educator living in Australia with my husband and 2 kids. I help parents to talk about sex (with less cringe and more confidence) and to empower their child to make smart sexual decisions. You can join my online parent support group here and visit my shop for helpful resources.