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Understanding Gender: A Guide for Kids

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When a baby is born, the first thing everyone wants to know is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Even during pregnancy, parents often have an ultrasound scan, to look at a baby’s body and find out whether their baby has “boy parts” or “girl parts” before the child is born.

But what defines “boy” or “girl” doesn’t have a lot to do with the parts people have. Different groups of people define what it means to be male or female in many different ways. And people get messages from a lot of places about what it means to be male or female. The very idea that there are only male and female to choose from is not the same everywhere. Some cultures expect there to be three, five, or even more genders.

So what happens when someone tells you “boys are like this” or “girls are like that?” and “this and that” don’t seem to match up well to who you are? There are a lot of different ways that people respond to this feeling.

Say someone is assigned (given) the gender “female” at birth because of what their private parts look like. Everyone says “It’s a girl!” And a few years later, that child starts to learn what the people around them expect girls to look like, dress like, and how they expect girls to behave.  

People who define their gender as something other than what they were called at birth are often called “transgender” or “trans”. This simply means “different gender”. People who define their gender as the gender they were assigned at birth are called “cisgender” or “cis”. This simply means “same gender.”

  • Some cis people will simply say, “Well, I’m a girl, and I’m not like that, so maybe your definition of what makes someone a girl is wrong.”
  • Some trans people might say, “If that’s what a girl is, well, I’m not like that. I am more like what you say a boy is. I’m a boy.”
  • Some trans or nonbinary people will say, “Well, if that’s what a girl is, and that’s what a boy is, I’m not like either of those things. I’m not a girl or a boy, I’m nonbinary.”
  • And some cis people will say, “Yeah, your definition of what a girl is fits me really well. I’m fine being a girl. I’m cis.”

All of these reactions are okay (and they are not the only possible reactions.) There is no “right” way to have a gender, and the only person who gets to define their own gender is the person who has the gender.

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These are choices people have been making in many places for a very long time. In our country, now, our definitions of boys, girls, and other genders are changing as we learn how these ideas of what girls do and boys do affect people who don’t fit those labels very well.

When people are forced to take on roles that don’t fit them very well, it can make them sad. It can make them feel like they are broken or wrong. In reality, it is simply that the rules most people were taught just aren’t very helpful, and need to be changed.

So what should the rules be?

  1. Let people say what gender they are. Boy, girl, nonbinary and there are many other words people use for gender, as well.
  2. Use the pronouns people ask you to use. Most women will use she/her. Most men will use he/him. Nonbinary people will often use they/them, but some will use it/its or xe/xir or something else. Just use the pronouns people ask you to use. If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, and don’t want to guess wrong, use they/them.
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  3. Don’t ask people about their private parts. This is never your business.
  4. Avoid “Boys vs. girls” and dividing people up by gender. If someone divides things by boys and girls, and someone makes a choice that surprises you, don’t question it.
  5. Respect other people’s boundaries! If someone doesn’t want to be touched, do not touch them. Ask before touching anyone, and if they say no, respect that.
  6. Don’t expect people to fit our culture’s “gender ideals” perfectly. It’s okay!  Everyone is different, and that’s a good thing. It makes life interesting. Just because some people think that there’s a best way to be a person, whether boy, girl, or nonbinary, it doesn’t mean they’re correct or that it’s the only way to do it right. The fact is that most people can’t even agree on what “doing it right” means. Just be yourself, and let other people be themselves.
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  7. Remember that people get to decide how they express their gender too! If someone does something you don’t expect—for either the gender you think they are, or the gender they told you they are—and it surprises you, remember, your surprise is about you, not about them. If you are doing something other people don’t expect, and they make an issue of it, you can ask for help on handling the issue.
  8. You get to control access to your body and you can say no when you don’t want to be touched. You can ask for help if people aren’t listening. It’s okay to say, “I don’t want to do this” or “I don’t want you to do that to me.”
  9. It is not okay for anyone to harass anyone else. Harassing means bugging them when they don’t want to be bugged. It means pushing them or calling them names based on who they are. It’s not respectful, and it hurts people. If someone does that to you, ask for help until you get help. If you have been doing that to other people, stop now, and apologize. If someone says they’re a girl but they look like a boy to you, you should not argue with them. They get to define their gender. Just like you do.
  10. Bullying hurts people. It makes them feel bad, and it can even make them feel sick inside. It makes some people want to die. It’s really, really easy to avoid hurting people this way. Be kind. Don’t say bad things about them, and don’t make them feel bad for being who they are. Even if you don’t understand who they are, you can still be kind and respectful to them. It can actually help people to be healthier and happier to have people treat them nicely. Words can hurt, but they can help, too.  

You want to have control over what happens to your body, and other people want control over their own bodies, too. Some people like hugs and handshakes and roughhousing. Some people don’t. The way to be a good friend and a good person is to ask if something is okay before you do it. Be specific. “Can I give you a hug?” “Hey, wanna wrestle?” And if they say no, then accept that answer.

You can be a hero to someone who is sad, scared or feeling alone, simply by saying, “You’re okay, and I’m on your side. I won’t hurt you, and I won’t stand by while other people hurt you.”

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You can be a villain by telling them they shouldn’t be who they are, or telling them they don’t belong, or by hurting them with words or actions. You can also be a villain by watching other people treat someone badly and not telling them to stop. It’s not “just teasing” and it’s not okay.

If it isn’t safe for you to tell them to stop, you can be a hero just by asking grownups for help until someone helps.

And if someone is hurting you, ask for help. Ask until you get it. At our school, the best person to ask is ______________ but you can always talk to [everyone who has been trained].

Remind yourself and tell your friends this:

We don’t treat people that way. We don’t allow others to be treated that way. We don’t allow our friends to treat people that way. We know better. We can do better. We can be heroes.

© 2016 Jennifer Rosenberg
Art © 2016 saltkettle
Permission granted to print and distribute printed copies. This may be used in print format in educational settings without restriction.
Feel free to link to this page as a resource. Please do not simply copy this to other websites verbatim, linking is preferred so that if I edit this, I don’t have to chase down a billion different versions of it.
This was proofed and reviewed by many people before publication, but as language and understanding evolve constantly, I am open to constructive feedback and additions.

If you would like this in a polished, presentation format, please email me at jenrose at jenrose dot com. I have a graphic design background and can provide the files in a variety of formats, ranging from Google Docs to InDesign or PDF.

The Google Doc template (copy to a new doc to edit and add names to the end) is here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1NsEilMgmN8VKK05NmQN24Fvokl28KdD018jGGILMaFc/edit

This is specifically aimed at kids and young teens, and is written at approximately at a 5th grade level. For a more in-depth look at these issues, written at a 9th grade level, please see:

Creating a Safe and Welcoming School Environment for all Students, Including Trans and Nonbinary Kids

Published in Feminism Gender and Sexuality Health Lessons for my kids LIfe Parenting Questions Political

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