Explaining Nonbinary: How to Talk to Kids About Gender

Gender isn't limited to boys and girls, so it's time to break the habit of assuming people must be one or the other. The best place to start? Teaching the right concepts to our children.

I was standing in line at the grocery store the other day when I felt a child staring at me; I knew they were trying to decide what most people try to figure out when they see me for the first time. I am used to this gaze. I am also familiar with the whispered conversations that accompany these observations. In this case, I heard the child tell their adult that I looked like a boy but they thought maybe I was a girl. I turned to the child and politely said, "I'm not a boy or a girl. I'm both. I'm nonbinary."

Kids are curious and ask a lot of questions; we shouldn't shut down a child's instinct to understand when we don't know the answer or because the topic makes us uncomfortable. Shushing or silencing a child tells them that the thing they are asking about is somehow shameful, bad, and not to be discussed. It tells them that the person they are trying to understand is also bad and taboo.

Instead of assuming a person's gender, shushing a child, or changing the subject, there are better ways we can be talking to our children about gender. If it feels like a tricky topic, here are some tips for starting the conversation, concepts to make it easier, and hints on how to answer your child's questions when it comes to gender.

illustration of girl on tire swing that swings from female gender symbol to male
Illustration by Sara Gironi Carnevale

Defining Nonbinary for Kids

Our gender is assigned to us at birth based on our sexual anatomy; the options are male or female. This first assumption of gender is like the flick of a domino—when one is hit, all the surrounding pieces that create the line fall too. In this case, gender is the structure, and all of the stereotypes and expectations of gender roles and gender expression are the dominos that fall and can be the collapse of one's true identity. But biological sex is not the same as gender, and gender is not limited to only two options. Both sex and gender are fluid. Knowing this can help us view sex and gender as more of a pendulum or a wave instead of predetermined answers leading to only one conclusion.

A person who does not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth is described as transgender. Some transgender folks don't identify as male or female but instead, feel a mix of both or neither genders. We shouldn't be expected to fit into the confines of a binary, male and female world and be restricted to gendered pronouns like "he" and "him" or "she" and "her."

Gender fluid, agender, and genderqueer are all terms that fit under the nonbinary category, but each person's experience is unique, so it's best not to apply labels one hasn't given us permission to use. Personally, I was assigned female at birth, but my identity does not fit into the binary of being male or female. I am nonbinary and I use "they" and "them" pronouns.

Celebrating Our Differences

We're already starting to see a shift toward a more gender-equal and neutral society. Clothing lines, toymakers, and stores are rebranding their spaces to be more inclusive. We are teaching our daughters that strong and smart are achievable and desirable qualities. We are teaching our sons that talking about and working through emotions are less toxic solutions than violence and hiding mental illness. Parents may be more accepting of LGBTQIA folks, but they fear the unknown and the harmful mistakes that could be made if one of their children comes out to them. Having meaningful conversations with kids is part of catching up to an increasingly diverse America.

Mara Iverson, director of education at LGBTQIA advocacy group Outright Vermont, reminds us that recognizing nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people is another cultural shift that is a normal part of change. "A century ago women in the United States generally weren't permitted to wear pants, accessing higher education was rare, and they were still months from having the right to vote." Iverson also points out that various Native American cultures and cultures within other countries have always seen gender as fluid and celebrated it as such.

Answering “Are They A Boy Or A Girl?”

If a child asks you about someone's gender, don't assume or pretend you know. Use thoughtful and gender-neutral language, such as "they" and "them" pronouns, to let your child know that until a person self identifies, you can't be sure. Iverson suggests responding by saying, "We don't always know just by looking at someone how they feel inside, but what makes you curious about it right now?" Emphasize that we should approach each person with kindness and that not assuming a person's identity or pronouns is incredibly respectful.

Because there is rarely a gender-neutral option when I am out in public, I choose to use the women's bathroom. Recently I was in a stall and heard a child ask her adult if I was in the right bathroom. I present as masculine and when I walked in, this child assumed that I was a boy in a girl's bathroom. I tensed; I have been in too many situations where a parent gets the answer wrong. But in this case, the mom responded well: "I know we are in the right spot, and I am going to trust that that person knows they are in the right spot too."

If I hadn't been on the toilet I would have thanked her, but using gendered bathrooms is exhausting, and talking to a stranger in that position felt like too much. I wished all parents could be so clear and affirming. It's not the kids who struggle to adapt and accept. Parents fall into assumptions based on years of biases and learned constructs about gender and gender expression. But if parents could step back and observe themselves, they would realize they are already having similar conversations with their kids. We tell our kids that any person can use a particular color, work in any profession, and wear any clothing that makes them feel good. Gender identity can be explained in the same way.

It's important to teach our kids that they and others have every right to dress, act, and identify in ways that make them feel good and healthy, as long as they are respecting the safety of others. Iverson reminds us that there is a difference between safety and comfort. Being uncomfortable with something new does not necessarily make us unsafe. The bathroom is a great example of this. People are used to bathrooms being divided into gendered options of male or female, but those spaces become unsafe for gender nonconforming, transgender, and nonbinary people when others begin to police where they think we should pee.

Iverson adds, "Nonbinary people need to be able to go to the bathroom that makes sense for them to be safe and healthy. Others might be uncomfortable for a while as we transition to something new, but discomfort is something that we can handle while we get used to ways of doing things that are safer and healthier for all, instead of leaving out some."

Remember: Kids Can Understand Complex Concepts

Casey Brown came out as nonbinary when their daughter was six. Brown mentions that their child didn't understand gender or identity too deeply at the time, and admits that explaining nonbinary was a bit complicated—but not impossible. Using a big piece of paper, Brown and their daughter wrote down gendered and neutral words. Their daughter understood that the "girl" words felt good to describe herself, and that helped her to understand that Brown felt best being described with the words in the neutral column.

Now age 10, Brown's daughter says that when people misgender her parent, she understands that it's because people don't know what it's like to be transgender. She says she often corrects people though because she wants to honor her parent for who they are.

"If someone asks me, 'Is that your dad?' I say 'Yup! That's my parent!' or if they ask if that's my mom, I say, 'Yup that's my parent!' So I'm correcting them without it being weird," she says. "It makes me feel really good when my friends and teachers get it right though, because I don't even think of [my parent] as trans; they're just my parent and this is how our family works. We are just a regular family."

And that's the point. People are just people. It's OK to be uncomfortable while learning that gender is and always has been fluid, but it's not OK to deny someone else's safety or existence. We all deserve to feel good and to be seen for who we are.

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