Silently teaching children about gender

By Kyra Skylark
Flapjack staff

From the moment a child is born, they begin learning about gender. 

Claire Knox is a professor on child development at Humboldt State. Prof. Knox focuses primarily on early childhood development, and possesses a wealth of information on the cognitive development of children in relation to gender.

“You don’t really teach about gender, Knox said. “What happens is that through their interactions with the people around them, children begin to form some ideas about gender. Then because of the way that environments get structured and the ways that we refer to children with language, they begin to construct their own understanding.”

Children construct their views on gender by viewing how those around them act.

“Rather than setting out to teach children topics, which is something that we’ve gone overboard on, we need to back off; in those very early years, what we really are, is support for interpreting experiences,” said Knox.

Adults are supposed to help them understand their world, and we do this by reacting and explaining situations. Over analyzing topics and overemphasizing opinions can confuse children and stunt their own exploratory process.    

Emma Lebell is a student at Humboldt State who identifies as a non-binary trans individual. Lebell strongly believes, that we need to reevaluate how we portray our own views on gender.  

“It’s not really just about changing how you speak to kids, it’s changing how you speak in general conversation about the world,” said Lebell. “Cause kids, they notice shit, they notice how you talk about people and how you talk about things.”

And beyond noticing how you react, they are also learning how they should act. Children mold themselves after what they are exposed to.

“They pigeon stuff. They see it, so they do that, that’s how they learn. You just have to make sure kids have something else to model themselves for,” said Lebell. “So that they don’t just get stuck forcing themselves into the same position because that’s all they know exists.”

Children are aware of how you react, so you should be too.

Erica Siepker, a wildlife major here at HSU, who has worked in the on campus aftercare classrooms agrees that how we react in front of children can greatly influence them.

“Don’t make a big deal about it,” said Siepker.

That was one of the most important things she learned working with the kids. The moment they see something affect you, good or bad, they internalize your response and process your reaction so that they know how they should be reacting. 

“I think the biggest thing is making to big of a deal about it, because that’s when it gets ingrained, that it IS a big deal, the divide between male versus female,” said Siepker. “If they grow up in an environment where nobody is making a big deal about whether a girl does things that boys do, or girls do things that boys do, they’re not going to grow up with the thought that it is a big deal at all.

Gender is not an easy topic to understand even as an adult. There are many different viewpoints on gender which can cause confusion. This confusion translates over when we expose children to our own understanding of gender.

“Basically you really gotta be aware of how you see gender before you can start teaching your kid about that kind of thing. So much of it is unconscious, that you have to force it to be conscious so that you can choose to change it, cause there’s always going to be toxic elements to it, said Lebell.

If a child is curious about gender, if they ask questions or experiment how they present themselves, don’t over analyze their actions. Children are inquisitive about the world and the individuals in it, if they are curious about gender and gendered individuals, let them be curious.

“You need to be willing to talk to them about it and answer questions, kids are curious,” said Lebell. “And if you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know, don’t make something up or say, ‘oh it’s not important’.”

If a child has questions about gender, answer their questions, but don’t just give them the your answer. A child is exposed to many different kinds of people and beliefs, accounting for these differences is vital. 

“To be able to talk to kids about-‘you know, people have lots of different ideas about these things, and that’s that person’s idea about it. It doesn’t have to be your idea about it, and it’s not necessarily wrong that it’s their idea but it’s their idea. It’s just an idea about this and we have lots of different ideas,’-and really leaving that door open for children to be able to explore what their ideas about it are,” said Knox.

Presenting multiple ways to think about a topic will help the child to understand it. Beyond simply understanding the ideas we have about gender, providing numerous viewpoints allows for your child to grow into their own opinions on it. As they grow, a child will begin to discover where they feel they fit within, or without the labels we have constructed.

“There’s no reason you can’t talk to kids about gender outright, you might have to simplify your language a little bit, but they can understand it,” said Lebell. “Especially when it is so pervasive in society.”

You can talk to a child of any age about gender, if they are curious about their gender, or gender itself, just talk to them. Everyone has different ideas about gender, and to a certain extent so do they. If they are asking questions, they’ve thought about the topic, so don’t dismiss it with a simply explaining your the anatomy or your own opinion.

What would Knox say to a child, who felt conflicted about their own identity and came to her?

“I would basically say, ‘What does this mean to you? Let’s talk about what this means to you’,” she said. “That might include how people they care about are reacting to them. I don’t think you ever tell someone else about their identity. You reflect. You act as a mirror. You might ask questions to create an interpretive base.”

Allow them to be curious, and explain the different ideas and beliefs relating to gender so that they may find where they feel the most like themselves.

“If gender is something where we’re embracing variety, the idea that it takes time for people to be able to explore and understand, and that there are lots of different ways of expressing who you are, then they’re gonna follow that lead,” said Knox.

The way adults deal with gender in a child’s early development can affect not only how someone interacts with people for the rest of their life, but how comfortable they feel expressing themselves.
“Be very, very aware of how you speak to them and how you speak to others in front of them,” said Lebell. “Always be aware of what possible effects, gender and perceived gender is having on them, because, monkey see monkey do. If your kid sees you talking differently because of someone’s gender than that’s, even without thinking about it maybe, then that’s how they’re going to think and talk about it and that’s going to shape them as a person. So just be aware, and don’t ever shame a child for curiosity.”

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