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How To Talk To Kids About Gender

Written by Mia Quagliarello

Photography by Photo Courtesy of Jodie Patterson

Whether on stage, in a viral YouTube clip, or in her numerous online features (Mother included), Jodie Patterson stops you in your tracks, and makes you sit up and listen. To her story. To her assuredness. To her unconditional love for her family. To her staunch advocacy for people who don’t fit neat definitions of what’s “normal.”

A mother of five children (one of who is transgender), Patterson is an activist, an author, a beauty explorer, and a tireless LGBTQI ally who’s been recognized by Hillary Clinton, The Advocate, and GLAAD, as well as brands like J.Crew and magazines from Family Circle to Cosmopolitan.

With gender being a hot, extremely important, and often tricky topic, we asked the Brooklyn-based mama to walk us through this new age of gender fluidity. Here she breaks down what’s changed from more binary days, how to talk about the movement toward gender equality with your kids, and the right way to use pronouns with the utmost respect.

Gender used to feel like a more straightforward thing: you were a boy or a girl. What’s changed?
“In the world and community I grew up in—Black, upper middle class, New York—gender was static. It started with biology and ended with either ‘boy’ or ‘girl.’ And in my family you were preferably an athletic leader type boy, or a smart, beautiful, and articulate girl. But that perspective, I’ve learned, is not the truth. When my own child (who, by the way, is very real and tangible, not just a slogan) didn’t neatly fit into either of those two descriptions, I knew something was wrong. Not wrong with him, but wrong with the equation. I realized that just as my transgender son, Penelope, exists today, transgender people have always existed. This isn’t new. This is the diversity of the human existence. These days, we are more transparent and communicative, so all types of people have more visibility than ever before. Penelope, and others like him, have a voice now—and can be heard, seen, befriended, employed, and loved. This is what’s happening now in our community. That’s the change. It’s a change towards gender equality.”

How should parents bring up, and then navigate, this topic with their children at different stages of development?
“Words are powerful. I’ve been saying the word ‘transgender’ out loud and without shame for years now. At the dinner table amongst friends, at church with my children, over bedtime stories, and as related to the daily news—just to make it normal and important. Gender inequality and gender bias is not a shameful topic, so there is no need to feel uncomfortable about addressing it. At first, when my kids were young, I’d say Penelope’s brain and spirit is all boy! I would focus on intellect and love. Then, as they got older, I started to say, ‘Humans come in all forms: girl, boy, and everything in-between.’ They thought that was cool! I would say, ‘Some humans can grow babies inside of them. And some other humans have the seeds to help make those babies. And some bodies can not reproduce; instead they have another type of magic inside of them.’ I did that so they understand that bodies have functions and abilities, but not expectations. There’s never a bad time to talk about gender. It’s that fundamental to our human experience. I did it in small, incremental ways over time which added up to big mental and emotional growth for our family. And think about it: if you don’t talk about gender, it will either become taboo or misunderstood—and those two things tend to implode. We need our kids to thrive!”

How should that discussion differ, if at all, if the child is cisgender vs. transgender?
“I don’t flip the script for one child vs. the other. Every kid and every adult in my house hears the same from me: we are who we are from the inside out. Our minds and our spirit matter most. And you don’t have to change anything to be who you are. If we truly believe in gender equality and gender diversity, we have to place all genders in the same realm and give them the same equity. It gets tricky because not everyone in the family agrees with me on gender. And those opinions are respected and shared and allowed for. This is less about forcing my truth on another, and more about putting it all on the table, seeing what more we can learn and expanding our minds and our hearts.”

What are some common mistakes you see in the language and other ways adults explain gender themes?
“The correct pronoun to use for ANY person, whether they are trans, cis, or otherwise is whatever pronoun they prefer. Each and every person has a gender identity and each person determines how they want to be referred to. The best way to determine that is to ask, ‘Hi! What pronoun do you prefer?’ It’s direct, respectful, and totally appropriate! When my family travels to conferences, often we have to fill out name tags. All my kids and myself get a chance to write our name and whatever pronoun we prefer to go by. This isn’t just an exercise granted to trans people—it’s something we should all get used to doing—telling the world how we want to be seen. It’s about respect, communication, and clarity.”

Anything else we haven’t asked, that you think is important to address?
“Q: ‘When did you know you were female?’ A: ‘My entire life. From as far back as I have memory.’ Isn’t it presumptuous to doubt that Penelope and other trans people don’t know exactly who they are, at any age?”

For more reading on this topic, take a dive into the following books and articles:

Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue by Nick Teich

The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Identity by Jodie Patterson (coming in 2018 via Random House)

Who Are You? The Kids’ Guide to Gender Identity by Brook Pessin-Whedbee

I Am Jazz, based on the real-life experiences of Jazz Jennings, by Jessica Herthel

Mother’s list of 18 Children’s Books That Challenge Gender Norms

HuffPo’s list of 21 Best Transgender and Gender Non-conforming Books for Kids

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