Our children are exposed to messages about gender from birth. Society has traditionally told us how girls and boys should speak, look, dress and act, however preschoolers are now growing up in a world in which children are being encouraged not to be limited by gender, to talk openly about gender identity and that families come in all shapes and sizes.
So how can you prepare to talk to your preschooler about gender identity?
You may want to start by considering your own beliefs and the messages you want to share with your child. Do you want them to accept people who are different to them? Know how to ask questions when people appear different, but be respectful? Understand that accomplishments are not related to gender?
The second step may be looking at the example you set in terms of your actions and language. Do you make gender assumptions instinctively that perhaps are limiting, such as choosing ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ toys or activities?
The third step is learning how to answer questions like “are they a boy or a girl?”. Understanding the use of pronouns and how to explain non-binary to children may be new to many people. It’s okay to make mistakes. Apologise promptly and move on. But educating yourself first can help you in those moments when children ask potentially uncomfortable questions.
Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen, Head of School of Sociology at ANU, explains that the term gender neutral can be misleading.
“It suggests that there is a neutral position you can take on gender, which is not true.
“People who are often identified as gender neutral are actually questioning the gender binary and how it applies to them and other people.
“Gender binary is an assumption that your biological sex, which is male or female, aligns with your gender: masculine or feminine.
“Some people feel like they want to adhere to a gender identity and others want to have a relationship with gender identity that rejects the binary.”
Professor Rasmussen says that parents are increasingly wanting options that don’t reinforce the binary.
In fact, this year LEGO announced it would remove gender stereotypes from its popular toy brand, including gender specific marketing.
After surveying 7,000 parents and children from seven countries, they found boys feel more pressured to conform to gender norms for creative activities compared to girls, while perceptions and beliefs from other people hold girls back later in life.
“We are also seeing a generational shift when it comes to thinking about gender as something that is more than two,” adds Professor Rasmussen.
“For young people, questioning the gender binary is quite common and quite a few young people would know of other young people who are questioning how the gender categories relate to them.
“While for older people, it might be much less common.”
It’s difficult to understand how much of the Australian population identify as non-binary as it was only this year that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) census provided an option for participants to identify as non-binary.
In 2013, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 was amended to introduce new protections from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status in many areas of public life. These legal protections are complemented by the Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender. The guidelines recognise that individuals may identify as a gender other than the sex they were assigned at birth, or may not identify as exclusively male or female. This means all Australian Government departments and agencies must provide a third gender option, allowing those who don’t identify as male or female the ability to choose to represent their gender with an “X” instead.