Beyond the Binary: Raising Trans- and Gender-Nonconforming Children

by Allison Kimble-Cusano, EdD, ICS Research Specialist

What are little ones made of?
What are little ones made of?
Dreams and goals;
And diverse social roles;
That’s what little ones are made of.

Gender-based stereotypes are all around us. Young children are exposed to binary (male/female), gender-based expectations from birth. From nursery rhymes to toys, to family roles, children are bombarded with overt and implicit messages about how they are “supposed” to feel and act.1 These messages are further complicated by adults’ synonymous use of the terms “gender,” “sexual orientation,” and “sex.”2

In the US, “sex,” or “assigned sex,” is usually designated at birth as “male” or “female.” “Gender” is “a person’s basic internal sense of being a man, woman (cisgender), and/or another gender (genderqueer, transgender, nonbinary, genderfluid, etc.).”3 For many individuals, their assigned sex corresponds with their gender. However, gender identity development is far from simple. Rather, gender is “the complex interrelationship between three dimensions: body, identity, and social gender.”4 According to the American Academy of Pediatrics,5 children’s gender identities are stable by the age of four. Sexual orientation on the other hand—the inherent physical, emotional, or romantic attraction to another individual—manifests during puberty.6 So, while the term “LGBTQ+” represents both gender and sexual orientation, the two are independent of each other.7 


Despite confusion over language, the LGBTQ+ community is steadily growing. Twenty percent of Generation Z self-identify as outside the cis-heteronormative binary,8 a percentage that researchers agree will continue to grow with future generations.9 As a result, more caregivers and family members are caring for trans and gender-nonconforming young children. Hannah* (she/her) is one such parent. These words tell her story—a story that, while unique, offers inspiration and insight into the humanity that is parenting beyond the binary.

“When I was having a baby, I just wanted a happy, whole human. That’s what I got…these kids aren’t political. They’re just kids.”

“My three-year-old daughter didn’t know that people hate trans people. My three-year-old daughter wasn’t making a political statement. She didn’t want to advocate for her rights. She just wanted to be like herself. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”






The Politics of Gender

We are living through a Gender Revolution.10 Pronoun acknowledgement has appeared in email signatures, remote meetings, boardrooms, classrooms, and social media. Across early childhood sectors, professional organizations have issued recommendations for fostering positive gender identity development.11

This increased advocacy has been met with increased criticism. Twenty states have passed legislation banning gender affirming care for individuals up to age 18, and seven more are currently considering such policies.12 As Hannah observes, the deeply personal process of gender identity development has turned political.

“I think we, as a society, need to focus more on having happy, healthy kids, and less on kids that meet some sort of preconceived notion.”

“It [biological sex] does start to change how you treat small children, right? Because we have these preconceived notions of boys and girls and what they like to do and what they should be doing. These stupid expectations about masculinity and femininity.”

“We are doing a major disservice to kids from as soon as they’re conceived, and we start thinking about gender and sex being the same thing.”

Stereotypes and the Gender Binary

Children learn the social meaning of gender from adults. Infants explore gender norms through appearances, roles and behavior, and toddlers look for patterns of behavior as clues about gender and gender roles. Preschoolers, naturally curious about sex differences, use observed gender roles to categorize individuals and develop gender “rules.” Absent guidance, these “rules” become stereotypes.13

Even before they are born, a child’s assigned sex influences adult behavior.14 Gender reveal parties, with themes like, “Team Blue or Team Pink,” “Guns or Glitter,” and “Bows or Badges” reinforce gender stereotypes,15 and babies arrive to closets full of blue or pink. As children grow, so too, do adults’ gender-based expectations. Children assigned male are discouraged from wearing princess costumes, caregivers assign gender-based chores, and adult/child interactions reflect cis-hetero gender expectations.16


“It’s an interesting kind of social experiment, right? This twins thing and being in a house of “boys,” right? We had a lot of hand me down things, and we went out of our way to make sure the books that we had had a lot of different settings, diverse modeling, things like that.”

“There were a few TV shows that we liked with the kids, because they were sort of breaking the norms of gender roles. And even thinking about like, the optic that Blaze had a girl who was the mechanic. So, I think some of that is being introduced to our kids, subtly. But so much of this built-in societal understanding of gender is also baked in.”

Learning through (Gender) Play

Children explore gender and gender roles through play and may assume roles or engage with materials not traditionally associated with their assigned sex. “Playing with gender is normal and healthy and does not alter a child’s gender identity.”17 Instead, exposing children to a range of toys, activities, books, and media helps your child learn that their gender identity shouldn’t limit their opportunities.18

Parents and caregivers play an important role in breaking and/or reinforcing gender stereotypes19 in early childhood. Adults control children’s access to toys, media, books, etc., and persistently purchase gender-typed toys that align with child(ren)’s assigned sex. Researchers have found that doing so “may lead to gender differentiation of physical, cognitive, and social development among children.”20 Caregivers’ gendered participation in domestic vs career-oriented work further solidifies gender-based stereotypes.21 Long term, these stereotypes contribute to representation gaps in STEM, language related fields,22 reading outcomes, and caregiving.23

“I better understood that she was
identifying as a girl, when she got to pick out her own clothes…And the more she gravitated towards traditionally girl clothing, the more comfortable she looked, the happier she looked…We would we go shopping for clothes, and if she wanted pink or purple, or she wanted to shop in the girls’ section, we just did that. I don’t care. I want her to be comfortable. So that’s how my recognition came, around clothing.”


“When your three-year-old wants to wear a pink shirt or not wear a dress, because they want to wear pants, as a parent, you’re like, “well, I just want my kid to fit in. I want my kid to, like, be a normal kid.” And you don’t even think, “oh, maybe my kid is trans.” You probably shouldn’t think that. That shouldn’t be your first thought if your little boy wants to wear pink, or your girl doesn’t want to wear a dress.”







It’s Not a Phase

For most young children, experimenting with engendered clothing choices, toys, etc., is a matter of preference rather than one of gender expression.24 According to the Yale School of Medicine, “just because a little boy likes to teeter around in his mother’s high heels or try on his big sister’s dresses—or even paint his nails—does not mean parents should begin wondering if their child is transgender.”

Transgender and gender nonconforming children demonstrate gender traits that are consistent, insistent, and persistent across time.26 These children consistently identify with one gender, and insist, over months or even years, that their gender identity is different than their assigned sex (i.e., a child assigned male at birth insists that they are a girl).27 Being transgender or gender nonconforming is not a phase,28 it is “something we are born with; it can’t be changed by any interventions.”29
 
Experts recommend that parents and caregivers, like Hannah, follow their child’s lead and have open, honest, age- appropriate conversations about gender with their child(ren).30 Parents can support healthy gender identity development by allowing them to choose their own clothes, toys, and activities, regardless of their traditional gender association.31

“Someone in the Pride group posted a letter that went home to the preschoolers from a teacher saying, “It’s Q-day, and so the girls should dress like Queens,” and I can’t even remember what the boys were supposed to dress like…And the Pride group went nuts. And [the teacher] didn’t do it intentionally to insult people. It’s just that she never thought of it. And so, to me, we need to be doing more with our early educators. This needs to be part of the ongoing professional development and it’s not.”



Unconscious Bias in Early Education

Researchers have found that “there is an increasing need for teachers who can guide students through a flexible understanding of their gender identity, respect their gender expression, and support students’ developing social and emotional awareness. However, sometimes a teacher may not even notice his or her inherent biases that imply unfair stereotypes and lead to discriminatory classroom practices.”32 Educator preparation programs and textbooks lack comprehensive gender-inclusivity training, and educators have expressed the need for training that supports the development of gender-expansive classrooms and schools.33 However unintentional, early educator’s gender-biased language, discipline practices, and response to children’s play reinforces the development of gender-based stereotypes in young children.34

“Every single year, once the teacher assignments come out, before school starts, I request to have a phone call with the teacher or go in and see the teacher and we have this conversation that “[my child] is trans, she uses she/her pronouns…she uses the girls’ bathroom, and she’s a girl….And we want to know if there any problems that happen in the classroom. And, in general, she’s really outspoken about this issue, and she tends to navigate the interpersonal issues with kids better than I do. Certainly, she’s comfortable with that. So just let her drive and if she needs support, please support her, and let us know so we can as well.”

“We’ve had no problems with the school. I’ve talked to every administrator in the buildings where she is, and we’ve had no problems with administration. As a matter of fact, there’s an administrator I work with now, at the intermediate school, who reaches out proactively with me about things.”







Supportive Schools

Parents and caregivers of transgender and gender nonconforming children are their child’s most important advocates. Families like Hannah’s need to work proactively to build a strong, positive relationship with their child’s school. This includes ongoing consensual communication about pronoun and bathroom preferences, and other individual needs, in a way that honors the child’s identity and privacy.35 Perhaps more importantly, parental advocacy is an important model for children’s self-advocacy.36

According to Supporting & Caring for Transgender Children,37 “the uniqueness of every transgender student’s gender transition underscores the importance of establishing a collaborative, intentional and ongoing process for supporting a transgender student throughout their transition.” To facilitate this collaboration, parents are advised to meet with their child’s school early and often, to talk openly with their children about gender, to normalize conversations about pronouns and gender-related preferences, and to help their child talk to others about their gender identity.38

“I think there’s so much opportunity for us to do better. When you look at the statistics for suicide, and mental health issues with trans kids, it’s scary. And one of these kids is Einstein or Frida Kahlo. We’re losing so much potential by trying to put these square pegs in a round box and vice versa. And it costs our society money, right? It costs money to put a homeless kid through a mental health center, or to put kids on state aid or federal aid. We could just do better and save money, and, you know, be good people.”


It Takes a Village

Transgender youth experience significant gender-based discrimination, bullying, and physical and emotional violence.39 As a result, they contemplate and attempt suicide at alarmingly high rates,40 and are more likely to become homeless and use illegal drugs.41 Despite these facts, according to the CDC, “quality sexual health education, access to health services, and safe and supportive environments can help all youth thrive in the face of risk and are critically important for transgender and other gender diverse youth.”42 Furthermore, providing transgender individuals with gender-affirming care makes good financial sense, reducing costs related to mental health and drug treatment and increasing quality of life and productivity.43

“We’ve always been supportive, and accepting, and expecting that from everyone else.”

Lead with Love

Family support and acceptance is a significant predictor of LGBTQ+ children’s future health and wellbeing.44 Affirming behaviors include talking to your child about their gender identity, supporting your child even when it makes you uncomfortable, welcoming your child’s gender-diverse friends, requiring respect from friends and family, expressing affection when your child tells you or you learn they are LGBTQ+, and believing that your LGBTQ+ child will have a happy, productive future.45 After all, “being valued by their parents and family helps children learn to value and care about themselves.”46


Learn More:
Resources, Support, and Advocacy

American Psychological Association:

“Provides fact sheets, best practices and other resources for supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.”

Family Acceptance Project:

The Family Acceptance Project® is a research, intervention, education and policy initiative to prevent health and mental health risks and to promote well-being for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer-identified (LGBTQ) children and youth, including suicide, homelessness, drug use and HIV—in the context of their families, cultures and faith communities.

Family Equality:

“Family Equality has spent more than 40 years ensuring that everyone has the freedom to find, form, and sustain their families by advancing equality for the LGBTQ+ community.”

Gender Spectrum:

“Gender Spectrum is a national organization committed to the health and well-being of gender- diverse children and teens through education and support for families, and training and guidance for educators, medical and mental health providers, and other professionals.”

GLAAD:

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is a non-profit organization focused on LGBTQ advocacy and cultural change. GLAAD works to ensure fair, accurate, and inclusive representation and creates national and local programs that advance LGBTQ acceptance.

GLSEN:

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, “GLSEN works to ensure that LGBTQ students are able to learn and grow in a school environment free from bullying and harassment.”

HealthyChildren.org (American Academy of Pediatrics):

Resources and support for families and caregivers on various issues including parenting gender-diverse children, gender identity, and gender-affirming healthcare.

Learning for Justice:

Provides “free educational resources—articles, guides, lessons, films, webinars, frameworks and more—help foster shared learning and reflection for educators, young people, caregivers and all community members.”

LGBT National Help Center:

“Provides vital peer support, community connections, and resource information.”

National LGBTQ Task Force:

“The National LGBTQ Task Force advances full freedom, justice and equality for LGBTQ people.”

Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG):

“The first and largest organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for LGBTQ+ people and their families. PFLAG is creating a caring, just, and affirming world for LGBTQ+ people and those who love them.”

Strong Family Alliance:

“Strong Family Alliance is an organization with a simple mission – to save lives and preserve families by helping children come out and parents become informed supporters and allies.

Teaching for Change:

“Teaching for Change provides teachers and parents with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write, and change the world.”

The Human Rights Campaign:

“The Human Rights Campaign strives to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and realize a world that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all.”

The Trevor Project:

“We believe LGBTQ young people deserve a welcoming, loving world. And we wake up every day dedicated to making that a reality.”

Trans Youth Equality Foundation:

“The Trans Youth Equality Foundation provides education, advocacy and support for transgender and gender non-conforming children and youth and their families.”

Trans Youth Family Allies:

“TYFA empowers children and families by partnering with educators, service providers and communities, to develop supportive environments in which gender may be expressed and respected.”

Welcoming Schools:

“HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools is the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ+ and gender inclusive professional development training, lesson plans, booklists, and resources specifically designed for educators and youth-serving professionals.


Source PFLAG LGBTQ+ Gender Glossary
47

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[47] PFLAG. (2023). LGBTQ+ glossary. PFLAG. https://pflag.org/glossary/

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