A hand with a heartGender is loosely defined as a spectrum of identities ranging from masculine to feminine. It should be noted that gender is not biological. In other words, our genders are separate from our bodies. Gender is about how we identify, not what we look like or what the world tells us that we ought to be.

Studies consistently show that children internalize gender stereotypes as early as two to three years old. While these studies often focus on male and female identities, nowadays, children have many more identity options than “boy” or “girl.” As your child grows, their gender identity will likely change over time. Gender exploration is both natural and healthy.

Here are some ways that you can support your child’s gender development throughout their lifetime:

Early Childhood (0-5)

Challenge binaries

In the early years, children are concrete thinkers who are obsessed with classification and categorization. Consequently, they are often attracted to simple binaries like “male” and “female.” Help children think beyond binaries, both in terms of gender and other areas of their life. For example, you might ask, “Some people don’t identify as a girl or a boy. What do you think that would look like?” Or, “I don’t think things are good or bad. I think they could be both. What do you think?”

Remember gender is playChild in cowboy hat and pink feather boa

Young children love pretend play. While playing, they try on different identities. Just as they might pretend to be doctors or unicorns, they may also pretend to be a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. Encourage this exploration. Whatever gender your child claims, allowing them to play demonstrates that they don’t have to act like stereotypical boys, girls, or any other gender.

Expose children to multiple gender identities

Actively seek out media and picture books that include characters with different gender identities. There are a number of picture books now that include trans and nonbinary characters such as Introducing Teddy, Jacob’s Room to Choose, and I am Jazz. When possible, introduce children to families that have members that do not adhere to gender binaries.

School Age (6-11)

Talk about yourself and your experiences

Talk about your own gender identity and how it has changed over time. Even if you have identified as one gender your whole life, try and talk about how your expression of that gender has changed. Was there a part of your life where your choices challenged gender stereotypes? Are there aspects of your personality that aren’t necessarily binary? Consider these questions and talk about them openly with your child.

Keep asking questions

Allow your child multiple opportunities to assess and change their gender identity. When filling out forms, for example, ask them, “Do you still identify as a girl? Or should I check a different box?” Keeping the door open not only communicates acceptance, it also gives your child the time and space to analyze who they are and who they are becoming.

Be proactive

When you see gender stereotypes and false binaries, call them out. If this is new to you, then practice doing so with your child. What stereotypes do you see in books, movies, television shows, or advertisements? What gendered practices do you notice at your workplace or at your child’s school? Encourage your child to think critically and, when safe and appropriate, to challenge reductionist approaches to gender.

Teenagers (13+)

Treat your kids as experts

The teenage years are a time of intense identity development. Teens may try on various gender identities and dedicate real time and thought to solidifying their identity. No matter how many identities they try on, or what their identity may end up being, remember that your children are experts on their own lives. Trust them, and teach them to trust themselves.

Model compassion and acceptance

During this time period, teens may have friends who are also exploring their gender identities. Accept their friends, and ensure that your home is a safe space to have all kinds of conversations. Model compassion and caring, and be open to your child’s feelings about their friendships and their friends’ journeys.

Do your own work

Parenting teens is challenging and can bring up past trauma. Work with a therapist or someone you trust to work through your own trauma and biases. If you are having trouble understanding something, be honest with your child, and make it clear that you are taking on the burden of educating yourself and preparing yourself to be there for them.


Mathangi Subramanian, Ed.D., believes stories have the power to change the world. Her middle grades book, Dear Mrs. Naidu, won the South Asia Book Award, and her picture book A Butterfly Smile was inducted into the Nobel Museum by Laureate Dr. Esther Duflo. Her novel A People’s History of Heaven was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner award, a finalist for the LAMBDA literary award, and named a Skipping Stones Honors Book. A former public school teacher, senior policy analyst at the New York City Council, and Fulbright Scholar, she currently consults for Sesame Workshop. She holds a doctorate in education from Columbia Teachers College.