Sex, and Gender, and Curious Kids: Oh My!
It’s pretty much a given that many parents want to know how to talk to their kids about sex and sexuality. Many of us also want to be sure to prepare our kids for encountering people of different genders, orientations, and bodies. We also want to be able to support our LGBT+ children. A huge part of that is figuring out how to talk about sex and sexuality in a way that is inclusive to everyone.
Many books and resources about puberty, sex, and bodies for kids aren’t inclusive to transgender or intersex experiences. The sexuality education curriculum I teach suggests using Robbie Harris’s books, including “It’s Not the Stork” and “It’s So Amazing” and while these books are great when it comes to talking about consent, health, and many other aspects of sexuality, they aren’t very gender inclusive. Looking for books specifically on puberty is even worse! They are always divided into “boy” books and “girl” books (or “boy” and “girl” sections). Most modern sexuality resources emphasize not dividing learners by gender because it’s important for kids and adults to understand how all bodies work. Throw in the fact that some women have penises and some men have vaginas and you find that these resources aren’t that helpful after all. So what is an educated parent to do when you know “the man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina” won’t cut it?
You start out by teaching about gender and assigned sex. I recommend “The Gender Wheel” by Maya Gonzalez. Explain that whenever a baby is born, as a society we make an assumption called an assigned sex: we decide that, for the most part, if a baby has a penis they’ll be a boy, or if a baby has a vagina they’ll be a girl. There are other aspects to how we assign sex, like chromosomes, hormones, or other attributes but depending on your child’s age or attention span you may want to keep it as simple as possible.
Then you point out that humans are super diverse and there are rarely just two different ways a person can be. Just like green and blue aren’t the only eye colors that exist, penises and vaginas aren’t the only genitals that exist! Intersex people sometimes have genitals other than what we typically think of as a penis or a vagina. You don’t need to go into too much detail; the important part is they know that bodies can be super diverse. You can point out how a lot of the time, the doctors or parents will make a choice to assign an Intersex baby a sex, male or female, and raise the child like that, and that this can be really confusing for Intersex children. Depending on the age of your kiddo, you may want to go into Intersex rights and how some babies may be operated on or made to take hormones to make their bodies conform more to what we think of as typical “male” and “female” bodies, and how not only can that be damaging mentally, but physically as well. It’s important to keep intersex people in mind when talking to your kids about puberty too. Many people don’t know they’re intersex until their body changes during puberty in ways they don’t expect, like when kids assigned the female sex start growing facial hair. It’s important to mention not only to prepare your child if they experience these changes but to also normalize these bodies that some people are confused by.
Once your child understands assigned sex and biological diversity you can begin talking about gender. Tell them that gender doesn’t have anything to do with bodies and assigned sex. It’s something you feel about yourself, and there’s way more that just boy and girl. This is where gender wheels come in handy, you have a good visual of “there are tons of genders out there” without having to go into specifics and overwhelming them with all the options out there. One important word to teach them is “non-binary”, telling them it’s both an umbrella term and a specific identity for any gender that is not man or woman. The main thing to get across is that gender has nothing to do with bodies. Teach them that they can’t know what gender a person is by looking at them. This goes with the lesson that there’s no such thing as “boy” things and “girl” things. Girls can play sports, boys can wear dresses. It can help to look up pictures of non-binary and gender nonconforming people to show the vast diversity of gender presentation.
The main problem I hear from most people, and something I struggled with as a sexuality educator, is how to teach kids about the birds and the bees without using gendering language. I recommend Cory Silverberg’s books “What Makes a Baby” and “Sex is a Funny Word”. They manage to teach about conception without gendering bodies, using language like “some bodies have eggs, others don’t” to get the point across. When talking about health and puberty you can phrase things similarly. “Many people with vaginas experience periods around these ages” or “Sometimes penises become erect for no reason at all and it’s normal during puberty for ejaculation to happen sometimes while sleeping.” It is important for them to know about their anatomy and what changes puberty can bring on.
Unfortunately a lot of charts and pictures do use gendered language like “male anatomy” or “female anatomy” but that can spark a discussion about how bodies are still put in those boxes even though those labels aren’t correct. Every woman’s body is a female body and has female anatomy, regardless of if she is trans or cis gender. It’s important to point out gender assumptions in the tv they watch, books they read, and any other media or conversations they have. Every moment is a teaching moment. Sometimes you might not know how to explain things perfectly or you might get something wrong or slip into gendered language. It’s okay to admit you were wrong or that you might not know something. That gives yourself a chance to model the behavior you’d want to see your child follow when they mess something up. Teach them how to apologize and how to further educate themselves. Make sure they know that no matter who they turn out to be as they grow up you will love them regardless and they can always come to you for comfort or questions.