As your kids grow up, you’re going to have a lot of big conversations with them. You may even have the same conversations multiple times, adding new tidbits with each leap in their age. Some subjects are so nuanced — i.e., talking about bodies, the birds and the bees, or gender identity — that you may feel a little unsure of yourself when addressing them. And unexpectedly facing those complex conversations in public? It’s enough to trigger full-on panic. But children are naturally inquisitive, and before you know it, you’re in the checkout line at the grocery store when your curious kid asks, “Is that a boy or a girl?”
How should you respond? Learning specialist Desmond Fambrini (@desmondfambrini), who’s genderfluid, recently answered that question in a TikTok video parents are praising for being super helpful and informative.
“I can’t tell you what to say as a parent. But what I will say is that kids like to categorize,” Fambrini says, explaining, “Your child is not being offensive. They are trying to figure out what is going on in front of them. … For a kid, it is very important to categorize things.”
You probably handle your child’s need for categorization all day. Is it sweet or salty? Bad or good? For kids or grown-ups? You’re only thinking about it and worrying that it’s rude this time because a third party is involved. And, if you’re a decent person, the last thing you would want is for you or your child to hurt or invalidate someone.
“First of all, you need to realize that the child is not trying to offend anyone and, in a way, it’s not really rude,” shares Fambrini. “If you see a person and you’re not quite sure what they are, the most educational thing would be to have a conversation with your kid about it.”
Fambrini recommends talking to your kid about what you observe.
“‘I’m not really sure. That person seems to have short hair. So, they might be a boy. However, girls can have short hair, too,'” suggests Fambrini, as an example. By doing this, you’re acknowledging your child’s natural inclination towards classification while teaching them that there are differentiations when you chunk information.
“It is important that the older we get, the better we can categorize and no longer just say, ‘This is for boys, and this is for girls,'” explains Fambrini. “But, ‘This is sometimes for boys and most commonly for girls. However, there are exceptions and distinctions in the situation.”
You might have this conversation in your house already. Like, when your four-year-old gets it into her head that “pants are for boys” and refuses to wear them. Or when your little boy notices only one of his cis-gendered, hetero parents paints their fingernails. It’s one thing to have those conversations about yourself, though; it’s another to stand in front of a stranger and make assumptions about their lived existence.
“Help your child visually compare,” says Fambrini. “Help them figure it out if they need to, but also remind the kid that there are always differences and that sometimes these categories [boy or girl] may not work.”
But Fambrini knows kids pretty well, and they often don’t readily accept a non-answer (without firing off 100 more questions, at least). So, Fambrini’s advice could serve as a good jumping-off point.
Unsurprisingly, parents filled Fambrini’s comment section with other great ideas on responding when kiddos ask this question, like:
- “I tell my children that ‘I don’t know, but aren’t clothes cool/makeup pretty?'”
- “I just say, ‘They didn’t tell me.'”
- “I always say to my kids, ‘I’m not sure. We should ask them how they like to be identified.'”
- “‘That’s not something we can know just by looking at someone.'”
In other words, in your everyday life, you can encourage your child to challenge gender stereotypes and think outside of the gender binary.
In moments like this, you can reinforce to your child that we shouldn’t make assumptions — you can’t always classify someone just by looking at them. Also, it’s not the responsibility of the person in question to educate anyone. If the stranger jumps into the conversation on their own, cool. But you also can’t assume they want to be part of your lesson.
The big takeaway: Your kid likes and needs to categorize things, and you shouldn’t shut that down. In fact, silencing your child in this situation implies shame, and there’s nothing shameful about each person’s individual choice to dress, act, or identify in a way that feels good and natural to them.