During the elementary school years, as kids interact more with other kids, they start to think a lot more about different family structures. They also come to understand their gender identity during elementary school. It’s often when transgender and gender nonconforming identities become more clear. Learn how to talk with your kid about identity, family, gender, and more.

What should I keep in mind?

Kids get a lot of messages about gender from the world around them. We know that kids have brains like sponges. One thing growing brains are figuring out in the early part of elementary school are the messages they’re getting about gender. What does being a boy or a girl mean for them? Some kids may feel strongly about sticking to strict gender roles, saying things like blue is only a boy color, or dolls are only for girls. Other kids may be inclined to play with or defy those gender stereotypes.

Gender identity — including transgender and gender nonconforming identities — are cemented early in elementary school. Not everyone who defies traditional gender roles is transgender. For example, lots of girls hate dresses. But your kid figures out what their gender is really early on — and they’ll usually tell you. So in preschool and in early elementary school, trans kids are starting to realize that they’re not the gender everyone said they were when they were born. They may want to be treated like a different gender.

You may not be sure what to say or think if your kid tells you something like that. We can help you understand what it means and what to do next.

No matter what your kid’s gender identity is, you can support them in making their own choices. Allow and encourage your kid to follow their interests and try different hobbies and activities. Use books, movies, or TV to point to role models that defy gender stereotypes (think: LGBTQ people, female athletes or mechanics, male dancers or nurses, etc.).

Not sure what the difference between gender and sex is? Have other questions, like what does transgender mean or what does LGBTQ stand for? We’ve got you.

How do I talk about different kinds of families?

As your kid becomes a part of their school community, they’ll probably come across families that are different from yours. Different families have different cultural traditions, religions, and values. Different families may also have different structures — meaning some kids in school may have 1 parent instead of 2, are being raised by grandparents, or live in foster care or group homes. Some kids have 2 moms or 2 dads, and there are many other types of families.

It’s important for kids to understand that not all families look the same. You can use your values about families and respect to guide talking with your kid about how some families are different from yours and that all families deserve respect.

You can say things like, “Even though that family looks different from ours, they’re really not that different. They love each other just like we love each other.”  

The knowledge and respect that you foster when you have these conversations helps create a safer, more inclusive community for everyone. And it’s a big deal for kids who may eventually realize that they’re LGBTQ or have different family structures of their own down the line.

It’s normal for your kids to have questions whenever they see something new. You may feel unsure of how to answer questions about families with LGBTQ parents. There are some questions and some tips on answering them below. But first, it helps to arm yourself with more knowledge so you feel prepared. Read about Sex, Gender, and Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation.

Q: Why does my friend have 2 moms (or 2 dads)?

A: Their parents are lesbians/gay. Do you know what that word means?

  • Your child may have heard about LGBTQ identities from other kids, from TV or movies, or from older siblings. Find out what they know, and help them understand what it really means.

  • Don’t be afraid to use words that describe sexual orientation — like gay, lesbian, or bisexual — if that’s what the person you’re talking about uses.

Q: How do 2 girls or 2 boys make a baby?

A: There are lots of ways to become a parent. Some people get help from someone else to have a baby. Other people adopt babies. Let’s read more together about how babies are made.

  • If you and your kid are already having birds and bees talks, that’s great. But if you’ve said that a penis needs to go into a vagina to make a baby, you’re leaving out how gay couples (and couples who deal with infertility) get pregnant. Learn more about talking about pregnancy and reproduction. What Makes A Baby by Cory Silverberg is a good way to start talking about where babies come from that’s inclusive for all families.

  • Note: It’s not polite to ask a gay parent that you don’t know well about how they became parents. For some people, these details are very personal.

How do I talk about gender roles and stereotypes to my kids?

By the time most kids start elementary school, they’ve gotten a lot of messages about what it means to be a boy or a girl. You might hear them say things like “Dolls are for girls and trucks are for boys.” You can help your kid understand that they don’t have to follow gender roles as if they were rules that shouldn’t be broken. Boys and girls should feel free to explore whatever sparks their interest — even if it seems to go against gender roles.

Here are some tips for fighting harmful stereotypes and helping your kid follow their interests.

  • Avoid pushing your kid into gender stereotypes.  Allow them the freedom to choose their own toys, interests, or hobbies, even if they don’t seem to go along with their gender. Avoid extremely gendered room colors/themes, toys, clothes, etc. Your kid may be into that stuff for a while, and that’s normal and ok for you to let them explore that. But you can help them in the long run by not pushing that gendered stuff on them.

  • Don’t assume your kid will grow up to be straight. Talking to your daughter about growing up and having boyfriends or marrying a man (and vice versa) sends the message that girls are supposed to like boys, and boys are supposed to like girls, and that anything else is wrong or not normal. While kids this young generally don’t know their sexual orientation yet, assuming they’re straight could make them scared to come to you or feel bad about themselves later. This can lead to mental health issues, unhealthy relationships, and taking more health risks as they reach their teenage years.

  • Talk with your family and other people close to your kid about your values when it comes to gender and respecting your kid for who they are. For example, Grandpa may want to take only your boy(s) to see a sports game. Ask him to take your girl(s) along, too. Another example: your daughter’s Godmother buys her princess dolls, but your daughter prefers dinosaurs. Let her Godmother know what your daughter is really into and that you support her.  

  • Let boys and girls express all of their emotions. One the most important things you can do to help your child grow up to be emotionally healthy is to help them express their emotions. This includes letting boys cry. On the flip side, letting girls be angry just as you would a boy can help them learn to stand up for themselves. Help them use their words to explain how they feel and why.

  • Avoid phrases like “be a man,” or “act like a lady.” Instead use the words you really mean — like brave, grown-up, or polite.

  • Be careful of gender stereotypes in TV, movies, magazines, books, or toys. Consider your values when it comes to “princess” or “hero” stories, and what messages you want your kid to take away from them if you let them watch/read them. Talk with your kid about what they think about gender stereotypes.

  • Be careful of double standards, like “boys will be boys.” If your kid has a sibling of another gender, give them the same rules and hold them to the same expectations. For example, don’t expect your male children to be better at math and science than your female children. Don’t tolerate rough-housing with your sons if you don’t tolerate it with your daughters. If you expect politeness, sweetness, or helpfulness from your daughters, expect that from your sons as well.

It’s normal for kids to repeat things they hear without understanding the meaning. Correct them if you hear them say something like “Chris runs like a girl,” or “Janelle has a boy haircut.” You can say things like:

“Running like a girl can be a compliment — girls can run really fast! Besides, it’s not nice to make fun of how someone runs.”

“There’s no such thing as a boy haircut or a girl haircut. You can do whatever you want with your hair.”

How do I know if my child is transgender or gender nonconforming?

Transgender means you identify with a different gender from the one you were assigned at birth. Gender nonconforming means your gender identity or expression doesn’t go along with traditional ideas of just male or female — it could mean you identify with words like non-binary, genderqueer, or something else. Some people use words like “gender expansive” or “gender creative” to describe children with non-binary gender expressions. While we don’t know for sure how many people are transgender, recent research shows that about 1% of people in the U.S. identify as transgender, more than 1.5 million people.

So when does all of that start? For some kids, understanding their gender identity and coming out as transgender or gender nonconforming takes many years, and doesn’t happen until they’re a teen or adult. Often, that’s because they get messages during their childhood that makes them feel ashamed or scared to be who they really are. But for other kids, it’s clear as early as 2-3 years old that they’re not the gender everyone says they are.

Some signs you might see:

  • They may tell you straight up: “Mom/Dad, I’m a girl, not a boy,” or, “I’m not a girl OR a boy.”

  • They may act upset if anyone tells them they’re the gender they were assigned at birth.

  • They may only want to wear the other gender’s clothing, wear their hair like the other gender, or be on teams or play with other children only of the other gender.

But how do you know if your kid is really transgender, or if they’re just pushing back against gender stereotypes? Experts say that transgender kids tell you what their gender identity is in a way that’s:

  • Consistent: They don’t go back and forth about their gender — they clearly identify with one particular gender identity.

  • Insistent: They feel very strongly about their identity, and get upset when they’re misgendered.

  • Persistent: How they identity themselves holds over time.

The best thing to do if you’re starting to get the idea that your kid may be trans or gender nonconforming is to support them while they follow their instincts, and show them that you love them no matter what.

As time goes on, if your kid’s actions and words are consistent, insistent, and persistent when it comes to their gender identity, talking with a counselor or therapist who’s familiar and supportive of LGBTQ identities is a good idea. Talking with other families with trans or gender nonconforming kids can be helpful, too — for both you and your child.

Be aware that puberty can be an especially tough time for transgender or gender nonconforming kids. As they get closer to reaching puberty, you can talk with a doctor or nurse about puberty blockers and other transgender medical care.

Trying to fight your kid to get them to ignore their feelings about their gender can be really harmful. Being rejected by your parents can be traumatizing in big and small ways. Kids who grow up to be LGBTQ teens whose parents don’t support their identities are more likely to take risks with their health and experience mental illness. Loving and supporting your kid no matter who they are is the most important thing.

How do I create a safe space for my transgender or gender nonconforming child?

A safe space is a place where your kid can be themselves without fear. That means zero tolerance of homophobic or transphobic bullying, harassment, or violence. It’s a place where the people around them — especially the people in charge — agree that negative behavior and attitudes toward LGBTQ people is unacceptable.

Home needs to be a safe space for your child to grow, explore their interests, play, and work towards their hopes and dreams — no matter what their gender identity is. You can make your home safer by doing these things:

  • Listen to your kid and ask them what they need from you to feel most happy.

  • Let them wear the clothes they want to wear.

  • Look for signs of depression or anxiety, and get help from a therapist or counselor if you think they’re struggling.

  • Make it known that homophobic or transphobic language — including jokes — isn’t acceptable in your home.

  • Let your kid read books and watch TV shows and movies with LGBTQ characters.

  • Be clear with your family and other people close to your kid that these are your rules. Seek help from professional counselors or therapists if family becomes an obstacle.

Transgender and gender nonconforming kids are becoming more and more widely known and accepted in the U.S, and some schools are responding with measures to keep them safe and respected. But transgender and gender nonconforming kids are too often targets of bullying and harassment — which makes doing well in school tough.

You can be your kid’s biggest advocate and take steps to help make their school a safer place. Talk with your kid about their experience at school regularly, and address bullying concerns with school administrators and teachers.

Check out these resources on making school safe for LGBTQ kids: