Can a 4-Year-Old Know Her Gender Identity? Yes.
The Importance of Supporting Gender-Expansive Students
Illustrator: Colin Laurel
Warm and cozy, lying in bed, his head rested on my shoulder. My son’s pudgy little 4-year-old arm was wrapped around my chest as I read the picture book Jacob’s New Dress at his request for the umpteenth time over the past week:
“‘There are lots of ways to be a boy,’ Jacob’s mom said.”
I paused and looked at my son.
“Do you believe that, Simon?”
I paused again and did not get a reply.
I tried rephrasing my question: “How is school going? Do kids say anything about the dresses you wear?”
He took a deep breath and replied, “No.”
Sensing something was weighing on him I followed up: “Do you believe that there are lots of ways to be a boy? That boys can wear dresses?”
He finally replied, “Yeah,” and I followed up with “Do you feel like a boy?”
“No, mom. I’m a girl.”
My daughter’s statement could not have been more direct, honest, and clear. In that moment I glimpsed how deeply gender-expansive people feel who they are, no matter what society has labeled them as at birth.
All schools have gender-expansive students, whether they are “out” or not, affirmed or chastised. In Pittsburgh, researchers found that nearly one in 10 students in more than a dozen public high schools identified as gender-expansive. That is five times the current national estimates. In my 10 years as an elementary school teacher, I have had four gender-expansive students who I know of, and there are currently nine gender-expansive students who are “out” in our elementary school of 250 kids.
Often on people’s minds is a huge question, as it was on my mind when my 4-year-old was adamant about being a girl: Can a child this young actually know if they identify differently than their assigned gender at birth?
This is not to say I have always felt this way. I have questioned, pushed back, and dealt with grief and anger when processing my own child’s gender identity. What I have come to understand is how a person identifies is not about others’ perception, it is about how they are authentically themselves. I have done research, met with a gender clinic counselor at Kaiser Permanente, taken a class on the gender spectrum at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, and with all my being believe the answer to that question is yes. Young children absolutely know inside how they experience gender. They may need help finding the words to express themselves, and people who will truly listen, see, and support their authenticity, but 100 percent young kids know.
The American Academy of Pediatrics outlines the stages of gender identity development and by age 4 most children have a stable sense of their gender identity: “The point is that all children tend to develop a clearer view of themselves and their gender over time. At any point, research suggests that children who assert a gender-diverse identity know their gender as clearly and consistently as their developmentally matched peers and benefit from the same level of support, love, and social acceptance.”
Before my own child came out, I was supportive of gender-expansive children in my classroom, trying to do my best to affirm their gender. I changed gendered teaching practices like using boy/girl circles as a quick and easy way to mix up seating patterns. (This practice is not only gender non-inclusive but sexist, assuming that if students of the same gender don’t sit next to each other they won’t talk as much.) I also advocated for gender-expansive students by helping other teachers use correct pronouns and think about classroom routines and practices that are not inclusive. However, until the journey with my own child, I did not fully understand the depths of the pain people experience when not affirmed, nor the tremendous joy when they are.
A 2018 study conducted by the Human Rights Campaign and the University of Connecticut found:
• Less than a quarter of transgender and gender-expansive youth can definitely be themselves at school.
• Only 16 percent of transgender and gender-expansive youth always feel safe at school.
In the week following my daughter vocalizing who she is, I asked her if it was important for others to know. On the way to school one morning, she told me to tell her teachers. So, upon entering the classroom filled with little people playing with blocks, pouring sand, dressing up, and shrieks of disagreement and bubbles of laughter, I did. The teacher thanked us for sharing and asked what pronouns to use.
I was thrown. I didn’t know how to answer.
As a teacher this would have been my question too, but as a parent I wasn’t yet able to process the immense mental shift needed to fully see and affirm my child. Having this simple question reflected back at me made it real. I knew that I had to take my daughter’s authenticity seriously.
The majority of resources use the guidelines that when a child is consistent, insistent, and persistent, they are gender-expansive. It is important to note that gender identity is different from gender expression. Gender identity is how a person experiences their gender — how they feel inside. Gender expression is a person’s behavior, mannerisms, and appearance that are usually associated with societal expectations of femininity and masculinity. Before my daughter came out, I thought she was experimenting with gender expression. For nearly six months before announcing she is a girl, she had asked to grow out her hair and would only wear dresses.
With the direct and clear message my child was giving, in addition to the months of shifting gender expression, within the week after that October night when she looked me in the eye and said, “I am a girl,” and with lots of reading and discussions with her father, she transitioned socially. We started using female pronouns.
Then there was the issue of her name: Simon.
After school one day, kids burst out of the classroom, running into their caregivers’ arms, dropping coats, lugging backpacks half their size. A grandmother next to me said, “What’s your daughter’s name?” As my daughter walked up with her hot pink space-themed tulle dress, I said “Simon.”
“Nice to meet you, Simona!” she replied.
The rest of the conversation is a blur. All I could think about was how I didn’t correct the grandmother. My heart ached as I knew I had not protected my daughter. I let my own desire to not make someone else uncomfortable, along with a mixture of my own uncertainty, get in the way of supporting this brave child.
This experience forced me to grapple with my own fears and also how important it is for young gender-expansive people to be taught explicitly about the language used to describe who they are and how society is set up to have people fit into a binary. For example, just how gendered names are.
On the walk home we talked.
I mostly talked:
“How was the day?
“Did you get the dinosaurs out during outdoor play?
“What songs did you sing?”
She was not very talkative.
Then I stopped. I had to apologize.
I knelt down so I could be eye to eye with my daughter.
“I should have corrected that grandma when she called you Simona. I am sorry.”
She was quiet and stared at the sidewalk.
“I think she called you Simona because it sounds like Simon and it’s a girl’s name.”
At this point, I knew we had to talk about how names are gendered.
“Dad and I named you Simon when you were born because we thought you were a boy. We were wrong. You absolutely can keep that name and if people get confused I will do better to correct them. You can also choose a new name to try out. A girl’s name.”
At this her eyes lit up and she smiled.
She wasn’t sure what to choose so I asked if she wanted help. I shared that we would have named her Simone if we’d known she was a girl.
Simone it is.
On that crisp fall day, on the sidewalk by 7-11, Simone was affirmed.
The journey we are on has lots of joy but also pain.
The world we live in is not safe for gender-expansive people. As reported by PBS in November of 2021, “With nearly two months left, 2021 has shattered the record of transgender homicides in a year with 45 to date — most of them Black or Latinx — according to the Human Rights Campaign. Last year held the previous record with 44 trans murders.” This number does not account for those attacked or brutally beaten who survived.
Not just the physical threats but the emotional pain gender-expansive people often feel is immense, and the risk of suicide or self-harm is high if people are not affirmed. Simone made comments before feeling affirmed about not liking her body that speak volumes to how much pain people feel when their gender identity does not match what society has deemed acceptable for the gender they are.
Wanting my child to feel gender congruence, the feeling of harmony with one’s gender, I did as much research as I could, including joining a parent support group, and I continued to support Simone with the language she needed to understand the gender spectrum. There are children’s books that break down the gender binary for ways to talk about bodies and gender identity. Thankfully, in addition to the resources I’ve used, and as more people in her life affirmed and understood who she is, now at age 7 she has stopped saying negative things about her body or wanting to harm it. What has also been shown through research is that gender-expansive youth who report having at least one gender-affirming space were 25 percent less likely to attempt suicide in the past year.
As teachers, we can create gender-affirming school spaces by honoring students’ pronouns and helping all students and families understand the gender spectrum. There is a wide range of picture books that have characters who are gender-expansive, ranging from gender expression that does not match the binary to transgender kids going through a social transition.
In addition to helping all students understand the wide range of how people experience gender, we can make sure gender-expansive children have a bathroom they are comfortable using at school. Advocating and establishing gender-inclusive restrooms is ideal but if a school’s leadership is not responsive to this, the next best bathroom option is to make sure they have access to a single-user restroom (usually those that are designated for adults/teachers). There are also resources that provide checklists for gender-expansive students and can be used by teachers and parents.
One of the most transformative ways we can support gender-expansive students is to keep learning. Most of us have grown up in a traditional setting that is overwhelmingly binary; our mindsets need to expand. Terminology is also shifting as communities change and gender-expansive people share more about their experiences.
My advice: Be willing to grow, change, and make mistakes. Own our mistakes and keep growing. Below are a few organizations that outline how schools and classrooms can support students of all genders and they provide helpful information for understanding the gender spectrum.
• Gender Inclusive Schools
• Gender Spectrum
• Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools
I will never fully grasp my child’s experience or those of my gender-expansive students. The marginalization they face in an overwhelmingly binary world is intense. I am inspired by gender-expansive people authentically showing up in a world that tries to erase their existence.
As a cisgender woman I don’t know what it feels like to fight for my existence. However, I do know the importance of believing gender-expansive people and supporting them. Gender-expansive people are strong and their existence and willingness to let others know who they are is a revolutionary act. As teachers and parents, especially those of us who are cisgender, we can use our privilege to make the world a more inclusive and safer place.
We must face the fact that our school systems systemically damage gender-expansive people, people who do not fit in the nice little box of blue and pink, boy or girl.
Even though we live in a world that overwhelmingly does not affirm and actively tries to oppress and harm gender-expansive people, those living authentically also experience tremendous joy. As teachers we can be co-conspirators and advocates for creating spaces that will allow our gender-expansive students to thrive just like we hope for all our students.
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