Gender identity: An opportunity to teach acceptance


Some parents and teachers, as well as people in general, struggle with whether or not to be understanding of and tolerant toward the increasing number of children who are identifying themselves as transgender.

Though our culture has become more expansive in its definition of what makes up a person's gender, the erroneous perception still holds that behavioral differences between men and women are hardwired and honed by natural selection over millennia. However, scientists have been finding more evidence that this perception of gender is not true. Their findings should help us to become more expansive and tolerant in our view of gender and to pass that tolerance to our children.

A recent issue of Scientific American, which was devoted to the topic of sex and gender, offers the most up-to-date understanding of this subject based, in part, on studies of the human brain. Evidence suggests that, rather than being one sex or the other, the brain consists of a "mosaic" of cell types, some more yin, others more yang.

These findings open up new possibilities for how sex and gender are considered and offer new questions to ask. For example, what does it mean to have a sense of yourself as a boy, girl or something else? What does it mean when a boy wears pink twinkle toe shoes? Could he be gay? Or is he a child who pays less attention to gender norms than most? What makes a child more or less likely to identify one way or the other? And, most importantly, how can we help all kids to be comfortable with themselves?

The Trans-Youth Project is an ongoing study of hundreds of transgender and gender-nonconforming children. The University of Washington study aims to help scientists, educators, parents and children better understand the varieties of human gender development. Thus far, the studies show that transgender identities in even very young children are surprisingly solid and consistent, contradicting the belief that such feelings are fleeting or that children are simply pretending to be the opposite gender.

Perhaps the most critical questions about transgender children concern their well-being. Studies have found that when transgender children make their transitions early and are supported from a young age, they do remarkably well. They have depression rates comparable to their peers and only slightly elevated rates of anxiety. They also show very positive self-esteem. Whether these indicators of mental health stay strong as they move into the teen years and adulthood remains to be seen.

As the world becomes more educated about transgender children and as they receive support and intervention from an early age, the hope is that the mental health risks they have faced in the past will decrease. As a parent, you can help by giving your child accurate scientific information about sex and gender issues, and you can teach them to be tolerant. Tolerance means accepting differences and not expecting others to think, look, speak or act just like you. It is also being free of prejudice, knowing that all people, no matter what their sex, gender, color, religion or nationality, have feelings, needs, hopes and dreams.

All transgender young people hope that one day, kids like themselves will be accepted for who they are, regardless of the gender labels they use or the varieties of ways they express themselves. As parents, you can help your children to take the opportunities presented by those whose gender expression is different than theirs to reflect on the meaning of things and to put themselves in other people's shoes. Such understanding and tolerance will surely produce a better world for all people - men, women and everyone else.

Contact Shanti, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and is a self-actualization and parenting skills coach, at