Using Gender-Inclusive Language with Children & Families: 7 Tips

The Gendering of Language

When you pay attention, it’s hard to miss the fact that gendered words are part and parcel of everyday language. For most of my life, I just took these habits for granted. But, raising a gender-expansive child and learning from the LGBTQ+ community has made me more aware of how deeply ingrained gendered language is, and how harmful it can be.

Most gendered words are binary; they make room for only two genders (girl/woman or boy/man). In Western society, and many other cultures, we are taught to make a snap judgment about people’s gender by looking at them. We instantly label people in our heads with words like “girl”, “boy”, “man”, “woman”. Once we attach the mental label, we often use gendered words to to or about a person (“sir”, “ma’am”, “she”, “he”).

Why Does This Matter?

Language is a way of signaling to children “you belong here,” or conversely, “you don’t belong here.”

On the surface it may seem perfectly harmless to address a group of children as “girls and boys”, but many educators are moving away from the use of this language.

Language is a way of signaling to children “you belong here,” or conversely, “you don’t belong here.” Gender isn’t either/or. Children have many identities beyond “boy” or “girl”. Nearly 1 in 10 (8%) elementary school students say that they don’t conform to traditional gender norms. These children are less likely than others to feel safe at school.

Misgendering is (unintentionally or intentionally) referring to, or addressing a person with a word that doesn’t reflect their gender. It can also include relating to a person in a way that makes incorrect assumptions about their gender. Children who are transgender, non binary, and gender nonconforming experience frequent misgendering. This can be devastating to a child’s sense of safety, self-esteem and overall mental health. A recent study also found that the risk of depression and suicide decrease when transgender youth are recognized by the chosen names that reflect their genders.

Gendered language isn’t just harmful to children who stretch beyond society’s gender expectations. It’s part of how we socialize children based on gender stereotypes.

Gendered language isn’t just harmful to children who stretch beyond society’s gender expectations. It’s part of how we socialize children based on gender stereotypes. The constant labeling of children by gender adds to the pressure to fit into stereotypes. This has numerous consequences, including eroding girls’ self-confidence, repressing boys’ ability to express their feelings, and limiting their learning and development.

7 Tips for Using Inclusive Language

Educators, and other adults, can make a huge difference in the lives of children by being aware of gendered language and making a concerted effort to use language that is more inclusive.

Educators, and other adults, can make a huge difference in the lives of children by being aware of gendered language and making a concerted effort to use language that is more inclusive.

Please rest assured, I am not suggesting that we strike all gendered words from our vocabulary, or that our goal should be to erase gender. What I am suggesting is that we be aware of when and how we use gendered words and avoid using them in harmful ways.

1. Be aware. The first step is to notice. What type of gendered language are you using? What gendered language do you hear children using? What gendered language do you see in books? Does this language promote gender stereotypes? Does it exclude anyone?

2. Explore and unlearn the gender binaryThe language we use is rooted on a binary system of gender that assumes only two genders. I used to take it for granted that this either/or way of seeing gender was natural. I’ve since learned that the binary is anything but natural, and that gender diversity has existed throughout history and across many cultures. Unlearning binary thought patterns can help us appreciate the need to change our language.

3. Avoid using language that is based on gendered assumptions. For example, don’t refer to a child or family member as a girl, a boy, man, woman, or another gender, based on appearances. Don’t assume that all of the children in your classroom identify as either boy or girl. When you meet with a parent or caregiver, don’t assume that they have a partner and/or make any assumptions about the gender of their partner.

4. Explore alternative language. Make room for a wide range of genders in your language. Use neutral language when talking about groups of people, and when you don’t know someone’s gender.  Here are some examples:

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5. Learn about, ask about, and use gender pronounsGender pronouns are words people use to refer to themselves. There are many gender pronouns, some of which include she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, and he/him/his. Using a person’s correct gender pronoun is a way of showing respect for who they are. This book helps children and adults understand gender pronouns.

6.  Avoid nicknames of descriptive words that reinforce gender stereotypes.  Do you call girls “Princess”, “Sweet Pea”, or praise them for being pretty? Do you praise boys for being strong and call them names like “Champ” or “Little man”.  If so, they may be getting the message that their worth depends on fitting into gender stereotypes.

7. Use gender neutral language when talking about careers and professions. For example, use “firefighters”, instead of “firemen” or “ballet dancer” instead of “ballerina”. Let children know that possibilities in life aren’t limited by gender.

These are some tips, I pulled together. If you have others, please comment.

Sources:

GLSEN (2012), Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States: A Survey of Students and Teachers

GSA Network, Transgender Law Center, National Center for Lesbian Rights (2004) Beyond the Binary: A toolkit for Gender Identity Activism in Schools

Gonzalez, Maya (2018) Gender Blog Series

LGBTQIA Resource Center, UC Davis, Pronouns

My Kid is Gay (2014) Defining the Gender Binary (video)

St. Patrick, J (2017), What You’re Really Saying When you Misgender, published in the Body is Not an Apology.

Seventeen (2017), Why Gender Pronouns Matter (video)

UT News (2018), Using Chosen Names Reduces the Odds of Depression and Suicide in Transgender Youths

If you’re interested in a free consultation to explore about how your school, district, or agency can respond to gender diversity, click here

Using Gender-Inclusive Language with Children & Families: 7 Tips

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