I wrote recently about how adults can talk about gender diversity with their children. Now I want to talk about why it’s important for kids to learn about gender and sexual orientation sooner, rather than later.
Since Ontario’s Ministry of Education released their updates for sex education, there’s been pushback from the parents, caregivers, and community leaders who worry about the effect these lessons might have on impressionable young minds. So let’s address some common concerns:
Why can’t we just leave the kids alone? Differences don’t matter to children - they wouldn’t even notice if adults didn’t make such a big deal out of it.
Growing up, I was the only black kid in my class. Not quite the same as being gay or trans. Everyone could very clearly see what made me different. But I remember very clearly, that even though everyone saw it, no one wanted to talk about it. It was weird and it mattered very much to me.
When I was a child, a lot of adults in my life assumed the best way to fight racism was to ignore it. Don't talk about race. Be "colourblind." But it's hard not to notice, especially if your difference has been the source of institutionalized discrimination. As a kid, I noticed that readers and spellers and books in the reading nooks didn't have pictures of kids who looked like me. I noticed that our history lessons and those cheesy film strips about science stuff never had any black people. I even noticed little things - like how the band-aids in the nurses office and the pencil crayon named “skin” were always white - stood out to me.
So yes, I knew I was different and not just in looks. But no one said anything, so I came to the conclusion that I must not be as good, as important, as worthy as all of my white peers.
Some children are gay. Some children are gender independent. Some children are being raised by queer parents or family members. Those children have the same need to be acknowledged and validated that we all have, which is something that doesn’t happen much. When Ontario’s sex education updates were announced, my heart broke a little every time I heard an adult say that learning about homosexuality or gender diversity was harmful for kids.
I think about how those kids will feel, if like me, they had to go through years of school never being acknowledged or reflected and never being given a language to name their experience. I think about how those kids feel when they hear grown-ups talking about their families, or their identities being “harmful” to their friends and peers.
Our children learn from what we say...and what we don’t say. Stigma combined with silence tend to breed prejudice, intolerance and fear.
Children are way too young to learn about sexual orientation or gender identity.
Most children develop gender awareness (an internal sense of their own gender) sometime between 18 months and 3 years old. Initial curiosity about adult roles, including romantic roles often starts sometimes between preschool and 1st grade.
Not only are children old enough to start learning about orientation and gender, most adults do teach kids about both these things all the time. We read our children romantic fairy tales, take them to a family wedding or watch a “family” show with a mom and dad. When we take our kids shopping, they see clothing and toys divided into “boys” and “girls” sections. In school they learn to use the “boy” or “girl” washroom and may sometimes be divided into “boy” and “girl” groups for certain activities.
All of these are fundamental lessons in heterosexuality and cisgenderism. They're such an ingrained part of our every day lives, we rarely, if ever think about them as "teaching". Which goes back to the the whole notion of systemic discrimination. Exposing little kids to straight, cis culture seems inconsequential, because we live in a culture that says that’s “normal” or “natural” and anyone who doesn’t identify that way is not. That idea is so deeply rooted into our culture, we often don't realize that it's built into the way we raise our kids.
So yes, there are people who don’t want to teach their children more about gender or orientation. But children definitely can and absolutely do learn about both all the time.
These topics are way too complex for children to understand. We’re just going to confuse them.
There’s a lot to learn about gender and sexual diversity. And yes, it can get confusing for some people. It has for me. Yet the risk of confusion, doesn’t stop us from teaching children about other complex subjects like language, math or science. I mean, except for a few genius kids, children aren’t capable of analyzing Shakespeare or solving the quadratic equation. Still no one says, “Do we really have to start teaching them how to read and do math when they’re barely out of kindergarten? Can’t we just let kids be kids and leave that stuff for high school?” Most people say, “There’s a lot to these subjects, so let’s get these kids started early, so they can get the basics down and learn gradually, over time.”
We can do the same with gender and sexual orientation. Start simple. Read a kid’s book with gay characters. (I just discovered The Purim Superhero an awesome featuring a kid with two moms!). Or start a simple conversation about gender with your kid. Say, “Do you know what gender is? My gender is [insert your gender here]. What’s your’s?”
And if a kid gets confused, that’s okay. We can do what we do when a child struggles to grasp any lesson. Keep practicing, keep trying.
‘We're Destroying Children's Innocence!’
Expanding a child’s understanding of gender and love doesn’t have to ruin their innocence. In fact, broader definitions of gender and orientation very much supports a fundamental belief of innocent children everywhere - that they can be anything they want.
Orientation and gender are not subject beyond children’s understanding. They’re fundamental aspects of who we are. We talk about them all the time. We live in a diverse world, with all sorts of different people. I think that’s a great lesson for children to learn.