“People decide for themselves how they want to identify” or dismantling the gender binary with my children

boardbook genderby Sachi Feris

The other day I overheard my mom reading a board book of “first words” to my eight-month-old son. On the first fold of the book, she read: “girl” and then “boy.”

“When we read,” I told my mom, “we usually notice that the long-haired child with brown skin could be a boy and the short-haired child with pale skin could be a girl.”

“Because this could be a girl with short hair,” my four-year-old daughter will chime in. “Or a boy with long hair.”

“Right,” I acknowledge. “People decide for themselves how they want to identify, just like with skin color—unless we ask  (click here or here to read posts about asking questions about identity in an appropriate way) we don’t know how people like to be called just by looking at them.”

In my daughter’s ongoing play with her beloved vintage Fisher Price figures, I have (like with this board book) always challenged her as to who is a “girl” and who is a “boy,” as well as who is a “mami” and who is a “papi.”

The Fisher Price children are generally only identifiably “male” or “female” based on their hair style. We have three shaggy short-haired children (with the same hair style) and, as a toddler, two of them were designated as “boys” by my daughter, but the other as a “girl.”  The adults’ “gender” are distinguished not only by hair style but also by body type—the “women” have curves.

Every so often, I would take one of the intended (by Fisher Price) “papis” and say to my daughter, “I am this child’s mommy” in the figure’s voice. Sometimes she accepted it, sometimes she wouldn’t.

“No, that’s a papi,” she would respond. I persisted: “But women can have short hair, too, and every person gets to decide for themselves how they want to identify,” I reminded her.

“OK,” she sometimes relented, “that’s a mami.” Or, more recently, “but they are dolls and they aren’t real so I get to decide.”

More difficult to challenge (in society and hence, for my daughter!) are her associations that one of the curvy figures intended as a “woman” could be anything but female…but I continue in my efforts to dismantle the “boy/girl” gender binary:

At one point during toddler-hood, for example, my daughter was obsessed with babies in people’s tummies and we noted that her papi could not have a baby in his tummy. I started to say that only mamis could have babies in their tummies but then paused:

“Well, that’s’ not exactly true. Because people who identify as gender queer or trans might prefer to be called “papi” but be able to have a baby in their tummy…like when your Uncle was younger, she was raised as a girl. But now, your Uncle identifies as queer and prefers using the word ‘Uncle’—and if she ever becomes a parent, might prefer to be called “papi” or “daddy.”

(Note to reader: my daughter’s uncle uses both “she” and “he” pronouns.)

In our previous conversations about the word “queer,” I have explained the word by saying, “Gender queer is when someone feels like there is a little bit of girl and a little bit of boy in him.”

“But Uncle isn’t a girl OR a boy because she’s not little anymore!”

“True,” I affirm. “Now Uncle is an adult and identifies as gender queer.”

“And you’re not a girl either,” my daughter tells me, “because you are a woman.” (In previous conversations I have expressed a preference for the word “woman” as opposed to “lady.”)

My daughter, for her part, has taken issue with the idea that I use the word “hijos” (children) in Spanish to talk about both her and her brother.

“Hijo y hija,” (son and daughter) my daughter will correct me. “Yo soy tu hija.”

“True,” I explain to her in Spanish. “But Spanish is a sexist language and when you talk about ‘hijos’ and ‘hijas,’ you use the word ‘hijos’ to mean both sons and daughters.”

“No,” my daughter rejected my explanation and repeated: “Yo soy tu hija.”

“OK,” I acknowledge, “should we say ‘hijos y hijas’ as a way of saying ‘we don’t like that Spanish is a sexist language?”

“Yes,” my daughter agreed. “And my little brother wants to do that, too.”

By reinforcing the idea that my daughter gets to decide how she wants to be called, I hope she will be better equipped to challenge sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia (and racism).


Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in BrooklynSachi identifies as White and is a mother to a four-year-old daughter and eight-month-old son.