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Social Emotional Learning | May 6, 2024

Exploring Pronouns for Kids with Respect and Support

Personal pronouns for kids play an important role in being inclusive and in celebrating diversity in our homes and classrooms. This article explores the importance of respectfully encouraging kids to explore gender and pronouns while building trust and confidence. Get tips for breaking out of a binary mindset, asking about pronouns, and reserving judgement so all kids feel supported as they grow. 

The Role of Personal Pronouns for Kids

As teachers, parents, and caregivers, we try our best to create environments that are inclusive and celebrate diversity. We know how important it is to read books that have strong messages of acceptance, respect, and empathy. We want the children in our lives to feel loved for who they are and celebrated for what makes them unique. 


It can be easy to forget the role personal pronouns for kids plays in achieving that goal. We are accustomed to using the pronouns he and she, and we frequently assign gender without even giving it a second thought. How common is it to see an ant carrying food, for example, and say something to a child such as, “Look at that ant carrying that big leaf. Do you think he’s tired?” 

The way English works, we often use the pronouns he and she. We’re modeling the process of assigning gender without knowing if the animal or person is male or female. By default, we are teaching children to exist within a binary. We are teaching children that there are only two choices: male or female. We’re also teaching them that it’s okay to assume someone’s gender and choose a pronoun for them based on our best guess. 


The Singular They


Because there are so many people (including children) whose gender identity isn’t male or female, and there are people whose gender identity is different from the one they were assigned at birth, it’s more important than ever to use the singular they as our default pronoun. When Merriam-Webster chose the singular they as the 2019 Word of the Year, they recognized that the singular they is not only widely used, but a necessary component of clear communication that is inclusive and representative.


If we’re not certain of someone’s pronouns, we should use they. By using gender-neutral pronouns, we create truly inclusive environments where children have the space and freedom to be nonbinary, agender, gender expansive, gender fluid, and transgender. Knowing that there are many children and adults who don’t use he or she as their pronouns means we can’t make assumptions based on someone’s appearance.

FSP_SupportChildrenExploreGenderPronouns-650x520-2Asking About Pronouns for Kids


Knowing that there are many kids who don’t use he or she as their pronouns also means that we must ask others what pronouns they use and teach our children how to ask others about pronouns, too. 


Here are a couple ways to ask for someone’s pronouns: 


Simple and Straightforward Question


One way to ask for someone’s programs is with a respectful, direction question: “Excuse me, what pronoun would you like me to use?” 


Pronoun Introduction


Introducing yourself with your pronouns will set an example and make it easier for the other person to share their information with you. suggests saying something like, “My name is ___ and I go by _____ pronouns. How should I refer to you?”



The Importance of Respecting Pronouns for Kids


Sometimes, we may use the wrong pronouns by mistake. If that happens, be sure to self-correct out loud so the person knows that you know and respect their pronouns. 


Allowing children to feel respected and supported in sharing their pronouns is equally as important as ensuring that they and adults use the correct pronouns. We know that misusing pronouns is a form of bullying that commonly takes place and is rooted in gender stereotypes (for example, if a girl is not feminine enough, she may be referred to as he) and homophobia (calling a boy she). Children always look to adults to know what is tolerated and acceptable, so we must be quick to address incorrect pronouns and any abuse linked to misusing pronouns that may take place. 


In 2018, the University of Texas at Austin conducted a study that revealed using a transgender child’s chosen name decreased their symptoms of severe depression by 71 percent. Using the pronouns that someone deems correct for themself goes hand in hand with using their chosen name. 


Since we can imagine the upset it would cause us if the people in our lives referred to us by the wrong pronouns, we can use empathy to understand how important it is to ask people for their pronouns and to use the correct pronouns. This helps everyone feel respected and gives adults and children a sense of belonging. 


A Personal Account

A lot has changed when it comes to gender. How most people view gender and identity is simply different from when I was growing up. There is so much more space now to be yourself, without the pressure to conform to rigid definitions of being a boy or a girl. Many kids don’t fit those definitions. And, more importantly, they don’t feel like a boy or a girl. Plenty of young children identify with a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth.

About a year ago, my then seven-year-old told me that they were nonbinary and that their pronouns were she/they. Since they still considered she one of their pronouns, I didn’t think too much about the announcement and didn’t share it with extended family. As time passed, however, I saw my child cringe every time someone referred to them as she. I saw them have to correct adults and classmates. They had to constantly remind people to use they/them as their pronouns. When I asked my child to help me understand how they felt, they told me that they don’t feel like a he or a she; they just want to be who they are. 

I realized how important it was for me to do everything I could for their pronouns and them to be respected. Some adults readily accepted the change in pronouns, but many—and even some extended family members—laughed and replied that nonbinary identities and the singular they “aren’t real things.” But pronouns for kids are real things, and adults have an obligation to respect them.

Gender Without Judgment

When we dismiss children as too young to know what gender is or decide they are simply going through a phase, we remove the support and validation that all children need and deserve. I can see that my child is on a journey of self-discovery and exploration that they are working hard to express in words. As the adult, I also observe them continue to get upset whenever someone uses a pronoun other than they. I can understand that journeys are not always straight paths and that my child is reflecting and exploring their gender identity. By being open to hearing children’s preferences for what pronoun, gender, and name they’d like us to use, we show that we trust their understanding of who they are as people right now.

As parents and teachers, we have no idea how the children in our lives will develop and change as they age. My child’s gender identity may be nonbinary into adolescence and beyond, or their gender identity may not. There is no way to know what will happen in the future, but that doesn’t minimize how children feel in the present.

If we accept that everyone has the right to change their pronouns and their gender, then there isn’t any room for our judgment. My child hasn’t explained to me what it means for them to feel male or female, and they never have to. No one must justify changing their pronoun or gender identity.

By letting children explore gender and pronouns, we let them become sure of themselves. They build trust and confidence and can believe in themselves as they grow older. Our desire to raise healthy, thriving children with high self-esteem starts with respecting and supporting decisions concerning gender and pronouns for kids.



Author Bio:

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Afsaneh Moradian

Afsaneh Moradian has loved writing stories, poetry, and plays since childhood. After receiving her master's in education, she took her love of writing into the classroom where she began teaching children how to channel their creativity. Her passion for teaching has lasted for over fifteen years. Afsaneh now guides students and teachers (and her young child) in the art of writing. She is also a vocal advocate for diversity and representation in children's books. Afsaneh lives in New York City...

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