How to Talk to Your Children About Sex & Gender
Discussing the essentials, from toddlers to teens
At all ages, kids talk about what our society refers to as gender. Whether we have toddlers who are learning about their bodies or teens who are experiencing internal and external pressure to define themselves, we are regularly confronted with curiosity and confusion about sex and gender. As parents and caregivers, we want to respond in a way that is honest, biblical, and thorough.
Fundamentally, all the gender questions are asking: “What does it mean to be human as a man (or as a woman)?”. So, talking about gender with our kids is really an invitation to discuss the beauty of God’s good design for humanity and to establish life-long parameters for understanding ourselves and each other.
Defining crucial terms in the conversation
In order to have helpful discussions with our children and pursue faithful answers, we must first define terms. As we seek to answer questions about sex and gender, we should remember that sex and gender are not synonymous terms in today’s understanding. However, the totality of Scripture assumes the two cannot be separated. Here are a few definitions related to this conversation for quick reference:
- Typically, sex refers to biological characteristics determined by chromosomes. These physical attributes include hormones and anatomy (i.e., how our bodies look and function).
- In this discussion, gender will refer to the holistic reality of being either male or female—both the physical and nonphysical aspects. Gender is demonstrated both in our biological sex and in the outworking of the cultural expressions of our biological sex. Gender should not be understood as solely behavioral (i.e., how we ought to act).
- How an individual perceives his/her gender (typically, as either a man or woman) apart from his/her biological sex is commonly referred to as their gender identity.
- Gender dysphoria is the painful and confusing condition of believing one’s gender identity is contrary to one’s biological sex.
A hundred other terms could be included, but they are not critical to talk about here.
What does gender mean?
We need to understand two critical aspects of gender before having informed conversations with our children.
1. Gender is fundamental to being human and is the reality of being embodied.
Being embodied (having both body and soul) is essential to human existence, and genderedness (the fact that we are a man or a woman) is essential to having a body. We are not genderless souls in gendered bodies. And we are not gendered souls in potentially mismatched-gendered bodies. The physical and nonphysical parts of our being are interwoven. Thus, we are gendered all the way down (externally/physically and internally/nonphysically). Any separation between these aspects is the result of the fall, including both the perception of separation in gender dysphoria and the reality of the temporary separation of our body and soul after death.
2. Gender differences are real—though few.
Men and women share more commonalities than distinctions. As two types (male and female) of the same kind (humankind), men and women share purpose, mandate, and virtues.
God created humanity in his own image (Gen. 1:26-27), and both men and women share the purpose of glorifying God as his image-bearers.
All humanity was also given the same mandate (Gen. 1:28)—to multiply, fill, and subdue the earth. This was expanded by Jesus’ command to go and to make disciples of the nations (Matt. 28:18-20).
We also share the same virtues, or characteristics that produce a thriving life (fruit of the Spirit, spiritual giftings, beatitudes). These are commanded by God and desirable for flourishing (e.g., wisdom, Prov 1:1-7; courage, Josh. 1:9; and nurturing, Eph. 6:4).
Despite the shared traits, men and women have two basic distinctions: type and expression. As the two types of humankind, men and women are complementary and interdependent—not interchangeable. Type is reflected in, but not limited to, the biological differences between men and women.
Expression refers to how we view and live out what we have in common. Science and philosophy have broadly recognized that men and women generally think and behave differently, but universal male and female expression has never been defined. Typical behavior for men and women varies across time and cultures.
God’s apparent concern in Scripture (Deut. 22:5) is not with defining female and male expression of the shared properties, but with a woman intentionally behaving as a man in order to be identified as a man (or vice versa). The same principle would apply to those attempting to blur or to hide the reality of their own gender (for example, androgyny or gender fluidity). Rather than conform to some masculine stereotype, a man’s expression of his gender must reflect his acceptance of being a man (and vice versa for a woman). The biblical story leaves no room for a lifestyle that promotes a gender expression that contradicts your biological sex or that ignores sexual relationships as only for male and female partners in marriage.
How do we discuss gender with our kids?
Explaining gender to toddlers and teens starts with explaining who we are, rather than how we look or what we do. We should define who God created us to be before we define how he commanded us to behave by answering the fundamental question: “What does it mean to be human as a man (or as a woman)?” Using age-appropriate vocabulary, we can answer starting here:
- Being a man (or woman) means living out your God-given purpose, mandate, and virtues as a man (or woman).
Having laid the groundwork in our own hearts and minds, the following are examples of how we can discuss sex and gender with our children of all ages:
When God created people, he made only two types of people—boys and girls.
Boys and girls are the same in a lot of ways. Both are equally special and important to God and to his plan. How we love and obey God is often the same.
Boys and girls are also different in some ways. We can see some of those differences in our bodies. Our bodies point to some of the ways boys and girls are fit to help each other.
Boys and girls are also different in ways we can’t see. Sometimes how we worship God, how we follow God’s instructions, or how we love each other looks different for boys and girls. We need each other’s help.
God’s plan for you is good. He made you a boy (or girl), and he made you unique. We can praise God for making you just the way he did.
When God created humanity, he made humankind with only two types (commonly referred to as “binary”)—male and female.
Men and women share many common human properties. We share our God-given purpose to glorify God; our mandate to fill and subdue the earth; and our virtues for living in a way that pleases God.
Men and women are different physically—in our hormones, genes, and anatomy. Our bodies point to some of the ways men and women are suited to help one another (e.g., reproduction and typical frame/strength differences). We are complementary and interdependent physically.
Men and women are also different in nonphysical ways. How we consider and experience the properties we share in common are typically different. This is shown in our various expressions of any given context (e.g., forms of aggression, analytical thinking, relational intelligence). Men and women are complementary and dependent on one another in these things.
We can’t define gender by what you do, what you like, or what role you have. Some behaviors and tendencies are typical for men and women, but they are not the defining standards. For example, girls are typically more social and relational than boys their age. Not sharing some of the typical traits does not mean you don’t fit your gender. You are still 100% a girl even if you like playing sports more than talking to your friends, and you are still 100% a boy even if you like talking with your friends more than sports.
God cares that you accept how he made you—not that you act like all the other boys (or girls) around you. His plans for you are good.
Conversations with our children about sex and gender will be recurrent and ongoing, but these points provide a good basis. As we talk about these things, let’s celebrate the goodness and beauty of who God made us to be and cast a vision for our kids living within his design. Let’s teach them that when we trust God’s goodness, sovereignty, and love for us, we can embrace his plan—whether or not it feels right to us now. When we trust who God is, we can trust what he has done; and we can glorify him in the present life and the life to come with our whole selves.