What to Teach Young Kids About Gender

Schools should tell children to be themselves. But some districts say too much—and mistake progressive dogma for established fact.

Black-and-white picture of four kids standing next to each other, their faces cropped out.
Amanda Voisard / Reuters

For the foreseeable future, parents and educators will be grappling with this polarizing question: What, if anything, should prepubescent public-school students be taught about gender identity?

“Resources and lesson plans for those who want to teach about gender identity are becoming much more common,” The Washington Post reported in June. “Seven states now require that curriculums include LGBTQ topics. The National Sex Education Standards, developed by experts and advocacy groups, name gender identity as one of seven essential topics, alongside puberty, consent, sexual orientation and other subjects. And the federal government recommends that schools include gender identity in their sex education programs.”

The push is to start young. California’s Department of Education urges kindergarten teachers to dispel gender stereotypes, laying groundwork “for acceptance, inclusiveness, and an anti-bullying environment,” because “some children in kindergarten or even younger have identified as transgender.” Some educators favor earlier interventions. The eight co-authors of the 2019 book Supporting Gender Diversity in Early Childhood Classrooms argue that too little emphasis is given to gender identity in the years before age 6, when educators have “a chance to prime all parents for supporting their children’s gender health” and “the opportunity to educate all children about gender diversity and introduce them to role models of a variety of genders.”

But a rival faction has reacted by insisting, at the other extreme, that instruction involving gender identity has no place at all in early-childhood education. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law in March that prohibits public schools from presenting any instruction on gender identity until at least the fourth grade. According to NPR, at least a dozen other states are considering similar legislation. The issue could be a political winner for the Republicans who are pushing it. A recent survey sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers finds that 58 percent of likely voters in battleground states disapprove of the way students are taught about “sexual preference and gender identity.” Asked to explain why, 31 percent said “students are too young for [the] material,” while 27 percent said parents are responsible for teaching it.

Some progressives believe that any such concern among parents is a moral panic driven by Fox News demagogues or the Twitter account Libs of TikTok, which amplifies the most self-discrediting videos that leftist educators post online. By “nutpicking” on this issue, right-wing media does create misleading impressions. To better understand what is actually being taught—or what bans are prohibiting—I turned to Evanston/Skokie School District 65, a public-school system in the Chicago suburbs that is is laudably transparent about posting instructional material online. Last year, I reported on its Black Lives Matter at School curriculum. Its educators also post the lessons that they teach, starting in pre-kindergarten, during the district’s LGBTQ+ Equity Month. Gender identity is a major focus of the curriculum—which, I should note, is similar to curricula I’ve seen elsewhere from progressive educators.

The District 65 instructional materials reveal a basic problem. Although American society’s approach to matters of gender identity is clearly still in flux, and reasonable people disagree on how best to engage students on the subject, some educators are writing progressive activists’ views into detailed lessons for young children. An alternative approach might promote inclusion in the broadest, plainest possible terms and reassure children: There’s no wrong way to be you. Instead, District 65 and other systems err on the side of saying too much and mistaking dogma for established fact.

To be clear, I favor some instruction on gender identity. When I asked Atlantic readers last spring about what, if anything, minors should be taught about gender identity before puberty, some of the most compelling responses convinced me that you’re inevitably teaching young kids something about gender the minute you create (say) a preschool facility with boys’ and girls’ bathrooms. Very young kids receive countless signals about gender norms from the world at large—from parents, siblings, television, even a trip to the park or the supermarket––and school cultures teach similar lessons from the start. One of my correspondents, a 19-year-old queer woman named Zoe, noted that boys never wore dresses to her school, even in hot weather, and recalled that, as early as first grade, she was asked which boy she liked. To stay silent about gender in early childhood, she argued, “simply educates on this subject the way a dog may learn of the location of a newly installed electric fence: by receiving a shock anytime they dare cross a border they didn’t know existed until they learn to stay firmly within the bounds.”

That’s a good description of how kids who didn’t conform to prevailing gender norms felt in the classrooms of my youth. Although nothing was explicitly taught about gender identity, a hundred tiny decisions implicitly acculturated kids into 1980s gender norms, including the sense that being genderqueer was shameful—a sense that exacerbated the sadistic bullying that too many queer kids in every generation are forced to endure.

But while embracing many of the diversity-affirming values that I favor in public schools, the District 65 curriculum gives ideological goals precedence over what is age-appropriate.

For example, in prekindergarten, five days of lessons are set forth, all oriented around the LGBTQ Pride flag. Students learn its history, each color’s meaning, and how to make their own arts-and-crafts version with rainbow colors, plus black and brown stripes to represent people of color. After reading Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, the teacher provides some definitions:

As you heard in the story, sometimes people who look the same love each other, and sometimes people who look different love each other. Boys can love boys, girls can love girls, people can love people. When a boy loves another boy they can be called gay and when a girl loves another girl they can be called a lesbian or lesbians. When a boy loves a girl, they are called straight. When someone is not a boy or a girl, maybe they feel both, they are nonbinary or queer. This kind of love is for people not in your family.

In my view, kids should be taught the fact that some people identify as nonbinary at whatever age they can understand what people who use that label variously mean. At 4, children can likely grasp that there are boys and girls and people who feel like neither. But the District 65 curriculum risks oversimplifying complex matters. A tomboy who feels unlike her female peers might not necessarily be nonbinary; instead, she might be a masculine girl—and that’s okay. Nonbinary and queer are not synonyms. To some people, the latter word means gay or bisexual; to others, it broadly includes everyone who is not both cisgender and strictly heterosexual.

Meanwhile, nonbinary remains a contested term among adults who have thought deeply about gender in society. Some define it in nuanced ways that are hard to explain to young children. The Yale philosophy professor Robin Dembroff, for example, has described nonbinary as “an unabashedly political identity” wielded “in service of dismantling a mandatory, self-reproducing gender system.” Some competing theorists are wary of nonbinary because they believe it problematically imposes false gendered assumptions on everyone, as if anyone’s relationship to gender is fully masculine or feminine. “Despite possessing female biology and calling myself a woman, I do not consider myself a two-dimensional gender stereotype,” the philosopher Rebecca Reilly-Cooper writes. “Identity as ‘non-binary person’ depends upon the existence of a much larger group of so-called binary ‘cisgender’ people, people who are incapable of being outside the arbitrary masculine/feminine genders dictated by society.”

I take no position in this larger debate about the merits or demerits of nonbinary, and doubt that exposing children to the label will harm them, even if they won’t understand all its niceties. But I do think that the District 65 curriculum is acculturating kids on one side of an adult debate before they can choose what they think for themselves. The age-appropriate time to instruct on the term is when they can grasp the disagreement about it.

Other lessons in the curriculum stray from affirming the dignity of nonbinary and trans people to teaching contested and in some cases contradictory claims about the nature of gender. One kindergarten lesson calls for teachers to read I Am Jazz; My Princess Boy; and Jack (Not Jackie)—all books about trans or genderqueer kids. The following day’s lesson introduces “another important flag that has just 3 colors: light blue, pink and white.” The ensuing script reads, “People who identify as TRANSGENDER have their own ways of dressing, playing & acting that might not be what you expect. They might look to you like a boy, but dress and act like a girl.”

But wait: How does a girl dress and act? By day five of the school district’s LGBTQ+ Equity Month, the kindergarteners have been taught that there are no such thing as boys’ toys and girls’ toys, or boys’ clothes and girls’ clothes—any boy can wear a dress and any girl can play with toy trucks. But then, when introducing terms such as trans and nonbinary, the curriculum relies on and arguably reaffirms gender stereotypes. For example, kindergarten students are shown a slide meant to represent a boy, a girl, and a nonbinary person. Its symbols are silhouettes of stereotypical male dress, stereotypical female dress, and a mash-up of the two:

A slide with the heading "Gender Identity" that includes a graphic of three human figures—one representing a woman, another a man, and a third a nonbinary person.
An image from District 65’s kindergarten curriculum for LGBTQ+ Equity Month (Evanston / Skokie School District 65)

If you tell 5-year-olds that boys can wear dresses and play with dolls just as much as girls, but also that Michael feels like a girl, so from now on he’s going to wear dresses and play with dolls—act like a girl?—you’ve undercut the message that normative gender stereotypes are bogus.

The curriculum goes on to promulgate the current politeness norms of highly educated progressives. In first grade, students are introduced to gender pronouns through the children’s book They, She, He, Easy as ABC. The somewhat familiar pronoun ze is introduced, as are more bespoke possibilities. On one page, “Diego drums and dances. Tree has all the sounds” (tree is Diego’s preferred pronoun). For a character named Sky, all of the pronouns are right. Soon students are prompted to choose their own pronouns. “Whatever pronouns you pick today, you can always change!” the script for the teacher states. “But remember that it is important to tell somebody to call you what you want to be called.” Some kids may receive this exercise as a new opportunity to feel more accepted for who they are. Others may try to fit themselves into boxes they only dimly understand. Kids can struggle with too little conceptual structure as surely as too much, and one wonders whether suggesting the pronoun tree, whatever that signifies, serves them well.

Is the progressive, upper-middle-class, Gen Z–teen approach to pronouns a new norm that will be with us henceforth because it makes society more inclusive? Or will the next generation find this approach stifling or unworkable or problematically essentialist, as some feminist commentators do? I don’t know, so my instinct is to wait for kids to develop their own norms around pronouns.

Other parts of the curriculum describe reality in inaccurate and ideologically charged ways. Second grade begins with a video featuring a grandfather who is confused when his grandchild says her nonbinary friend is coming over. The family explains what that means to Grandpa. The accompanying script for teachers includes this statement:

“A lot of people believe babies are given the gender that they are when they are born, but we now know gender is a spectrum. When couples find out they are pregnant they have something called a ‘gender reveal party.’ But really, it should be called a ‘sex assigned at birth’ party!”

The notion that sex is something doctors assign (rather than record) at birth recurs in several places in the lessons. But this is misleading. A baby born with a penis, testicles, and a Y chromosome, and without a vagina, is male, even if that baby is born in a forest far from any doctor or nurse, or at a hospital to a doctor who erroneously records the sex as female. Recognizing that some children’s gender identity differs from their biological sex does not require any insinuation that their sex was assigned thoughtlessly or that it is socially constructed.

Subsequently, second-grade students are introduced to the story of Cinderella, and “are encouraged to focus on stereotypes around gender, attraction and race.” Suggested questions include the following:

How would the story be different if Cinderella had short hair and wore jeans and tennis shoes to the ball? How would she be treated? Why? Who is included in this book and who isn’t included in this book? Are the characters in this book culturally similar to one another or is this a diverse community?

The next day, the teacher announces to students that, as a class, they are going to rewrite Cinderella “to make it more inclusive, relevant, and less sexist.” In the District 65 curriculum, nontraditional gender roles are affirmed as presumptively liberatory responses to oppressive social norms; traditional gender roles, like a young woman wearing a dress and pretty shoes to a ball, are problematized and deconstructed, rather than being affirmed as equally valid identities.

To read the District 65 curriculum as a whole is to see one group of progressives repeatedly advancing their widely contested beliefs about gender identity as though they are fact. Amid so many competing theories and preferences, many of them relatively new, I oppose indoctrinating kids into any one viewpoint, regardless of whether the one being reified is Catholic or evangelical or feminist or Muslim or gender-critical or queer-theorist or individualist or that of an LGBTQ activist. Why should educators adopt any one faction’s understanding of sex and gender?

Public-school districts in a democratic society cannot just decide that one activist faction’s favored approach to matters of sexual and gender identity is correct and then impose that view. One way or another, school systems have to reckon with the preferences of the communities they serve. In fact, in most places, if educators imbue their lessons with the cutting edge of queer theory, many who’d accept the lessons that humans vary in how they express their genders and that everyone ought to be respected will decide no instruction at all is preferable.

Fortunately, there is a lot of middle ground between the most progressive activist approaches to teaching gender identity and the overly censorious state laws that would ban the subject entirely.

If a girl at the public school nearest you tells her preschool teacher, “I want to play with the toy soldiers and wear a football jersey to school but the others say I can’t because I’m a girl,” the teacher could respond, “Don’t worry, you just be you. Play and dress however you like; there’s no wrong way to be a girl.” Alternatively, the teacher could respond, “Don’t worry, you just be you. Play and dress however you want, and maybe you’ll decide that you’re a boy or nonbinary.” Or the teacher could simply say, “Don’t worry, you just be you,” because labels are for later. Insofar as there is any position on early-childhood education that could satisfy most people in the debate, or at least mollify everyone enough to achieve compromise, that may take the form of insisting on tolerance, or even acceptance, without being any more prescriptive.

This approach would still upset some parents. I suspect, however, that most people would embrace it, in contrast to the District 65 approach to the issue, which may be viable in America’s most progressive school systems but is not beyond them.