Pronouns are one of the first ways that small children are taught to gender themselves and others.
As a child grows within the womb, they are introduced to our language and how we communicate in our world, including how they are spoken about. At first glance this can seem simple and straightforward. But if we want to understand what we’re actually teaching our kids, we have to take a closer look at our language.
Language is a cultural carrier. It evolves through multiple layers of our larger history, and ultimately speaks for those who control that history.
Sometimes what language conveys culturally is explicit, sometimes it’s more subtle. But generally it conveys in one way or another, what the dominant culture values and wants the common populous to believe.
Here are two examples from our culture. The first is the use of he and man for third person neutral, especially in academic and professional writing. Although this has fallen out of favor in the last two decades, it is still considered correct.
A more subtle and common example is the standard use of the phrase boys and girls, when referring to all children.
What values are embedded in these examples?
In the first one, it is obvious that we live in a patriarchy. Everything is seen and defined through the lens of man. This serves to center, focus and prioritize everything male. Simultaneously, this serves to erase, devalue, even make subservient anything that is not man or man-related.
An important step toward equity for all people has been seeing through this particular legacy of language control.
huMAN – woMAN – huMANity – perSON – HIStory
Connected to this, but more subtle is the second example. It basically conveys that small children are required to align and define themselves with one of two genders assigned to them at birth. This erases the reality that there are more than two kinds of bodies, and that there is more than one way to feel and behave within those bodies.
Sometimes these kinds of value judgments can be hard to see until someone points them out. But they have very real intentions and effects.
We have only to look to the long struggle of women coming out of the shadow of MAN, in relation to education, voting, health care, economic opportunity, physical security, political presence and so on. Although there is still far to go, our language reflects this ongoing evolution of independence with the shifting use of Miss and Mrs. to Ms. and the fact that he and man are no longer favored for 3rd person.
With this in mind, a closer look at language acquisition can show what we may be unconsciously passing on to our kids, especially about gender.
Here are some of the general trends in learning environments.
- Educators are encouraged to correct 3-5 year olds to use pronouns in culturally standard ways. This entails the use of gender assumptions to make guesses about what pronouns to use for who.
- Through 1st and 2nd grade, lesson plans that reflect gender stereotypes are used to teach pronouns.
- And by 3rd grade, both gender assumptions and stereotypes have been formalized to the point of normalcy in language use and education.
For kids, parents and family who can’t perform in accordance with cultural stereotypes, there are literally no words. In terms of standard language use, they do not exist. It should come as no surprise that these are the kids and adults who are the most marginalized and outright bullied in a patriarchal culture. This is profoundly compounded by racism.
It does more than use language to erase people, it conveys on a deep cultural level a complete lack of value. And herein lies the rub. Everything we say to, or in front of our children is teaching them not only about who they can be, but what we value about who they can be.
Language is power. It can be used to define, affirm, even create, or erase value.
What do we want to pass on to our kids? How can we use our language in a way that values and includes everyone?
The more we become aware of the words that have been put into our mouths and what they’re really saying, the more we can consciously create change from our own hearts and minds. This assures that the power of our voice is ours and serves us, and our kids.
Here are 5 important things you can do with your voice right now:
- 1. No more “boys and girls” – Preempt Exclusion
- Many don’t intend to be unwelcoming. It’s more often than not an unexamined habit. Take a moment to consider how often you use phrases like: boys and girls, moms and dads, men and women, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, etc… Consider what other words are possible that include everyone. Kids, parents, people, siblings, etc… committing to a seemingly small shift like this is BIG. You’re making room for all bodies while countering homophobic, transphobic and cissexist judgment built into our language. You’re also supporting more ways to be ourselves in the world and building respect for those who are undeniably their selves.
- 2. There’s always been more than he and she – Pronoun Expansion
- Become aware of more pronouns, even more than he, she, they.
- In the last 150 years there have been over 100 words created to express a gender neutral third person. Thon (short for ‘that one’) was even in the dictionary from 1934-1961. With so much effort, it’s interesting to note that none of these words came into common use. There may be a two part reason for that. One, a word like that already existed. And two, timing is everything.
- Currently, the ongoing need for a nonbinary personal pronoun has brought the singular pronoun they into standard use. (THEY, 2016 word of the year) The gender neutral singular they is not new. It became part of our language in the 1300’s. It is considered grammatically correct as a gender neutral personal and third person pronoun, in addition to being used as a plural pronoun.
- 3. If you don’t know, don’t guess – Inclusive Practices
- There’s no need to make assumptions based on stereotypes when we have both gender-neutral words and pronouns at our disposal. We can use language to lay a foundation in our culture of respect and inclusion of all people.
- Not making assumptions means making room for everybody all the time. To create a welcoming environment, use words like people, parents, kids, friends, family and so on.
- If you don’t personally know someone’s pronoun, don’t make assumptions. If you find you need to use a pronoun, you could use they as an inclusive pronoun until you hear from that person what pronoun or pronouns they use.
- Some people like to be asked their pronoun. Some don’t. Unless you’re asking everybody’s pronouns all the time, only asking when you can’t assume based on stereotypes can feel like “othering” to folks and even “outing” to some.
- Offering your own pronoun first can seem like an opening, but for some folks it can also feel like an obligation to respond in kind. Depending on a million factors, this may or may not feel safe. Pay attention to see if it’s absolutely necessary for you to know somebody’s pronoun.
- Leaving space for freedom and the unknown can be a positive thing, especially in relation to something as rigid as gender in our current culture.
- Take a moment to pay attention to how your own pronoun/s impact your life. Is this something you have to think about all the time? Never?
- Times are changing! Now there’s a name prefix that is inclusive. Mx!
- 4. Making visible what has been erased – A Shift Toward Equity
- Changing the words that we use personally is HUGE! But there’s more! Everything that’s been written can also be updated to be inclusive, making visible all who were once erased. Playing with pronouns in books is a great way to talk to kids about language and why it’s important to make changes to be inclusive.
- Here are two ways to do it. Both are valuable for different reasons.
- First, change pronouns in books to they. This one takes practice because there is a cascading effect you have to keep track of. It slows me down sometimes and takes some creativity, but I’ve done it so much now, I’m nearly seamless. (I read A LOT of books to our young one)
- This interrupts the girl/boy assumption and makes room for not knowing a person’s gender, which interrupts stereotypes. But just using they, even consistently, isn’t enough. This makes more room for gender, but stereotypes are by nature rigid and superficial. If we don’t actually challenge them in some way, they remain intact, just renamed. In order to call in and acknowledge a more nuanced and truthful perspective of gender, we need to include another step.
- Second, change a character’s pronouns from she to he, or from he to she. Reading-wise, this is easier to do. This interrupts the rigidity of stereotypes and uses beloved characters (with stories that center them) as vehicles to learn more about inclusion.
- Reframing like this explicitly expands ideas about who people can be, and provides a counter narrative to the dominant culture.
- Currently racism and sexism are more and more unacceptable in children’s media, but cissexism remains rampant. Particularly in children’s movies where gender nonconformity is often specifically set up, so it can be ridiculed.
- When kids witness and practice respect for all bodies and ways of being in the world, this form of bullying is easier to see and interrupt.
- Here’s a short video modeling how to play with pronouns in picture books and you can download this handout for ways to keep the persepctives alive:
- 5. Making space – New Ideas, New Words, New Connections
- Old ideas and beliefs that support oppression are coming apart more and more. Even language is changing to reflect that. But in order for this good work to be rooted in true respect and systemic change, we must acknowledge the community who paved the way. We must call in, lift up, listen to and support all the gorgeous, courageous LGBTQI2S+ people who changed the world by being their true self… and often without meaning to, making room for us to be here, now. We are living in the light they cast. It’s time for LGBTQI2S+ voices and faces, history and wisdom to be familiar to our kids. This is a powerful step toward completing one circle of cultural healing. #FirstVoice #OwnVoice
READ PART TWO for ways to instill skills to help kids negotiate oppressive systems and learn about The Gender Wheel Curricululm.
Maya Gonzalez is a Chicanx, queer femme artist, progressive educator and award-winning children’s book illustrator and author. Her work addresses systemic inequity in relation to race/ethnicity, sexism and cissexism using children’s books as radical agents of change and healing, both personally and culturally. With her partner Matthew, she co-founded Reflection Press, a POC, queer and trans owned independent publishing house that uses holistic, nature-based, and anti-oppression frameworks in their books and materials for kids and grown-ups. She is also the creator of the Gender Wheel, a tool to express the dynamic, infinite and inclusive reality of gender, and provides lectures and workshops to educators, parents and caregivers. www.mayagonzalez.com | www.genderwheel.com | www.reflectionpress.com