11 votes

On the matter of calling a child "they"

I thought about posting this as a comment in the other active pronoun conversation but I didn't want to derail it with a tangent. For starters I should make it clear I believe honoring someone's pronoun preferences is a matter of basic decency and respect. Conversely, insisting on using a different word when you know someone doesn't like it is, frankly, a jerk move. It's being antagonistic for no good reason.

That said, an acquaintance recently informed me that her 4-year-old prefers to use the pronoun "they." I have to admit something about this situation doesn't sit right with me. I'm also the parent of a 4-year-old, and it's clear to me that kids that age aren't developmentally equipped to make an informed decision about gender identity.

I can't help but feel like the parents are putting words in their kid's mouth, projecting a non-binary assumption onto a minor who lacks the cognitive and emotional maturity to manage it in any meaningful way. Saddling a preschooler with that kind of baggage just strikes me as irresponsible parenting.

I'm not saying there should be some kind of hard-line age of consent, just that four is too young. One ought to be far enough along developmentally to come to one's own conclusions about pronouns and gender presentation.

Apologies if I'm strawmanning, but I guess the argument could be made that all kids should be referred to as "they" — by default — until they reach an appropriate age to choose their own gender identities. I can sympathize with that as a goal, but it strikes me as unrealistic. I don't think society would ever be able to attain that kind of widespread change.

I'm curious what my fellow tilders think about this subject. (FWIW, I am referring to this kid as "they" and keeping my objections to myself, apart from this discussion.)

15 comments

  1. [11]
    Catt
    Link
    So why not keep it neutral until they choose? I don't believe it's projecting a non-binary assumption as much as not making an assumption to begin with.

    ...kids that age aren't developmentally equipped to make an informed decision about gender identity.

    So why not keep it neutral until they choose? I don't believe it's projecting a non-binary assumption as much as not making an assumption to begin with.

    18 votes
    1. [3]
      CALICO
      Link Parent
      On that note, my buddy's partner is trans and they've never felt comfortable in their body. Not for as far back as they can remember. I won't pretend to know what that feels like firsthand, so I...

      On that note, my buddy's partner is trans and they've never felt comfortable in their body. Not for as far back as they can remember. I won't pretend to know what that feels like firsthand, so I choose to take their word for it. I've read similar stories online. It seems to me that a child could know, maybe not in an analytical sense, that something is "off".

      As for the OP, and whether all kids should be referred to as "they", I think no. Our understanding of what gender is (or whether it really exists [personal bias]), is too limited to give much direction in what we ought to do. If a child wants to use "they", I don't see any harm in it. If a child wants to be the other sex, or dress in a manner associated with their opposing birth sex, I don't see any harm in humoring the child. Maybe don't put them on hormone replacers at such a young age though. They may grow out of it, they may not. It's the parent projecting what they think the child's identity ought to be that concerns me. A child's mind is a malleable thing full of so much creative and intellectual potential, and I think we try beat them in to shape to fit a mold that we approve of at too young of an age.

      9 votes
      1. [2]
        tvfj
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        FYI, since the topic of putting kids on hormones is brought up a lot by disingenuous anti-trans activists: Young children are never put on HRT (hormone replacement therapy). If they're...

        Maybe don't put them on hormone replacers at such a young age though.

        FYI, since the topic of putting kids on hormones is brought up a lot by disingenuous anti-trans activists: Young children are never put on HRT (hormone replacement therapy). If they're prepubescent, they would just induce puberty early, so they're put on nothing at all. If they're near or at the age of puberty, they're put on puberty blockers, which delay puberty and generally do not have adverse effects. HRT is generally only started after they reach 16.

        Gender questioning kids are put under a lot of scrutiny, to the point that it's actually often detrimentally difficult to receive HRT.

        They may grow out of it, they may not.

        You may find this interesting:

        Finally, children who have gender dysphoria beginning at puberty or persisting after puberty generally have persistent gender dysphoria in adulthood.

        https://www.mdedge.com/pediatricnews/article/109858/mental-health/how-young-too-young-optimal-age-transitioning-transgender

        15 votes
        1. CALICO
          Link Parent
          Well, there you go. Thanks for the information, my friend.

          Well, there you go. Thanks for the information, my friend.

          5 votes
    2. EngiNerd
      Link Parent
      Gender Dismorphia is not super common though (somewhere between 0.005% and 0.014% of males and 0.002% and 0.003% of females have gender dismorphia). Let me clarify that I think parents should...

      Gender Dismorphia is not super common though (somewhere between 0.005% and 0.014% of males and 0.002% and 0.003% of females have gender dismorphia).

      Let me clarify that I think parents should explain to their kids about gender dismorphia around they same time they start teaching them about the physical differences between males and females (2-3ish?) and if the child asks them to use a non-standard pronoun then that should be respected.

      But I don't see the point in "not making an assumption" when there's a ~99.994% chance their gender identity matches their biological sex.

      I also think it could, depending on how it's done, put undo stress on the child. I could see a scenario, for instance I was the type of child where if my parents told me they were using They until I decided if I wanted to be a He, She, or They I would assume that obviously that means it's like a 50/50 shot and everyone else at school is "normal" and I don't want to be "not normal" and I think I'm "normal" but what if I'm "not normal" and I'm probably "normal" but then why are they waiting for me to choose if there's not a decent chance that I'm "not normal". (as you can see I was an anxious child)

      6 votes
    3. [6]
      balooga
      Link Parent
      I didn't make a very strong case against that in my original post, and I'm not sure that I can. I'm trying to distill a gut feeling into a coherent argument (which may not actually be possible if...

      I didn't make a very strong case against that in my original post, and I'm not sure that I can. I'm trying to distill a gut feeling into a coherent argument (which may not actually be possible if there's none to be found). I'm open to persuasion on this matter.

      But for the time being, I think the problem with "keeping it neutral" is that there is too much cultural momentum against doing that. People almost universally expect kids to be either boys or girls. Most clothing is gender-specific. If a kid being raised neutrally can't articulate why these assumptions don't apply to themselves, I think it creates undue frustration, confusion, and a feeling of being an outcast. It's like stacking the deck against your kid, going out of your way to make their formative years more challenging than they would otherwise be.

      I think it would be great if we could magically remove those cultural expectations and start with a blank slate. But that's what I mean by "unrealistic." Unfortunately, kids don't grow up in a vacuum.

      2 votes
      1. [5]
        Catt
        Link Parent
        Not saying this isn't true, because it definitely is, and of course, it goes beyond pronouns. However, I think it's our job as adults to make the changes we want to see. People might expect kids...

        ...too much cultural momentum against doing that.

        Not saying this isn't true, because it definitely is, and of course, it goes beyond pronouns. However, I think it's our job as adults to make the changes we want to see. People might expect kids to be either boys or girls, but there's no reason why we can't remind them that a girl wearing blue doesn't make her a boy. And more importantly, there's nothing wrong with it.

        My perspective might be a bit different as my mother tongue uses gender neutral pronouns.

        8 votes
        1. [4]
          balooga
          Link Parent
          That's particularly interesting to me. As a native English speaker (I know a little bit of Spanish too) I've been pondering how strong an influence a culture's language alone might have on...

          My perspective might be a bit different as my mother tongue uses gender neutral pronouns.

          That's particularly interesting to me. As a native English speaker (I know a little bit of Spanish too) I've been pondering how strong an influence a culture's language alone might have on expectations about sex and gender. Just thinking aloud: I understand Thailand is especially non-binary on the whole, and I wonder what role the language there plays in that. I think most western / Romance languages are gendered. May I ask what languages you speak?

          3 votes
          1. [3]
            Catt
            (edited )
            Link Parent
            I speak Cantonese Chinese. I think language definitely has an influence. I remember watching a youtube video forever ago about languages that have masculine/feminine parts, and it as really...

            I speak Cantonese Chinese. I think language definitely has an influence.

            I remember watching a youtube video forever ago about languages that have masculine/feminine parts, and it as really interesting. They had something like "table" and in one language it was masculine, but feminine in another and asked people who spoke the respective language to describe it. And they found in the masculine language, people tend to use "masculine" adjectives like "bold", "sturdy". In the feminine, it was the opposite, like "comfortable".

            Disclaimer: pronouns are gender neutral (when spoken), but people do definitely refer to kids as little boys and little girls, though you don't have to.

            Edit: to add video

            4 votes
            1. [2]
              TrialAndFailure
              Link Parent
              Isn't the categorization of those adjectives into "masculine" or "feminine" entirely a projection made by the researchers, not the native speakers?

              and asked people who spoke the respective language to describe it. And they found in the masculine language, people tend to use "masculine" adjectives like "bold", "sturdy". In the feminine, it was the opposite, like "comfortable".

              Isn't the categorization of those adjectives into "masculine" or "feminine" entirely a projection made by the researchers, not the native speakers?

              1. Catt
                Link Parent
                Oh definitely very subjective. This is basically anecdotal at best. But even disregarding the masculine/feminine category for the adjectives, I still think it's interesting that the same object is...

                Oh definitely very subjective. This is basically anecdotal at best. But even disregarding the masculine/feminine category for the adjectives, I still think it's interesting that the same object is thought of differently.

  2. mkida
    (edited )
    Link
    I don't mind much when people make these sorts of decisions as parents. I can think of a few ways it might hurt the kid (and some that it might help), but in the grand scheme of all that parents...

    I don't mind much when people make these sorts of decisions as parents. I can think of a few ways it might hurt the kid (and some that it might help), but in the grand scheme of all that parents can decide for their kids, pronoun usage is not something too concerning.

    If a parent made the sort of argument you talked about (they should be the default) and the kid doesn't object, so they decided to use they (who's the they using they? the kid, the parents, both? damn pronouns), then that's reasonable.

    What I very much dislike though is trying to frame it like it was the kid's independent choice. I'm sure in all of the world, some four year olds did go up to their parents and say 'I'd prefer to be referred to with they instead of s/he', but I imagine the vast majority of parents who make that kinda statement aren't being very truthful.

    5 votes
  3. eladnarra
    Link
    From what I gather, by age four kids generally have ideas about their own gender. (Obviously this will vary, which can be seen in trans people's stories. Some folks describe knowing very...

    I can't help but feel like the parents are putting words in their kid's mouth, projecting a non-binary assumption onto a minor who lacks the cognitive and emotional maturity to manage it in any meaningful way.

    From what I gather, by age four kids generally have ideas about their own gender. (Obviously this will vary, which can be seen in trans people's stories. Some folks describe knowing very concretely from a very early age, while others describe it taking a while to figure it out, even decades.)

    So this may be unintentional projecting on the part of the parents, or it may simply be that the kid is more able to express they want to use "they" pronouns because their parents talk about gender and pronouns, which has given the child the words to describe something they might not otherwise be able to explain until later.

    4 votes
  4. up2eleven
    Link
    A lot of parents try very hard to impress their beliefs about social issues on their children at a very young age. I agree that a four-year-old is unlikely to have become aware of gender issues...

    A lot of parents try very hard to impress their beliefs about social issues on their children at a very young age. I agree that a four-year-old is unlikely to have become aware of gender issues without influence from the parent. I think it's good to expose children to issues, once they're old enough to start to really grasp the reasons why the issues are important. At that age, it just becomes a situation where every kid that age thinks their parents are right and try to emulate them however they can. I find it unlikely that the kid has an understanding of gender issues.

    I do think a kid at that age, if they are trans, may be starting to feel like they are different from other kids who share their biological sex. However, as things are right now, legally, a parent has to pick one of the binary genders for legal forms of all kinds; birth certificate, school registration, medical forms, etc. There's no legally recognized third option currently.

    I don't think that a kid is going to be damaged in any way by being referred to as a certain sex, as long as the parents let them know that they can be open about everything with them, and if their kid starts to express that they don't feel like their biological sex, then they can work together to address that.

    3 votes
  5. musicotic
    Link
    Referring to children by non-gender-specific terms helps reduce gender dysphoria for trans people who haven't come out to their parents

    Referring to children by non-gender-specific terms helps reduce gender dysphoria for trans people who haven't come out to their parents