Gender, like so many other aspects of human identity, exists on a spectrum. I’m a non-binary trans Episcopal priest, and thankfully, at this stage in my life, I’m not often told I need to do things like “sit boy-girl-boy-girl crisscross applesauce around the rug so class can get started.” Where would I go? The middle? Outside the circle entirely?
I’m old enough and secure enough in who I am to joke about this, but many of the children who we are blessed to have as a part of the Body of Christ, are not yet. Children who are questioning their own gender, or who already identify as something other than the sex they were assigned at birth, may have to smoosh an important part of themselves down into a little box and outwardly identify as someone they’re not or often (sadly) face ridicule and bullying for being brave enough to live their truths.
The Gender Binary Hurts All Of Us
Most of us grownups, myself included, were raised with a much more rigid attention to gender than our kids today. As the oldest of four siblings and with three younger brothers, I was told over and over that I couldn’t do things because “that’s only for boys” or “it doesn’t look good for girls to do this.” Lest you think this was long, long ago—this was the 90’s in suburban Connecticut.
I’ve had to do a lot of unlearning for myself, to realize that clothes, haircuts, activities, and hobbies aren’t gendered in and of themselves. We only think they are because that’s what we’ve been told. As one of my college professors put it, “the patriarchy hurts all of us.” Just as I was told that I couldn’t learn how to ride a dirt bike, so many young boys are told they can’t play with dolls or like unicorns or wear skirts. All of us, created in God’s image and likeness, are both-and creatures. Trying to fit human beings in all their glorious diversity into either-or boxes does everyone a disservice.
Becoming A More Inclusive Children’s Ministry: Six Places to Start
There are so many ways that we can invite children into safer spaces when at church or in Christian formation settings. Here are some starting places:
- Don’t ask children to sort themselves by gender, or worse, try to sort them that way yourself. Try asking children to self-sort by birthday month, grade, height, or whether they’re cat lovers or dog lovers.
- Remind children that hobbies, interests, clothes, haircuts, names, and more can be for all of us, regardless of gender. One that comes up a lot for me is kids asking about why I have short hair. I remind them that anyone can have short hair; short hair doesn’t mean that someone is a boy, just as long hair doesn’t mean that someone is a girl. I usually give a non-gendered reason why I have short hair, for example, that I like it because it is very quick to wash and I don’t need to brush out tangles.
- If you see teasing or bullying based on gender or gender presentation, don’t just stop the behavior, make sure to talk through the preconceived notions that drive it. For example, “Sky, I saw you teasing Bear because he likes unicorns. I wonder why you think that Bear can’t like unicorns, or that you should tease him for it?” Children likely picked up the attitudes they have from their families or peers in places outside of church without even realizing it.
- For older kids, offer a basket of pronoun buttons next to the markers and stick-on name tags so they can self-identify as they are comfortable. For something like a confirmation class or Youth Group, consider using a “get to know you” questionnaire, like this one from Teaching Outside the Binary.
- For younger children, respect what they or their parents tell you about how they identify. For children who are questioning their gender or know they don’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, that self-awareness can come as early as 3 or 4 years of age.
- If your church building doesn’t have all gender restrooms, consider starting that conversation with your Vestry or clergy person. In some cases, all that’s needed is re-labeling single user restrooms with clear signs like these.
I may be non-binary and trans, but that doesn’t mean that I know all that there is to know about how our children and youth—or anyone else for that matter—experience gender. If you’re curious about something a young person says, politely ask what they mean, and keep an open mind. Breaking down the harmful ideas and binaries that many of us have been taught in our own minds and selves is the hardest, and most important, part of the work when it comes to helping our children feel safe, secure, and comfortable about being exactly who God created them to be when at church.