As the children at Elm House are getting older, many of the three year olds are thinking and learning about gender. At Elm House, this most often comes up in the form of talking about color preference in a stereotypical way (“I want blue because I’m a boy”), or the children asking each other about gender identity (“Are you a girl?”).
Another way the children’s learning about gender can be seen is through the mistakes they make with pronouns. It’s very common for three year-olds to mispronoun everyone around them, as both part of their language development and both social and cultural learning about gender. Pronoun usage is a topic that is important to me, because I am a trans person who is frequently mispronouned. So lately, it has felt like the right time to start talking with the children about pronouns, checking each other’s pronouns, and correcting each other when we know someone has been mispronouned.
Here’s how one recent conversation about pronouns looked.
During a.m. snack, SD, HE, both STs, and EB were sitting at the table eating and chatting with me (Mage).
HE: I have a banana! I like banana.
ST: [To Mage] What did he say?
Mage: HE said “I like banana.” ST, I heard you describe HE with the pronoun “he,” and I think HE might prefer a different pronoun. Did you mean to say a different pronoun?
Mage: We can ask HE about pronouns. Some pronouns that people use are she, he or they. My pronoun is “they.” ST, which pronoun do you use?
ST: I use he.
Mage: You said, “he.” So we will use “he” as your pronoun. We can ask HE and all of the other children, too. HE, which pronoun do you like?
HE: I like black.
Mage: You like the color black? I do too. I’m asking about pronouns, like he, she or they. Which one of those do you want us to use for you?
HE: I like he!
Mage: OK, you said you like, “he,” so that’s what we’ll use for you. So, ST, we asked HE and he said he wants you to use “he” pronouns. I’m glad we asked. Let’s ask the rest of the children. [To other ST] Which pronoun should we use for you?
Mage: OK. “He.” How about you, EB, which pronoun do you like?
EB: Um, I like she.
Mage: You like she. How about you, SD?
SD: I like Toto!
Mage: You like Toto. We’re asking about pronouns, like he, she and they. Is there one you want us to use for you?
SD: Me want you use she.
HE: I like she, too!!
Mage: Oh, HE, you like she now. Earlier you said he, and now you said she. We will use she for you now.
Simple as that. I expect we’ll have many more conversations similar to this one. I was surprised at how well the children comprehended what we were talking about, and mostly responded with confidence. I won’t be surprised if they switch pronouns occasionally, and I will always respect whatever pronoun they tell me to use, even if they change their mind five minutes later (or if don’t change their mind at all). I think the earlier that we start talking about pronouns with the children, and the more consistent we are about having these conversations, the more it will be normal for them to ask new people for pronouns, and perhaps in the long term they will be less likely to make assumptions about gender identity and pronouns.