The topic of gender diversity is often thought of as something new in today’s world, but gender diverse people have been reintroducing themselves with different pronouns for centuries, such as indigenous cultures across the globe.
If your child is curious about pronouns or asks you to use different pronouns for them, here are tips on what pronouns are, why they matter, and how you can be inclusive in using and respecting pronouns.
What is a pronoun?
A pronoun is a word we use when speaking about a person, and is one way that we gender people. For example, “She went to the store,” or “I saw him today!” and “Have you heard from them yet?” She/her, he/him, and them/them (and more!) are all pronouns. When speaking about non-living objects, we may use this, that or it. It is never appropriate to refer to another person using this, that or it.
People often assume the gender of others by their appearance and use pronouns to match their assumption (which is not always correct). It’s important to ask for pronouns because you cannot assume someone’s gender based on clothing, makeup, body size or shape, body hair, jewelry, etc.
Why pronouns might not “match” someone’s physical appearance:
We can’t tell someone’s gender by what they look like. Clothes, makeup, body hair, jewelry, or other ways a person dresses or decorates their body do not indicate someone’s gender or sex. This is because things like clothing, makeup and body hair don’t have a gender. Science tells us gender is more than simply “male” or “female,” allowing for a variety of gender identities, which may or may not align with sex assigned at birth.
If you are unsure of what someone’s pronouns are:
- Just ask. It’s easy! I often introduce myself like this when meeting new people: “Nice to meet you. I’m Tabi, I use they/them pronouns. What pronouns do you use?”
- It’s important for cisgender people (people whose gender identity aligns with their assigned sex at birth) to normalize the practice of stating their pronouns and asking pronouns of others. It encourages practice and helps gender diverse people feel safe, welcome and accepted.
How many pronouns are there?
A lot! There are 78 pronouns we currently know about. Some trans and/or non-binary folks prefer to simply have their name used as their pronoun. Below is a chart of some pronouns you may hear:
Why do pronouns matter?
Trans and gender diverse youth are at significant risk for mental health concerns like depression and suicide. According to alarming research from The Trevor Project, 1 in 3 transgender youth reported attempting suicide in 2017. Using the correct pronouns for trans and gender diverse youth is one simple way we can help reduce negative outcomes like suicide and depression.
If your child asks you to use different pronouns, here are three things you can do:
It’s okay to feel shocked, confused or scared when you hear this information. Take a deep breath, pause and remember your child is sharing this information because they trust you with it. How you respond will greatly affect their well-being and your relationship.
- Thank them for sharing this with you. It may be scary for some children, teens and even adults to share this information with others for fear of rejection, disapproval or safety concerns.
- Use the pronouns your child asks you to use. Research shows gender diverse youth are healthier and happier when parents, families and communities use pronouns that align with gender identity.
- Seek support if you need it. If it feels especially challenging for you or your family to use your child’s pronouns or to respect their gender identity, it is important to get support. Look for mental health providers who are trans-allied or are trans or gender-diverse themselves.
I’m scared to make a mistake!
You will. (And that’s okay!) Contrary to popular thinking, it’s not difficult to learn new pronouns for someone, but it does take active practice. Getting used to using different pronouns or a new name for someone is a learning process, similar to what you might have had to do when a friend got married and started using a different last name, or when you’ve mistaken a newborn baby or pet as the wrong gender.
Fear of making mistakes often comes up when using they/them pronouns for someone for the first time. People assume using singular “they” is too difficult or grammatically incorrect, but we already use it all the time. For example, we might say, “Someone left their phone! I hope they come back.” If you were talking about me (nonbinary, they/them pronouns), you would say, “Tabi left their phone! I hope they come back.”
Don’t over-apologize! Correct yourself in the moment and move on. If someone corrects you, say “thank you,” correct yourself, and move on. Most gender-diverse people understand using new pronouns and names takes practice. Additionally, if you give an over-the-top apology, it may add to a gender-diverse person’s stress by having to reassure you it’s okay to misgender them (using the wrong pronoun for someone).
Using a person’s correct pronouns is important because it affirms that person’s identity, helps them feel safe and comfortable in their own body, and shows you respect them for who they are.
Pronouns 101: What Are They and Why Do They Matter?
As a society, we commonly assume the gender of others by their appearance and show these assumptions by using gendered language. It’s important to ask for pronouns because you cannot assume how someone identifies their gender based on their appearance. It’s an important lesson to teach children to make sure people feel heard, respected and accepted.