How to Talk to Boys and Girls – and Their Parents

If you have children, or work with children every day, I challenge you to make it through one day without referring to the sex of any child. I am betting most could not make it through one hour.

First, there is the matter of pronouns. If you are supervising kids, it’ll be a matter of moments before you are saying, “Don’t bug your brother! Be nice to him!”

So let’s say you’re off the hook and you are allowed to use he, she, her, hers and his.

Probably there will be a slip within 10 minutes as we call out, “OK, girls, it’s time for lunch!”

Why is it even desirable to avoid referring to boys and girls?

Let’s say you have two girls and two boys. One girl and one boy have brown hair. One girl and one boy have blonde hair. Would you ever call out, “OK, brunettes, it’s time for lunch!” I think not. I believe that constantly using “girls” and “boys” as labels for children is no more valuable a piece of information than using “blondes” and “brunettes” as labels for children. It tells you very little about the child, unless you subscribe to significant stereotypes. If you think that all boys are boisterous and all girls are dainty – or that is true enough to generalize – then you can stop reading this post now 🙂

What are the alternatives? It depends on whether you respect the vocabulary police! Using the word “children” is effective, but can sound quite formal: “Children, it’s time for lunch!” I am comfortable using the word “kids”, but the subjects may be offended after age 11 or so. There are a few alternatives, such as, “OK everybody, it’s time for lunch!” or just “LUUUUNNNCH!” Now that I think of it, unless you are a teacher, a childcare provider, or a coach, you are usually not rounding up groups of kids and yelling at them across an open space, anyway!

Let’s look at some choices in how to word our interactions with kids. Do you associate neutral language with equality, or with political correctness? Do the gender-neutral options appeal to you, or feel awkward for you?

  • Oh, look, Quinn, you’re going to get your ears checked by a male nurse!
  • Quinn, the nurse is going to check your ears now.
  • Devin: When I grow up, I want to be a fireman!
  • You: What would you like about being a fire fighter?
  • Dad: Let’s have some guy time this afternoon, dude, and shoot some pucks around!
  • Dad: Let’s go to the pond together and shoot some pucks!

I will not even get into all of the statements I find truly harmful, such as “You throw like a girl,” or (coach says:) “Toughen up, you pussies!” My least favourite is when a father is going to be out of town for a few days,and he tells his 3-year-old son, “You’re the man of the house now; look after your mother and your sisters!” This reminds me of royal succession: the “head of the family” crown gets passed to the male heir: never mind the competent females who get passed over!

More harmful yet are the unspoken assumptions. For example, you see that your son is very smart and you start saving for his college costs right away. Your daughter turns out to be equally smart, but you don’t save an equal amount for her, because she might want to stay home with her kids and enjoy being a mom instead. It’s unlikely you’d also think, “My son may not want to go to university because he might like to stay home and be a dad.”

That’s my benchmark: I try not to make statements or assumptions that are based on stereotypes. I try not to make any comments to a girl that I would not make to a boy, and vice versa.

The easiest way is to be detailed and specific:

  • “I love what you’re wearing today! You sure look fine!”
  • “Thank you for making supper with me. You are turning into a good cook!”
  •  “I like how you used the pink glitter and obliterated it with black scribbles.” (just kidding!)
  • “Your baby looks so alert and watchful – definitely taking everything in!”

To me, best of all is asking questions and having conversations based on your knowledge of that particular child:

  • “Do you still collect rocks? What new ones do you have?”
  • “What books have you been reading?”
  • “What did you like best about your trip to Sudbury?”

When speaking with parents, I like to ask, “What is your baby doing these days?” or “What is Jordan interested in these days?” I would never ask, “Is your baby walking yet?” or “Does your daughter take dance classes?” because there is judgment involved in those questions: “What, your baby isn’t walking yet?” or “Girls are going to be interested in dance and gymnastics.”

This sums it up for me:  Children should not be labelled by one characteristic. Children should not be treated like a herd. All children are their own people, and getting to know each child in your life, individually, is a fine pursuit!


  1. Pingback: My Trans Parent Story | An Exacting Life

  2. Fiona

    Dar, I just clicked through to this as it came up as a link under the current post.

    I can’t even count the number of times in each day that I hear, “Listen up, girls” or “Facing me, boys.” This is in a gender-split, parallel-learning school.

    It bothers me because I can pick specific students silently rebelling and also for all the good reasons you mention above.

    I try to avoid it but it almost becomes the default form of address to get the class’ attention. I will need to try harder! My challenge for the coming week…

    • Good luck, Fiona! It is amazing how entrenched this is in our culture. I like how, in Sweden, they have purposefully changed the culture by changing gender words and the preschool curriculum. It must be harder to get attention by calling out, “OK, Students!” or “Listen up, Class!”

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