Why is it important that children learn about gender identity? We ask the experts after Rishi Sunak declared 'schools should not teach about the concept'

New guidance is set to say that children under the age of 13 will not be taught about contraception, sexually transmitted infections and abortion either

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It's reported that Rishi Sunak’s government is planning a ban on teaching children about gender identity before the age of 13, and it's stirred up a lot of thoughts and feelings among experts and parents.

Many parents wonder about the best way to talk to their kids about sex and when the new Relationships and Sex Education became mandatory in schools in England there may have been a collective sigh of relief. But now, the new Government-suggested guidance says that schools in England should not teach gender identity, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promising that it would ensure children were not "exposed to disturbing content".

The suggested guidance makes clear that schools "should not teach about the concept of gender identity". Lucy Emmerson, chief executive of the Sex Education Forum, said: "If topics were to be restricted it would leave children even more dependent on getting answers about topics from pornography, coercive control and STIs [sexually transmitted infections] from online sources."

An NSPCC spokesperson told us; "Children and young people may have known or questioned their gender identity from a young age. [We know that a] large number don’t tell anyone until they are older. This may be because they are scared or worried about others’ reactions.  Every child is different and there is no age that is right or wrong to begin that conversation around gender and sexuality." Mum-of-three Bonnie tells us; "I feel like this is another example of our curriculum not 'moving with the times'. I understand many parents think this may confuse kids, but that's because there aren't enough hours in the day, and maybe it's time we drop certain archaic aspects of education to make time for discussions around topics like this?"

While this guidance is in ‘draft’ and ‘suggested’ for now, the nine-week consultation period has started. Once finalised, approximately the second week of July, it will be statutory and schools will be expected to follow it. Some schools have reportedly said there is no evidence of a widespread problem, and teaching unions have said the review was "politically motivated". Whether it is or not, these reports have highlighted why gender identity and sex education as a whole, is important for future generations.

We speak to an NSPCC expert, Dr Katie Malbon and teen author Sarah Ockwell-Smith about why education, open and honest conversations, and evidence-based facts are what our children need from an early age, not bans.

Why is it important that children learn about gender identity?

There are many reasons - children are naturally curious, they appreciate honesty and value facts - but ultimately it's about helping them understand topics that may feel very confusing for them. There has been a considerable increase over recent years in young people questioning their gender identity. The number of referrals to the NHS service for children and adolescents with gender variance have risen. According to reports it was sat at 8.7 per 100,000 population per year in 2022 compared to 4 in 2021 and 4.5 in 2020.

Plus, Dr. Katie Malbon, Consultant Paediatrician tells us how sharing as much as you an - age-appropiately - can help minimise future issues. She says; “Paediatricians in the NHS are seeing girls starting their periods earlier - as young as 8 years old, so restricting education around sex and contraception until after this point only explains half of the biological story which is only going to lead to more unanswered questions."

Katie, who is also Chief Medical Advisor for teen wellbeing app luna also tells us; "On top of this, surveys show that 96% of 8-11-year-olds have a smartphone which means they can find ways to access this information in unsafe ways via internet searches and often via secret TikTok accounts – leading to misinformation and potentially distressing content being accessed to fulfil curiosity.”

So, we know that being transgender, non-binary or gender fluid is not a mental health diagnosis, nor does it mean that a person will necessarily experience psychological problems, however, statistics do show that there can be associated difficulties as children grow up questioning their gender identity due to prejudice and discrimination. One study found that, in children and young people experiencing features of gender dysphoria, mental health difficulties were significantly more likely.

Woman smiling at camera
Dr Katie Malbon

Dr Katie Malbon is a consultant paediatrician and clinical director at Imperial College NHS Healthcare Trust. Having completed paediatric training in London, she moved to the USA in 2007 to undertake a fellowship in adolescent medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York. During that time, she established an innovative text messaging service “Text in the City” for young people attending an adolescent health centre. She is also Chief Medical Advisor for teen wellbeing app luna.

What is gender identity?

Gender identity is how a person feels about their gender. It’s an internal sense people have of who they are that comes from an interaction of biological traits, developmental influences and environmental conditions.

Being a boy or a girl, for most children, is something that feels natural. Historically, at birth, babies are assigned male or female based on physical characteristics. This refers to the ‘sex’ or ‘assigned gender’ of the child. Self-recognition of gender identity develops over time, much the same way a child's physical body does. Most children's asserted gender identity aligns with their assigned gender (sex). However, for some children, the match between their assigned gender and gender identity is not so clear.

The NSPCC identifies the types of gender identity as trans, non-binary and cisgender. More information below:

  • Trans or transgender: this is when someone feels their gender is different from, or doesn't sit comfortably with, the sex they were registered at birth.
  • Non-binary, gender diverse and genderqueer: these are umbrella terms for people whose gender identity doesn't sit comfortably as man or woman. Instead, they may identify with some aspects of one or both of these identities, or identify with neither. Additionally, some people may identify as genderfluid and see their gender as flexible, rather than a fixed identity.
  • Cisgender: this is when someone's gender identity is the same as the sex they were registered at birth.

How does gender identity develop in children?

Gender identity is unique to each individual. Studies show that children as early as two years of age are usually capable of identifying their own gender. Throughout time gender has been expressed in a variety of ways, often shaped by the mandates of an intolerant society—mandates that we now recognise as gender roles. Gender identity usually develops in stages and starts much younger than people realise, according to studies;

  • Around age two: Children are conscious of the physical differences between boys and girls.
  • Before their third birthday: Most children can easily label themselves as a boy or a girl.
  • By age four: Most children have a stable sense of their gender identity.

Studies show that Gender in 1968 was defined as an individual’s perception of themselves with notions of masculinity or femininity. It does not pertain to the biological sex of the individual which is assigned at birth. However, today we understand that there is more to gender than the simple binary of male and female. In the field of psychology, it is understood that gender identity is constantly evolving, and is not established at birth, but actually a by-product of our human experiences as we develop and grow.

How to talk to your kids about gender identity

In our capacity as ‘their grown-ups’ it is our job to learn how to create a safe space for our children to feel comfortable asking questions and expressing their feelings about sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. GoodToKnow panellist, Sarah Ockwell-Smith explains how important a wide and varied education is, she tells us; "Helping children to understand and accept differences from an early age is the key to a kinder, more respectful society."

The Child Mind Institute shared this informative Instagram post on the 9 ways to talk to your kids about gender identity;

  1. Do your homework
  2. Be curious
  3. Share age-appropriate information
  4. Be a safe space
  5. Be aware of language and tone
  6. Show unconditional love and acceptance
  7. Be an ally and advocate
  8. Representation matters
  9. Own your mistakes

Yake a look at the Instagram post for more information on how to do this.

A post shared by Child Mind Institute

A photo posted by childmindinstitute on

Sometimes it can be difficult for you if your child is questioning their gender identity, or comes out as transgender or non-binary. You may feel unsure how to help them, not know what to say, or how to relate to what they're going through. You may feel angry or upset. You might also find it hard to know how to talk to your child's school, or explain things to extended family who may not be supportive.

Elsewhere on our site we cover the five most important things you should talk to your teen about before they start dating, and what to do if your teenager is drawn to taking risks. Some parents are finding caring for their older children so difficult, they're taking 'teen-ternity' leave - we have everything you need to know about the term.

Stephanie Lowe
Family Editor

Stephanie Lowe is Family Editor at GoodToKnow covering all things parenting, pregnancy and more. She has over 13 years' experience as a digital journalist with a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to all things family and lifestyle. Stephanie lives in Kent with her husband and son, Ted. Just keeping on top of school emails/fund raisers/non-uniform days/packed lunches is her second full time job.