By Afsaneh Moradian, author of Jamie and Bubbie: A Book About People’s Pronouns
As teachers, parents, and caregivers, we try our best to create environments that are inclusive and celebrate diversity. We know how important it is to read books that have strong messages of acceptance, respect, and empathy. We want the children in our lives to feel loved for who they are and celebrated for what makes them unique.
It can be easy to forget the role personal pronouns play in achieving that goal. We are accustomed to using the pronouns he and she, and we frequently assign gender without even giving it a second thought. How common is it to see an ant carrying food, for example, and say something to a child such as, “Look at that ant carrying that big leaf. Do you think he’s tired?”
The way English works, we often use the pronouns he and she. We’re modeling the process of assigning gender without actually knowing if the animal or person is male or female. By default, we are teaching children to exist within a binary, that there are only two choices: male or female. We’re also teaching them that it’s okay to assume someone’s gender and choose a pronoun for them based on our best guess.
Because there are so many people (including children) who don’t identify as male or female, and there are people who identify as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth, it’s more important than ever to use the singular they as our default pronoun.
When Merriam-Webster chose the singular they as their 2019 Word of the Year, they recognized that the singular they is not only widely used, but a necessary component of clear communication that is inclusive and representative.
If we’re not certain of someone’s pronouns, we should use they. By using gender-neutral pronouns, we create truly inclusive environments where children have the space and freedom to be nonbinary, agender, gender nonconforming, gender fluid, and transgender.
Knowing that there are many children and adults who don’t use he or she as their pronouns means we can’t make assumptions based on someone’s appearance. It also means that we have to ask others what pronouns they use and teach our children how to ask others about pronouns too.
Here are a couple ways to ask for someone’s pronouns:
- “Excuse me, what pronoun would you like me to use?”
- Introducing yourself with your pronouns will set an example and make it easier for the other person to share their information with you. Mypronouns.org suggests saying something like, “My name is ___ and I go by _____ pronouns. How should I refer to you?”
Sometimes, we may use the wrong pronouns by mistake. If that happens, be sure to self-correct out loud so the person knows that you know and respect their pronouns.
Allowing children to feel respected and supported in sharing their pronouns is equally as important as ensuring that they and adults use the correct pronouns. We know that misusing pronouns is a form of bullying that commonly takes place and is rooted in gender stereotypes (for example, if a girl is not feminine enough, she may be referred to as he) and homophobia (calling a boy she). Children always look to adults to know what is tolerated and acceptable, so we have to be quick to address incorrect pronouns and any abuse linked to misusing pronouns that may take place.
In 2018, the University of Texas at Austin conducted a study that revealed using a transgender child’s chosen name decreased their symptoms of severe depression by 71 percent. Using the pronouns that someone deems correct for themself goes hand in hand with using their chosen name.
Since we can imagine the upset it would cause us if the people in our lives referred to us by the wrong pronouns, we can use empathy to understand how important it is to ask people for their pronouns and use the correct pronouns. This helps everyone feel respected and gives adults and children a sense of belonging.
Afsaneh Moradian has loved writing stories, poetry, and plays since childhood. After receiving her master’s in education, she took her love of writing into the classroom where she began teaching children how to channel their creativity. Her passion for teaching has lasted for over fifteen years. Afsaneh now guides students and teachers (and her young daughter) in the art of writing. She lives in New York City.
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