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By M.A.Melby


If you’re of my generation and grew up in the U.S., you’ll remember the movie “Kindergarten Cop” where a gruff police officer goes undercover as a Kindergarten teacher.  At one point, one of his students raises his hand and blurts out “Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina”.  At the time, publicly discussing genital anatomy, much less discussing genital anatomy with other people’s children, was incredibly taboo.  So, the audience recognized the awkwardness of the situation and found it funny.

Recently, a mother wrote a letter to an advice column because she found herself in a similar situation.  Her 6-year-old daughter approached her and asked, “Do I have a vagina?” and she felt the same discomfort.  I can identify with that, several years ago a 5-year-old girl pointed at my belly and asked me, while I was very pregnant, “How did the baby get in there?”  Knowing what to say in those situations is not always completely clear.  Among several suggestions, the columnist advised the letter writer to have that Kindergarten Cop moment:

For instance, I can’t think of any reason why a child shouldn’t know the name of genitalia in the same way they know nose, mouth and armpit. Girls have a vagina. Boys have a penis. That’s accurate information and if you are matter-of-fact about it, they will be, too. 

The main problem with the advice, is that it is simply not true.  Though it may not be appropriate to explain to a child every multi-faceted detail surrounding taboo subjects, saying something that is inaccurate is not the only alternative.  You may call the earth “round” instead of an “oblique spheroid” but should probably avoid calling it a “circle” or “cube”.

Not all girls have a vagina and not all boys have a penis.  Saying that they do is wrong.

Though it may be tempting to erase intersex and transgender people when discussing gender and anatomy with children on the basis of “age appropriateness” or simplification, doing so is unnecessary.  It is true that young children have difficulty understanding ambiguity and abstract concepts, but that issue is not relevant.  The names we used to identify anatomy and what genitals tend to look like, is not abstract; and making generalizations is unnecessary to the explanation.

What tying “penis” to boys and “vagina” to girls does is make genitalia part of what defines a “boy” and a “girl” for the child.  Children are in the cognitive stage where they trust authority to define what things are, what is right and wrong, and what the fundamental models of the universe are.  Those early models and definitions, if reinforced, become robust and are very difficult to reassess even into adulthood.  I think that most parents intuitively understand this.  For example, would these phrases be appropriate?

Girls are weaker than boys.

Boys are taller than girls.

Girls have babies.

Boys have short hair.

Girls don’t become scientists.

These statements, though “accurate information” on average, may encourage children to form a toxic essentialist view of “girls” and “boys” and become very confused and upset when these rules are violated.  For example, reinforcing the idea that “girls have babies” may contribute to the feelings of failure or shame that some women experience for being unable or unwilling to bare biological children.  Saying that “girls are weaker than boys” and “boys are taller than girls” may contribute to feelings of inadequacy in men who are not physically strong or tall and reinforce the denigration of girls and woman as the smaller, lesser sex.

That is why many parents avoid saying those things.

Unfortunately, the majority has been conditioned from childhood to see a “girl” as someone with a vagina who likes boys and a “boy” as someone with a penis who likes girls, and that they “special hug” and have babies.  Inaccurate generalizations about what a girl and a boy are supposed to be “biologically” is the pseudo-scientific-standard for imposing cis-heteronomitivity on all of society.  The phrase “Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina,” is the “free space” in the middle of every gay-rights activist and trans-rights activist’s having-an-argument-with-a-bigot bingo card.

Why? Because, it is not easy to reject a “rule” that has been communicated by authority and reinforced over-and-over again from the time that a child is starting to learn language.  Breaking down those early fundamental models requires a level of cognitive dissonance that many people actively avoid – and are therefor resistant to.

These essentialist messages negatively affect everyone, but the pervasiveness of the Kindergarten Cop mentality is particularly damaging to those who don’t fit into those inauthentic constraints.  Imagine how a transgender child might internalize these messages, and the pain it might cause them.

I have two young children of my own.  I can tell my older son, who is also 6-years-old, that he has a penis and so does his brother and so does his daddy, but I do not.  I can explain to him that it is not polite to ask someone about their genitalia and most people consider genitals private.  I can tell him that most boys have penises and most girls don’t, but not everyone is the same.  Somehow, my not insisting that penis=boy and vagina=girl has not spun him into a whirlwind of confusion or social disadvantage.

I hope that if he ever raises his hand in Kindergarten and reenacts that old 90’s movie, that his teacher would let me know so that I can discuss it with him, which, as the advice columnist suggested:

“…lessens the chance of kids getting inaccurate or frightening information…”

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  • acasinofriend

    We Have Heard Of The 18 Month Old Transgender, But Where Is The Young Homosexual? Where Is The Young Lesbian? Where Is The Young Bisexual??? They Don’t Exist…YET. The Gay Curriculum Is Going To Indoctrinate Our Kindergartners That The Sodomite Lifestyle Is Normal Thus Teaching Them To Be Gay….

  • Mm

    Great article. Medically speaking, penis is male and vagina is female. BUT, the issue here is the social construct of gender, where one can consider themselves male and not have a penis, or consider themselves female and not have a vagina. Telling children that having a penis always makes a person male or having a vagina always makes a person female is harmful to the social construction of gender by teaching children that gender is strictly genitalia based, when it is in fact not.
    Children may be too young to fully understand, but telling them that what genitalia a person has is always equated to that person’s gender builds a foundation for unease and nonacceptance when they in later life they become aware of those who break the gender rules they were taught as a child.
    It is the same as telling a child that males always fall in love with females. If a child is “programed” to believe that this is the only way, then they are less likely to be accepting of others (or themselves) who don’t fit this equation.
    I think the most important thing is to tell children what gender generally has what, but let them know that not everyone follows the pattern, and that that is okay.

  • Megan Gardner

    I feel like the physical dichotomy of people’s sex is a more relative answer to those questions, when posed by children under the 6-9 range. They generally aren’t asking for the subtleties that older children, teenagers, and adults can understand. I would be happy to use different terminology to explain sex and gender, but I think it would need to address the biological dichotomy necessary for reproduction. I mostly work with children between 2 and 6, and I tend to focus on blurring the boundaries which society claims separate male and female. I often contemplate what it would mean to identify as male or female if we didn’t have those socially imposed distinctions; if reproductive systems weren’t associated with interests or abilities (other than reproductive abilities). As a cisgender female I don’t really have any experience with other identities, but I don’t think we can go wrong with teaching acceptance of everyone and respecting individuals’ rights. Maybe as a cisgender individual I am devaluing the importance of explaining atypical gender identity, but I truly believe that if we focus on acceptance and respect of all people there is time for older children and teenagers to learn the subtleties as they grow in maturity and cognitive ability.

  • Rayna Ferguson

    When you pull your undergarments down it’s not your pancreas or liver that would be staring someone in the face.I am strictly talking the physical. You can use any wording, any justification you want, physically, if you have a penis you are categorized medically as male the same for female. I have a friend who will tell a man ‘I had a birth defect” instead of saying I had a penis. Her wording does not change the fact she was once physically male. Take a man home with you without telling them and whip out that “pancreas” and see what that gets you!

    • Kelly Karoly

      When you are pre-transition and contemplating sex with someone, yes, you need to correct their likely assumption about what’s between your legs. For everyone else, it’s none of their business, and everyone who does know what’s between your legs needs to respect you gender identity.

      • Rayna Ferguson

        Exactly Kelly.

        • Kelly Karoly

          The thing about respecting gender identity despite what’s between the legs – I think that’s what this article was getting at. It didn’t really mention sexual encounters.

          • Rayna Ferguson

            True. It’s just that there are more and more words to describe the genders and it is confusing as hell. It was a lot easier to understand when people identified as male, female, gay,transgender or bi. Now everyone who is a subculture of these has to have a word for their gender identity. Instead of educating it is confusing for the average person even when it is explained it is still not understood because they cannot grasp the complexities.

          • Kelly Karoly

            Well, I’m a man and a woman, I can live with either “pangender” or “genderqueer” or “transgender.” I don’t know whether or not my cisgender wife fully understands that, but she certainly accepts and supports me. ‘Course, that’s just one anecdote.

          • Rayna Ferguson

            I had to look up cisgender female which we use to call genetic girl or GG. Pangender makes no sense to me and genderqueer sound like people who just can’t pick a side of the street.It sounds as if the rules are being rewritten to accommodate a small percentage of the populace and confusing the general populace. I for one am very happy to be female, just female. I have been female my entire life and I may have achieved that physical status through a talented surgeons skills, but I am just female, plain and simple, who is and have always been attracted to straight men. I mean no offense what so ever.

          • Haha Oh Wow

            It’s just evolving as our understanding is growing. Our verbiage will eventually come to encapsulate categories and information better, but our previous and current set of language carried a lot of biases that are just patently false – like this article explains. All people with a penis are not a boy, they may not identify as a man nor are they even necessarily genetically male! But our language implies that they are and our culture often demands it. Our words suck and as we try to accommodate all the gray we’ve been ignoring or just plain didn’t know about, it makes lots of new words and new ideas that will inevitably be messy and confusing for those adjusted to our more basal, black and white words and ideas.

            I’d rather people be confused as we evolve ideologically than lean on inappropriate and false connotations that continue to restrain existing people as well as cultural development.

          • christian_transgender

            At first it appears as if Facebook did us a favor but for me I immediately grasped their backhanded insult: 58 gender variations?

            It was as if I kept begging for a candy and finally someone tossed me a Halloween bag of candy…………

  • Rayna Ferguson

    I am a transgender female who tries to just be the best human being I can be. Articles like this confuses the hell out of my friends, who all know about me, as well as myself. It’s like giving ever child a trophy for just showing up, which is crap. In life there are winners and losers. it seams that people of late have been trying to rewrite biology to accommodate themselves or to make people who do not want to be categorized as what they physically are. I had surgery at age 29 and up to that point I may have been emotionally a female I was physically male and no amount of the changing of verbiage will ever change that fact. Presenting yourself as one sex while still physically the other and dating without informing is a very good way to get ones self killed. I always tell a man right up front to avoid any misunderstandings and I never dated until after surgery as I that would have been deceptive and dangerous.

    • Lily Smith

      I find this comment more confusing than the article. When it comes to biology, there are no stone tablets in nature that say “male means this and female means that”. Humans define that, and often shift that definition to suit their own worldview. They may mean chromosomes one minute, genitalia the next. Acting as though there are clear and definite boundaries, determined by nature rather than human beings, between females and males erases intersex individuals. Furthermore, I find it very strange when people say “mentally I am this, biologically I am that”. Are not brains also part of our biology?

      I am a woman because it is my brain and mind that are the primary determinant of who I am. What is between my legs determines who I am about as much as my pancreas or liver does. I am a woman, therefore my body is a woman’s body no matter how it is currently configured.

      • vataone

        The level of self policing that can go on within the trans community can be aggravating at best. Yes, it is important to be upfront with someone if you are becoming involved with them. No, it is no one else’s business what your genitalia is relative to your identity. There will always be individuals for whom GCS (gender confirmation surgery) is not a favorable option due to their medical condition, financially out of range, not deemed a good candidate for it, being indifferent to having the procedure, etc. That in no way should dictate their ability to be who they are and live their lives in an authentic capacity.

    • Are you a man or a woman? We know what your answer is going to be that you are a woman. I really don’t understand your problem with this article as it is saying some girls have penises some boys have vaginas. I detect a little TS Separatism here from your other comments insulting others in the trans community. I am a recovered separatist, myself. Simply facebook search confirms my suspicion. Good day.

      • Rayna Ferguson

        Your “suspicion”. Seriously! Yes, I am a woman, a transsexual, transgender, what ever the hell the current term is. The quote “some girls have penises some boys have vagina’s” is an oxymoron. Before surgery I had the physical body of a male with a penis. After the surgery I was physically a girl with a vagina. I was always female inside. I am not talking about internal I am expressing my views strictly on the physical. You can dress it up, change the terminology, put a pretty pink or blue bow on it, tell yourself whatever you make yourself to feel like everyone else while all the while you know that you are not and that makes you an outsider. I am under no illusions or delusions concerning this. I suggest you watch “Boys Don’t Cry” or ” A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story” and see the reality of going around trying to convince the masses that some girls have penises some boys have vagina’s. And good day to you!