Published on January 16th, 2014 | by Marlo Mack


Mama, Ella Has A Penis!: MARLO MACK on How To Talk To Your Children About Gender Identity

So, you’re a progressive parent, right?  Sure you are. You’re teaching your children that all cultures and religions and skin colors are made equal. You’ve explained that some kids at school may have two mommies and some may have two daddies, and that when your children grow up, they can marry anyone they want to.  “Love is love,” you say to them.

Twenty years ago (perhaps even ten years ago?), it was a rare parent who would tell their children that it was cool to be gay – that their son or daughter could grow up to love a man or a woman, and that either choice was cool with Mom and Dad (or Mom and Mom, or Dad and Dad). Today, however, among progressive parents, we don’t assume that little Ella wants to date boys until she tells us so.  We let little Jack decide if he prefers Jill or… another Jack.

But what if your child came home and said this to you:

“Mama, Ella has a penis! She says she’s a girl, but she can’t be, because only boys have penises!”

You’re a modern mama, so you’ve also been open with your kid about bodies.  No more euphemisms, right?  No more shame about our “parts.” You have said to your child, “Yup, that’s your vagina, honey.  And your brother Jack has a penis.”

But what few of us question is whether little Jack is really Jack.  I certainly didn’t. Chances are, the moment the ultrasound tech delivered the news (“It’s a boy!”), Jack’s parents began to dream a thousand gendered dreams for that kid.  They saw that grainy black-and-white photo of their unborn child, with his tiny little “man bits,” and they assumed they knew certain basic truths about him.  And maybe they did.  Maybe he is Jack.  Then again, maybe he’s like my child, whose ultrasound photo clearly showed a penis – but she’s actually Jill.


When my son was three years old, he informed me – in no uncertain terms – that she was my daughter.  Something had gone wrong in my “tummy,” she said, which had made her come out as a boy instead of the girl she was supposed to be.  She begged me to put her back in my tummy to fix this terrible mistake.

It’s been three long and challenging years since that announcement, and I’m now the mother of a happy, confident little transgender girl who just started kindergarten. She’s doing well, but every time one of the other parents at school learns she has a penis, it gets interesting.

Sometimes our life feels like one long Public Service Announcement.  I’ve considered printing brochures.  I sure wish the other parents at school had read a brochure or two.  If there’s a gender-nonconforming or transgender kid in your child’s school, I’ll bet that kid’s mom wishes you had read some brochures, too. (And, for one in roughly 400 parents reading this, we’re talking about your kid.)

It’s pretty simple stuff, actually.  You can have this talk with your kid in just a few minutes, and – I promise you – your child won’t question you any more than they did when you told them that Hanna has two mommies.  The kids are cool; it’s the adults who have to work a little harder to wrap their minds around this.  (I know I did.)

So, here’s the brochure:

 How to Talk to Your Kids About Gender Identity

Most people have either a penis or a vagina.  Some people have both, but that’s pretty rare.

Most people with penises feel like boys.

Most people with vaginas feel like girls.

Some people feel like boys but they really like “girl stuff.”

Some people feel like girls but they really like “boy stuff.”

Some people with penises feel like girls.  They are girls with penises. (My child falls squarely into this category.)

Some people with vaginas feel like boys.  They are boys with vaginas.

Some people are sort of “in between” and don’t feel like a boy or a girl.

All these people are normal.  All these people need to be loved and treated well, and we should respect what they tell us they are.

The “parts” that are covered up by our underpants are private.  It’s no one’s business to ask about them or talk about them.  (That goes for the parents, too!) If someone tells you she is a girl, she’s a girl. If he tells you he’s a boy, he’s a boy.  If they say they’re both, they’re both!

That’s it!  Your children are now equipped to be supportive allies to their gender-nonconforming and transgender pals. Nice job, Mom!

And thank you. My daughter and I really appreciate your support.


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About the Author

Marlo Mack is a freelance writer who blogs about parenting her transgender daughter at

50 Responses to Mama, Ella Has A Penis!: MARLO MACK on How To Talk To Your Children About Gender Identity

  1. Terry says:

    Thanks for sharing your story! We have just published results from a national surve in which 1% of teenagers reported that they are transgender & another 2% wonder about it. One small step towards visibility of transgender young people

  2. Terry says:

    Sorry, I didn’t include a link! You can get to those results via searching Medline or

  3. Eleanor Waller says:

    thank you…from a mom who has “a son with a vagina”. I wish adults understood as easy a little kids did. I wish adults accepted as easy as little kids did. Little kids rock.

  4. You are one brave mama and I applaud you. It all starts in the home and it is so easy to do if parents would just give it a chance.

  5. Jay says:

    Thank you for sharing your story and for providing thoughtful ways to be an ally. We saw there wasn’t a brochure either so we made a booklet and then a whole illustrated book for families and educators and administrators etc. at Thanks for your blog and for your awesome love and generosity!

  6. Eve says:

    Thank you for this. My daughter asked the other day if boys wear dresses and I said yes. Then she asked why and for me, I thought and said, “Well, because they want to”. It wasn’t enough of an answer for her, so your post puts it into words very easily.

  7. Jason Dre says:

    Isn’t saying that a person “feels like” a girl or “likes girly things” propogating gender normative stereotypes? If a person has XY and a penis, they are biologically a boy. If they like girly things, so what? If they want to wear a dress, great. If they want to date boys, great… Why does not require a change in gender identity?

    • Julie Wednesday Strange says:

      Jason : Well, it is apparently cristal clear that the author’s child DOES feel like a little girl. It’s not a change in gender identity imposed by the adults, it IS their identity as far as we know. Hence the girl with a penis. People, however little, should be free to determine their own gender identity. It amazes me how simple that is. Transgender is just that : gender doesn’t match cooomon expectations surrounding genitals, or “assigned at birth” gender identity. The violence lies in trying to impose those expectations on someone, contrary to their feelings.

    • Jay says:

      There is a BIG difference between being transgender and simply liking things traditionally ascribed to the opposite gender. As a kid, I was about as tomboyish as they come but definitively cisgender. My mental perception of myself and my body matched up; I just didn’t like so-called “girly” things. Declaring your gender identity is distinctly different from declaring your fashion identity or personal interests.

  8. Thanks Marlo!
    Wonderful parents like you who are willing to *get it* and believe the truth your child tells you are amazing. I know it’s not easy but you did it anyway for your child. Your willingness to share with others to make this a more loving and beautiful world will save thousands in time. I can’t wait to see what this new generation brings.

  9. Pam says:

    As a physician I applaud your attention to physiology and psychology. As a Mom and human being, I am in awe of your sensitivity and compassion. This was really well written, and addresses the nuts and bolts of what must be a potentially heart-rending situation, with honest, practical advice for dealing with it well.

  10. Rach says:

    There are several very good books that parents can expose their children to which take the mystery and confusion out of variant gender identity, at least for children, then the 5/6/7 year old can explain it to grownups that still don’t get it. One is Goblinheart, about a goblin born with a fairy body and gains community acceptance as a goblin. Another is 10,000 Dresses about a boy who dreams of wearing dresses. I can not stress strongly enough how exposure to positive gender variant characters in books for children early in life inoculates them against rejecting and bullying later in their lives.

  11. Jen says:

    Smart blog! I, too, wish there was a little pamphlet included for all new parents that included some info on being transgender. If I had had even a little education on it when I became a parent, it would have made life for me and my transgirl a hell of a lot easier. A lot of the problem is that people just don’t KNOW about this or even believe it’s a real thing. I would totally hand out brochures to other parents if I could! haha! Best part: “The “parts” that are covered up by our underpants are private. It’s no one’s business to ask about them or talk about them. (That goes for the parents, too!) If someone tells you she is a girl, she’s a girl. If he tells you he’s a boy, he’s a boy. If they say they’re both, they’re both!” I may have fist-pumped the air when I read that.

  12. Aurora says:

    I like this but I don’t like the notion of” boy stuff ” and “girl stuff.” Liking trucks as a girl does not mean your gender identity as a girl is at risk. It is fine to say some people born with male bodies identify as girls -because of need or desire within to identify that way and they should be respected and protected. But it should not be about the “stuff” they like.

    • Jess says:

      I think the author was trying to express, in language a child can understand, the complexities of gender identity vs. gender expression. For a more adult-level take on the topic, I’d recommend Julia Serano’s “Whipping Girl.” It certainly made my life make more sense.

  13. PajamaBoy says:


    Just wow.

  14. Addison Scott says:

    I consider myself a gender outlaw – that is, I’m genderfluid and I’m nonconforming in my presentation. As a kid, I wish I’d known that I didn’t have to be a girl and could be a boy or neither sometimes.

  15. Nuno says:

    Thank you for writing this in the simplest, most basic, most human terms. Your words should be a brochure. In every school, on subways, trains, buses. I agree with Aurora’s comment, too, and wonder how that might be incorporated into what you’ve said.

  16. Tehilah says:

    This article is going on file as a permanent reference as a parent and educator. I had a conversation with my son a few months ago along these lines (he was almost 3) and he totally got it. He asked people their gender instead of assuming.

    Then, a few weeks ago (he’s now 3) he let me know that “pink and purple” articles of clothing means the wearer is a girl and they don’t need to be asked what gender they are. I’ve been trying to talk to him about this, especially since he and his grandfather both sport pink and purple and love to do so. He’s still pretty convinced that “most” people who wear these colors are girls and don’t need to be asked what gender they identify as.

    Gender conversations are great but they can’t happen just once. Society is giving messages counter to yours CONSTANTLY. So I’m just working on the tune ups and I am open to hearing your thoughts on that.

    Parent to parent all I can say is I am in awe of your daughter and you.

  17. Shelly Cichowlas says:

    What a beautifully written and important message for all parents and children.

  18. Elle says:

    This is 95% awesome! But I hated that amongst such a nicely articulated idea, you reinforced the ridiculous notion that there is such a thing as “girl stuff” or “boy stuff”. Blech. That is not progressive. All things are for all people, and your interests have nothing directly to do with your sex or your gender. Indirectly I guess is another story, since gender norms are pushed from day 1 of life (or even before then). But the rest of the was gold and maybe should be made into a brochure for all those parents at school. 🙂

    • I read Marlo as saying that kids do talk about “boy stuff” and “girl stuff” (not that adults should). I think the article is very clear that a) liking things that are conventionally considered to belong to a different gender than the one you present is one thing, and b) gender identity is another. But try using that language with a five-year-old!

  19. patrick quon says:

    Define how a boy “feels like a girl” or how a girl “feels like a boy” without using sexist terms or circular nonsense:

    XY male: “I feel like a girl because I’m a girl and therefore I know how a girl feels.”

    He cannot. No male can. “Gender identity” is a sexist myth.

    • jerry says:

      People who insist on telling other people how they feel don’t seem to understand how narcissistic that is. It’s best not to tell people “how they feel” or judge them until you have walked in their shoes. Since we can’t do that, we need to stop judging people.

    • Mary Ann says:

      Oh, Patrick, it must be nice to have a gender identity that is so aligned with cultural norms that you don’t even realize you have one. Congratulations! However, it must be dreadful to be cursed with so little imagination that you believe your experience of the world and of yourself must be the way everyone experiences (or should experience) things. How awful!

    • aaskew says:

      Why ask a question if you already assume you know the answer?

      As for the answer, some ways a phenotypically male kid might ‘feel like a girl’:

      – feeling that her male bits are wrong and don’t belong, or aren’t really there (the phantom limb phenomenon has been linked to gender identity, where the mental body maps of trans people often match that of their gender identity rather than phenotypical sex)

      – taking a while to realise that she’s being referred to when others refer to her with male pronouns and descriptors

      – drawing self portraits of herself as female

      – envisioning her future self as an adult woman rather than adult man

  20. Vida says:

    Thank for this post. A couple of years ago I knew that a transgender child would be attending the same elementary school as my daughter (who was going into first grade). In hopes of avoiding any awkward questions on her part I sat down and gave her and her little sister a mini lecture along the lines of what you wrote. They had met this child and so I was specifically referring to Ash (she’s a girl with a penis). At the end I asked what they thought, and if they had any questions, they basically shrugged with a response as if to say…”okay, mom, but what is your point?” I love their openness and pure acceptance and realized it was myself to whom I was really directing the mini lecture.

  21. Catherine says:

    What a good read. It’ll probably be a while until we’ll have talks about gender identity (our daughter is 6 months old), but it’s never too soon to think about – especially because even tiny children pick up on our language and attitudes toward people who are non-hetero, gender-nonconforming or transgender. Thanks for the “brochure”!

  22. Hugh Easton says:

    I have a theory that exposure to synthetic hormones in the womb can sometimes result in a baby boy’s brain being incompletely masculinized, and that people who’ve had this happen to them often find that, later in life, they identify more closely with a female gender role rather than a male one. You weren’t given a drug called Proluton Depot (or Makena in the US) by any chance? It’s a weekly intramuscular injection that’s often given to mothers thought to be at risk of giving birth prematurely. It’s usually started about halfway through the pregnancy and continued until shortly before the birth.

  23. Jacqui says:

    thank you for this!

  24. Maria says:

    Hey! I just recently came across a children’s book that explores gender fluidity. Polkadot! And apparently it is a series. It is truly lovely, and it is for all families. Here is there Facebook link:

  25. Leandra says:

    I enjoyed reading this, though like other people, I think labeling ‘boy stuff’ and ‘girl stuff’ is sexist. Yes, I understand you have to speak in words a child can understand. but I don’t think you have to reinforce the patriarchy while you do it. Can anyone suggest a good (for parents) book on this topic? I’d like to spend some time thinking about it (with intelligent input) before my child gets older.

  26. Lily says:

    Well said.

    Although I have no personal transgender experience, and to my knowledge don’t know any transgender people; I applaud and could not agree more that there is a sliding grey-scale of gender, some people easily defined in one area or another, some more transient along the scale.

    And that’s OK.

    I applaud (even louder) that people’s genitalia is their own business – and if a person who’d traditionally be recognised as one gender, identifies as another – that’s just fine too.

  27. One Trans Kid's Mom says:

    Hooray! Nice, plain language. Teach your kids this concept early and it will cease to be the chaotic, adult-led conversation that we have today. Also, folks, please support California’s AB1266 and other laws like it around the world. To say that my child was “bullied” in school would be an understatement. AB1266 is a solid first step toward protecting our gender fluid and trans kids. Peace.

  28. Really enjoyed this, a fresh perspective I must say!

  29. Peder N says:

    Not one single critic? How come? Are all questioning comments erased?
    I think this is… well.. scary.
    In my humble opinion it is important to tell/teach children that we are all equal, in the sense of worth equal. Like: “Never let anybody look down on you because you are a girl” – or “of course you can play with dolls if you want to” (if you are a boy).
    But to confuse the gender with saying that there is no genders; some people have penises, some have vaginas, it doesn’t matter and you can change if you want to that confuses and harms children more than help them. And more of a radical anti-gender agenda.
    OK, that is not exactly what the text says, but far too much in that direction.

    • Mutha Magazine says:

      There are several critical and questioning comments posted on this article, yours now included. The policy of the site is stated. We do not publish mean (i.e. name-calling) and snarky comments, but welcome civil criticism and questions that further the discussion.

    • Claire says:

      Have you spoken to many children about this? I have – lots of children. And it doesn’t seem to confuse or harm them. They simply stop questioning other people. Like “are you a boy or a girl?” stops being a part of their getting to know each other process and they can focus on more important aspects of friendship. Like “do you wanna go to space in this rocket ship I made?” Or “my cat is orange, do you have a cat?”

      • Peder N says:

        What I mean is: if a child says “He is a boy – boys can’t play with dolls!”, the reasonable answer is “Of course boys can. Perhaps you can play together?” Not “There is no such thing as a boy!”
        That confuses children.

        • Mary Ann says:

          But that’s not what is going on here. No one is saying that boys don’t exist (or girls). What is being said is that most people with penises identify as boys, but a small number of people with penises identify as girls.

          Young children actually don’t have trouble understanding this at all. They may be initially perplexed because it challenges what they’ve already been taught, but they adjust their knowledge really easily and rapidly. (Lots of good, published research attests to this.) The claim that children will be confused comes from adults, and says more about the adults (their discomfort and confusion) than it does about the children.

  30. Terry says:

    I’d like to share this fab comic strip from Sam Orchard on gender diversity & letting young people know they are safe.

  31. Samantha says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this up. My wife just came out this year to me for the first time, we were engaged for a few years before I found out. I was lucky enough to see through the mask and know I still had the person I loved but she lost a lot of people along the way in the past six months. Seeing someone so young getting to embrace the world as she is, with someone so amazing along side her brought tears to my eyes. I just wish everyone with good intention the best of luck but I’m especially rooting for your little girl. The fact she was able to talk to you about it like that at three makes me love this story. Again, thank you.

  32. Claire says:

    Yes! I love this! Mainly what I go for is “everyone’s the same in some ways and different in some ways.” It tends to work.

    I teach creative drama to lots of different ages. Most kids don’t question other kids’ identities for long. “I’m gonna be batman!” “You mean batGIRL.” “No, no. Batman.” “Oh.” And it usually ends there. It’s lovely!

  33. Kurt says:

    “Some people are sort of “in between” and don’t feel like a boy or a girl.” I have a problem with this statement as a transgender person. I am non-binary, I identify as agender (more particularly gender neutral rather than genderless) and genderqueer. It’s not “in between” at all. I feel I am neither male nor female but that I do have a gender, it’s neutral. Someone who identifies as genderless feels they have no gender at all. That is in no way in between male and female, they are seperate identities just like male and female are. And this doesn’t even cover all of the non-binary identities or how complicated gender and humans in general are over all. It’s an over-simplification which would lead to this idea “so male is on one end, female is on the other, here’s all these non-binary identities in the middle and the further you go this way the more male it is, and the further you go the other way the more female it is…”; Gender is not linear with two ends and a middle of all these non-binary identifying individuals. It’d be more of a 3-Dimensional shape with identities all over, it’d be an endless amount and even this isn’t a good descriptor of the complexity and the differences in the gender spectrum. I just have to say that it’s not a line, never has been never will be. I also had some other things to point out but that has already either A) been mentioned or B) I do not feel like responding to it as of current.

    • Warner says:

      Kurt, I think your description of what it feels like to be agender and genderqueer is really valuable so thank you for sharing it with all of us reading the comments. This reply is in no way meant to invalidate what you said because I agree that gender is far more complex than a straight line spectrum where you have to be more of one gender to be less of another, etc. I think that one really important thing about the article is that the list of statements included were meant to be shared with children under the age of 5 or 6. Children can totally understand way more complexities than we think, but we still need to give them building blocks for comprehension. So even though ”in between” is reductive and may feel hurtful because of that, I think it’s meant as a stand in for ”some people’s gender(s) exist as an ever moving or stationary piece of a three dimensional figure that we understand to be gender identity .” I hope that maybe makes some sense and makes the wording less problematic (in this instance only). x

  34. Sarah Y. says:

    I love it. Kind, to the point, and not wishy-washy. Children pick up on wish-washy right away. Just the facts, ma-am!

  35. Mary says:

    Thanks for a great article. Forgive me if It’s wrong that I think families should be told about a child who is going through a transgender process in preschool. Children that age need their parents to guide them. I spent a week telling my child not to tease a child by calling her a boy just because she liked certain toys. Little did I know that the teachers had been asked to refer to her as he. The kids kind of knew, but parents had no idea that Sue was now Sam. Many of us want to support you, but you’ve got to help us, teach us, let us in, let us learn.

  36. Dana says:

    Two other resources to know of are the sex ed books by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth, ‘What Makes a Baby” (~pre-K – earlyelementary school) and “Sex Is a Funny Word” (~later elementary – just pre-puberty) They explain age-appropriate concepts about reproduction and bodies in a way inclusive of all gender identities.

  37. Kd says:

    Thanks for helping me with the conversation tomorrow I’m going to have with our 4 year old. We have a business and just hired someone that identifies as gender neutral. My daughter amd I have talked about a lot of things but not gender identity. I thank you for this.

  38. Thank you for this article! I’ve written a blog post and couple handouts for parent educators to share with parents on how to talk to kids about gender identity. You can find it at:

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