Pronouns are how we refer to people when we are not using their name. We most often hear about the binary pronouns—she/her and he/his. But did you know there are other pronouns that people use? Individuals who are gender non-conforming and/or gender diverse may use non-binary pronouns such as they/them.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd, medical director of the Children’s Minnesota Gender Health Program, shares what parents should know about pronouns and how we can start talking about pronouns in day-to-day life:
Why are pronouns important?
Pronouns are important because they help us acknowledge and affirm someone’s identity. In fact, a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that using the chosen or preferred name and pronouns for transgender youth is linked to lower rates of depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior. Dr. Goepferd explains, “This one little action can really make a big difference.”
Also, the use of alternative pronouns, like they/them, is much more common than you think. The pronoun “they” was Merriam Webster’s Word of the Year in 2019. This is another example that shows just how important it is to use someone’s correct pronouns, said Dr. Goepferd
Age and pronouns
Most kids generally don’t understand the concept of pronouns until closer to ages 4 and 5 years old. As soon as a child asserts the pronouns that fit best for them, a good response is, “Thank you for sharing with me, we will work on using those pronouns. Do you want me to use those always? Only at home? Only with certain people? It’s also important to me that you know that you know best what fits for you, and you can always change your mind.”
By the time kids are adolescents, that’s when we begin to see differentiated outcomes in kids who have their names and pronouns supported across multiple settings, and those who do not.
How can I share my pronouns?
When you meet a new person, introduce yourself by your name and also include your pronouns. Try saying something like: “Hi, my name is [your name], and I use [she/they/he],” and fill in the blanks with your name and correct pronouns. Don’t be afraid to ask someone directly if they use ‘she’, ‘he’ or ‘they.’ If you ask how they identify, you will not have to assume what their pronouns are based on how they look.
“For us adults, it can feel very odd to do this at first,” said Dr. Goepferd. “But for a lot of adolescents, this is already very common in their social and peer groups.”
Adolescents and teens are exploring their identities, and understand there’s a gender spectrum—they understand that there are many ways to identify that are not just boy or girl. Because they understand non-binary genders, younger people may already have a lot of practice sharing their pronouns and asking others how they identify.
What should I do if I use the wrong pronoun?
Mistakes happen! We are learning together, and it’s OK to slip up sometimes. Using pronouns like they/them is new for a lot of people. If someone you know has recently changed their pronouns to fit their identity, it may be an adjustment for you to start using the correct pronouns.
“Try to address [mistakes] right away,” Dr. Goepferd explained. “It’s a big step toward self-accountability and building cultural competency.”
If you make a mistake, you should apologize, correct yourself and move on! There’s no need to dwell on the mistake—do your best to use the correct pronouns next time you chat with or talk about this person.
Children’s Minnesota Gender Health Program
The Children’s Minnesota Gender Health Program provides compassionate, comprehensive care for transgender and gender-diverse youth. It is dedicated to being and essential medical partner and resource for youth and their families.
Our Gender Health Program is an exclusively pediatric, multidisciplinary gender health program that hosts a team of physicians specializing in pediatric gender health, endocrinology, gynecology, and psychiatry, as well as mental health team with psychologists and a clinical social worker.