5.3 Avoiding Heteronormative Language

Heteronormative language assumes everyone is heterosexual and can exclude those who don’t fit that assumption. Inclusive language acknowledges and respects diversity, creating a more accepting environment that breaks down barriers and helps people express themselves and connect with others.

Why should we avoid heteronormative language when working with children?

  1. Assuming all households are heterosexual, or “normal” families: When greeting families, avoid using language that assumes that all parents are heterosexual, or that the child has parents in general. For example, instead of saying “You could ask your mom or your dad that question!” you could say “You could ask your adult at home that question!” This includes non-traditional families such as single parent households, same-sex parents, families with non-binary parents, and includes those children who are being raised by grandparents, aunts/uncles, or in foster care.
  2. Referring to gender in binary terms: Children may not yet have fully formed gender identities, or they may not fit into the traditional “boy/girl” binary. Referring to people or objects in gendered terms (such as “boys and girls,” or “ladies and gentlemen”) can be hurtful and exclusionary. Instead, use gender-neutral terms like “kids,” “students,” or “friends.”
  3. Assuming children’s gender identity: It’s important not to make assumptions about a child’s gender identity. Instead, use language that allows for a range of possibilities. For example, instead of asking “Are you a boy or a girl?” you could ask “What pronouns do you prefer?” or simply use the child’s name instead of a gendered pronoun.

Using inclusive language in these ways helps create an environment where all children feel seen, heard, and valued, regardless of their gender or sexual identity. It also helps to break down harmful stereotypes and biases, and promotes a more accepting and respectful community.

Examples of Heteronormative language:

  • “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls”
  • Assuming gender – automatically saying “He or she”
  • “Mom/Dad”
  • “Husband and Wife”
  • Fireman, Mailman, Policeman
  • Mankind

Examples of Inclusive language:

  • “Everyone”
  • “They” or “them”
  • “Parents/Guardians/Adults”
  • “Spouses” or “Partners”
  • Firefighter, Mail Carrier, Police Officer
  • Humankind

Taylor’s Tips: Their Adults

After presenting in over 300 schools across BC, I can tell you that this topic does come up quite regularly when working in schools, especially when you are presenting to grade 5-7. The last thing we want to do is isolate or make children feel insecure, and this could easily happen if we go on assuming they all have a Mom and Dad.

What commonly comes up for us as we are presenting to children is mentioning their parents. It’s easy to ask questions like “Does your mom take the bus?” or “Do your parents own a car?” without even realizing that it could be hurtful for some children who don’t have those figures in their life. Many children in BC are being raised by single parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or they could be in foster care.

To avoid this, I always refer to any Mom/Dad/Parents/Guardians as their Adult. It may seem silly at first, but it is an easy way to make your language much more inclusive without having to put in the effort of translating each instance.

Some examples are, “Does your adult take the bus?” “Does your adult own a car?” “You could go home and ask your adult that!” “Who recently has heard an adult complain about the gas prices?” “When you go home, remind your adult that kids ride free on the bus!

It takes a little bit of practice but I promise it’s easy once you get the hang of it!